High Priest of the Low-Flow Shower Heads
From the hills of Colorado, energy guru Amory Lovins can hear America conserving. Efficiency in excelsis!
Originally published in Outside‘s September 1987 issue
If character can’t be quantified, maybe evangelical passion can. Amory Lovins traveled more than 200,000 miles last year, spreading the gospel of energy efficiency. His Honda CRX gets 60 miles to the gallon in the mountain air of Colorado; it’s white, which saves about one-fourth of the cooling load on the air-conditioner. His third-generation Hewlett-Packard 15 C calculator rides in his shirt pocket like a sidekick, always ready to discombobulate foes with a fusillade of brilliance. Even friends sometimes find the heavy technical flow (of watts and joules and units of primary energy consumed per dollar of GNP) a little overwhelming.
“Talking to Amory is like trying to drink water from a fire hose,” says his wife, Hunter, who serves as executive director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the nonprofit educational and research foundation they started in 1982; she’s also a member of the Basalt Volunteer Fire Department and a veteran of the Colorado rodeo circuit, and on Tuesdays she moonlights as a bouncer at a cowboy bar. The Lovinses’ house in Snowmass, at 7,100 feet, also serves as RMI headquarters and as a showroom of energy-saving technologies. It is one of the most innovative and efficient lairs in America by a factor of—well, what could make the point better than the banana tree growing under the argon-filled R-5 Heat Mirror windows in the greenhouse? Lovins claims the world’s altitude record for passive-solar bananas and a household electric bill of $5 a month. More than 30,000 people have stopped by to see the low-flow shower heads (which use 1.5 gallons per minute, compared with the usual four to seven), and the Swedish Ifö toilet (which flushes with three liters of water instead of 20). The two iguanas in the bougainvillea, Iggy and Juana, are no more energy efficient than standard pet-store models, but they make an arresting sight, linking the Triassic Period of the dinosaurs with the Soft Path future of superefficient toilets.
Even at 27 pages Lovins’s resume doesn’t tell the whole story. He composed his first piano music when he was seven, received a patent on nuclear magnetic resonance technology when he was 17, and did work reported in the Journal of Chemical Physics (his first publication) long before he could vote. He has clients and contacts and friends in more than 30 countries. He’s met with eight heads of state. He never graduated from college but has six honorary degrees. He can get around in a dozen languages. He earns $7,500 per speech; if the cause is congenial, he’ll lecture for expenses, mixing esoteric technical terms with vivid analogies: Aircraft carriers get 17 feet per gallon, and the rain in the eastern United States can be as acidic as tomato juice. He’s universally credited with the line that heating your house with electricity is like cutting butter with a chainsaw, but he didn’t say it first, and every time he runs into Doug Kelbaugh, a professor at the University of Washington, he apologizes. Lovins did make what may have been the sharpest op-ed point of the Gulf War, succinctly asking, “Are we putting our kids in 0.56-mile-per-gallon tanks because we didn’t put them in 32-mile-per-gallon cars?”
In 20 years of number-crunching Lovins admits to making only a handful of mistakes—three, actually. The worst was on the day he testified on behalf of some clients at a hearing in Ontario, when he was wrong by a factor of 8,766. He was embarrassed, quickly traced the genesis of the boo-boo, and waived his fee. His prescience, debating skills, powers of synthesis, vast network of contacts, catholic curiosity, and ability to slice across intellectual boundaries are unrivaled in the energy field. He is a walking Whole Earth Catalog of technical resources, but he eats meat, reveres market forces, and sometimes wonders if he’s a Republican. “If you had to list the top ten energy experts in the world,” says his friend and fellow energy analyst Charles Komanoff, “Amory would have the first five spots.”
In many ways the energy debate in America can be divided into two periods: Before Lovins and After Lovins. The moment of demarcation came 15 years ago when, at the age of 29, Lovins published an article in Foreign Affairs that changed the world.
“Good morning, Merry Sunshine,” says Amory Lovins, ambling into the kitchen on this, a faultless Colorado morning in July, the third morning we’ve met to talk. (It’s best to catch him early before he pumps up the pressure in his fire hose with a mug of jasmine tea.) In college he was a whey-faced, 119-pound rail; now, at 43, he has bulked out to a portly 172. A black mustache offsets the hair that has vanished up top. He has warm, brown eyes behind 20/2,000 glasses. His manner in middle age seems almost cherubic, with no trace of what his critics used to call a haughty air. He always carries a whistle, a knife, and a piece of string (he once invented a new knot, a cousin of the Eskimo spear-lashing).
Proselytizing, teaching, launching forays against the old thinking, Lovins is still in the vanguard of the energy debate, leading the revolution from the hills. He does not have all the answers, much less pride of place among policymakers. (The Bush administration’s new energy plan, he says, is “the most cretinous we’ve had in a long time.”) But today many of his former adversaries in the utility industry provide his bread and butter in the form of consulting work, and with the calculator that sleeps lightly in his right shirt pocket he is still defining and shaping the frontiers of energy policy.
“Have you had your back cracked?” he asks.
Suddenly he is hoisting me onto his back, supporting the full burden of my body on his faulty knees. Lovins has always been helpful to journalists, but this seems beyond the call.
As he’s pretty much been dreaming up ideas, estimating the potential of technical “fixes,” and researching and writing letters, reports, and books for 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last 20 years, is no exaggeration to say that his life is his work. He’s gone to great length to marry the two, in fact. Lovins’s morning commute is as energy efficient as they come. He lives in the west wing of the 4,000-square-foot, scalloped-stone “bioshelter” he and Hunter built for half a million dollars with the help of a hundred volunteers. The Rocky Mountain Institute, where floor-to-ceiling bookshelves hold one of the world’s most comprehensive energy libraries, is lodged in the east wing. The north wall of the building is backed with earth, and the sun-facing south side commands a handsome prospect of pasture, range, and mountains up the valley of Snowmass Creek Road. A large greenhouse under a canted glass roof serves as the building’s solar furnace. The house is so quiet that Lovins designed a waterfall to provide a wash of white noise and to help irrigate the indoor garden. A Japanese waterfall tuner adjusted the stones in order to change the splash frequency from the range of beta waves to the more restful frequency of alpha waves.
After the impromptu chiropractic adjustment, my back feels better. Lovins brews his morning tea. He’s recovered from the injury he suffered in New York last month when he tore a shoulder ligament. His speech on efficient water use before a gathering of Hudson River activists at the American Museum of Natural History was but one stop on a typical multicity tour. As usual, he was hauling some 45 pounds of low-flow shower heads, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and recent publications in a shoulder bag. Torn ligaments are one of the occupational hazards of the crusade.
“Have you seen our new paper on electrical efficiency in Scientific American?“he asked. “And here’s one from Fine Homebuilding on energyefficient technologies for the home. Here’s one on abating air pollution at negative cost with energy efficiency. This one’s on the negawatt revolution, and this one’s on making markets in resource efficiency. It’s very interesting now: Utilities are realizing they can treat negawatts, or electricity they save and don’t have to make, as a commodity, like copper or pork bellies, and trade them with other utilities.”
He handed me a few more papers. If he’d thrown in one of his Heat Mirror glazing samples, one of my ligaments would have torn. By now he was surrounded by admirers, acquaintances, and people with questions about architectural fee reform, fluorescent dimmers, and the optimal pitch of sewer pipes. He fielded them all. When the crowd dispersed, Lovins whipped out a wallet photo and asked, “Have you seen my daughter?” It was a picture of a dog—Nanuq, his beloved white bull terrier.
Now Nanuq is snoozing by the baby grand piano. Visitors are constantly comparing her to Spuds MacKenzie, which seems to pain Lovins a little. He has calculated that when Nanuq runs around she emits enough radiant heat energy to raise the indoor temperature by a fraction of a degree. Sometimes he uses her to get a reading on a stranger. My first day at the house, he’d plunked “the beastoid” on my lap and given me the “beastoid compatibility test.” Nanuq entertained my pleasantries with mild disdain before allowing herself to be ceremoniously returned to the floor.
There are in Lovins vestiges of the gifted but socially awkward adolescent, eager for contact but not sure of what behavior is appropriate. He’s always giving his staff spur-of-the-moment shoulder rubs, but most everyone who knows him says he is incapable of small talk. A few nights earlier we’d attended a barbecue thrown by the Aspen Institute. It was after a seminar on energy policy, and we were standing in a clearing of tall spruces with Roger Sant, a former Ford administration official and the first person in the history of the U.S. government to head an energy conservation department. James Schlesinger wandered over. He’d been secretary of energy under Carter when Carter was quoting Lovins’s work; Carter had arranged for Schlesinger and Lovins to meet. If they’d ever had a common wavelength, it wasn’t evident, because a certain tension seized the conversation. Somehow the awkward chitchat lighted on the subject of hell, and Lovins piped up: “I once calculated a theory showing the thermodynamic properties of Dante’s Inferno. If hell’s entropy is decreasing and you assume that hell is infinitely hot and stays that way, then there are between hell and us a number of discontinuities with the properties that Dante ascribed to the intermediate rings.”
There was a long pause. Everyone seemed at a loss for words. Except Schlesinger. He eyed Lovins with a mixture of skepticism and amusement and asked, “Has this work been published?”
“No,” said Lovins. “Where would you suggest?”
“Modern Language Quarterly,” said Schlesinger.
Since the Oil embargo of 1973, American energy policy has been gripped by the politics of scarcity. We have been told, often in apocalyptic tones, that the country has an energy problem. We’re running out of energy. Demand is outstripping supply. We’re going to freeze in the dark.
The solution proposed time and time again has been to increase the supply. For years it made sense. Primary energy consumption rose in lockstep with the country’s gross national product; it got to be an article of faith that economic vitality depended on increased energy supply. Demand for primary sources, such as oil and coal, and for more highly-processed forms of energy, such as electricity, had to be met, however great.
Take the example of electricity, which now accounts for about 36percent of fuel burned in the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s it had been impossible to overestimate future demand, because electricity obeyed the Field of Dreams phenomenon: If you built a power plant, people would come to use it—irrigators, aluminum companies, airplane manufacturers. And thanks to the economics of scale, every time a new plant came on line the cost of electricity went down. Then about 1970 the energy order was jolted by a series of economic, political, and technical shocks. Plans to expand supply ran headlong into new environmental laws, rising interest rates, technical complications, the inflating cost of materials and labor. Increasing supply now meant increasing the price the customer paid; when the cost of a commodity went up, common sense made people look for ways to use less. Suddenly there were terrible penalties for overestimating demand: canceled plants, irate stockholders, even bankruptcy.
But old supply-side habits were deeply ingrained, and many people in government and industry were slow to perceive the changed landscape. Believing that energy use would double in the next 20 years—that it had to double lest our standard of living collapse—forecasters sketched out massive supply expansions. Bechtel, the engineering and construction giant, estimated in 1976 that the country would need 2,000 nuclear plants by the year 2000
The prospect of a nuke in every county, of vast tracts of wilderness opened for oil drilling and coal mining, of much of the nation’s capital tied up in a building program, was staggering. Could we afford to pour more money into what was already the most capital-intensive industry in the country? Did it make sense to use tax money to subsidize schemes like the Synfuels Corporation and the breeder reactor? Already some prudent utilities were canceling nuclear projects as too expensive. (By 1984 they would have lost more than $20billion on abandoned nuclear plants alone.) Moreover, could we keep excluding from the cost of energy the damage we were causing to the environment—the salmon that died before the Columbia River dams, the growing danger of acid rain and global warming gasses?
Enter Amory Lovins. He was 28 years old and working as the British representative for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group started by David Brower. From his base in London, Lovins had been thinking about energy for five years; FOE had already published several of his books including World Energy Strategies and Non-nuclear Futures.
Drawing on the Ford Foundation’s 1973 Zero Energy Growth scenario and the American Physical Society’s thermodynamic end-use efficiency studies a year later, Lovins began questioning the assumptions of the supply doctrine. Would our standard of living really collapse if we used less energy? One study he found showed that Danes used more energy per capita for heating and cooking in 1500 than they did 400 years later. Had the Danes just regained the standard of living they’d enjoyed in the Middle Ages? Behind the numbers, concluded Lovins, lay the story of a technological shift from peat and wood to coal burned in more efficient stoves, and then to oil and electricity. The connection between energy supply and economic vitality was a fallacy: It didn’t say anything about how the energy was used.
What did people want with energy, anyway? Lovins wondered. Was it barrels of oil and watts of electricity, or the services energy could provide: cold beer, hot showers, warm houses, light by which to scrutinize rising electric bills? You might say a fluorescent light bulb went off in his head. When he analyzed energy from the vantage of end use, the country didn’t have an energy-supply problem, it had a badly-insulated-house problem. It had a leaky-window problem. It had an inefficiently-designed-refrigerator problem. America was using more energy than any other country in the world, but it was also wasting more energy than any country in the world. Far from preserving the country’s economic future, Lovins was convinced that the program and ideology of the supply-side scenarios might well jeopardize it.
In the spring of 1975 Lovins unholstered his calculator, a large, primitive forerunner of the one he has today. He added up the energy lost converting primary fuel to electricity (three units of fuel for every one unit of electricity) and the high costs and transmission losses incurred getting the power from the plants to faraway consumers (then 69 cents of every dollar on consumers’ electric bills). He calculated the energy that wouldn’t be needed if end users were more efficient. He sketched two curves: One showed energy use climbing drastically as the millenium approached. The other showed it rising as gently as an English moor and then sloping back. When America’s energy “problem” was examined from the perspective of how energy was being used—from the demand side, not the supply side—a cheaper and less risky solution seemed to be staring him in the face. And so the Soft Path emerged.
The high priest of energy efficiency came on line in November 1947, the second child of Gerald and Miriam Lovins. Ukrainian forebears on both sides of Lovins’s family had come to America with the massive wave of Eastern European immigrants between 1889 and 1905. Gerald’s father arrived alone at age 16, eventually settling in Denver, where he opened a pharmacy. Miriam’s Ukrainian parents were first cousins. (“That’s supposed to result in imbeciles,” she laughs.)
Mriam was a social service administrator, Gerald an engineer who custom-designed and built scientific instruments. They were in their forties when Amory and Julie (now a computer linguist in California) were born. Husband and wife ran Lovins Engineering Company from the basement of a small house in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Amory’s career as a contrarian began shortly after birth. He had severe food allergies. Desperate to find something he could digest, if only to cut down on diapers, his parents finally hit upon a concoction of rice run through the blender. Gerald used a hot nail to widen the hole in the nipple of his son’s bottle.
It didn’t take long for them to recognize his unusual aptitude. He hardly uttered a word until he was 20 months old, and then out came complete and grammatically correct sentences. “I didn’t need to talk. Everybody did everything for me,” he explained to his parents. By the time he was three he’d picked up the multiplication tables. By four and a half he was reading on his own from his parents’ library. “He became a speed reader,” says his father. “He still amazes me on that score.” He had taken up the piano at three, and later composed his Opus 1 on the Sohmer upright in the living room: Air in A Minor, 1:15, owed a heavy debt to Purcell, but Amory was only seven. As a teenager he gave children’s recitals, including one with a cartoonist who sketched as Amory played from his suite Morceaux de la Jeunesse, which featured such numbers as “The Splash-Happy Seal,” “The Dainty Hippo,” and “General Nuisance March.”
Lovins can trace some of his feeling for the land to the maple woods that he slipped through each morning on his way to East Silver Spring Elementary. He skipped second grade, then fifth. Lovins, with his mania for numbers, says his IQ was measured between 180 and 220, but he recalls that the tests “weren’t very interesting.”
All through early childhood he was besieged by colds and croup; he spent long stretches at home, reading by himself in his room, which he had decorated with portraits of American Indians. Pneumonia nearly killed him at age three and again at eight. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed and treated for a gamma globulin deficiency at age ten that he began to gain strength. He suffered in his teens from chronic synovitis; his joints, especially his knees and shoulders, were inflamed, and he was often in considerable pain when he practiced the piano or burned up the keys on the typewriter.
The family moved north in 1955, settling in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, and a few years later in Amherst, Massachusetts. “I think his interest in physics and in science generally started when we were in Montclair,” says Gerald Lovins. “One day when he was around eight he presented me with a diagram of a floor plan of a submarine he’d cooked up, naming all the parts and functions. Then he started designing shaped charges of explosives.”
His talents were nudged in a more constructive direction by the table talk in Amherst. “I had joined the League of Women Voters,” remembers Miriam. “I’d come home and tell the family about the meetings at dinner. Amory was always interested that there were people out there changing conditions that weren’t good for the community. I think he got the idea that you don’t just sit still and take it, you do something about it.”
At Amherst High he started designing and building nuclear magnetic resonance machines. He also took physics courses at Amherst College. His protected, isolated childhood formed a social style he would deprecate years later as that of a “techno-twit.” Some of the lower life forms gave him the business, shoving him down and stealing his briefcase. The abuse ended when Amory, installed as manager of the track team, was befriended by Peter Johnson, a star hurdler who still holds a record at Amherst High.
“Mentally high school was superfluous,” recalls Johnson, who now works as a potter and an artist in Whitehall, Michigan. “He went for the socialization. He was a 98-pound weakling, but underneath he had a big desire to see what youth was like.”
It was Johnson who took Lovins camping in the Holyoke Range and then to Camp Winona, in Bridgton, Maine, where Lovins spent the first of 15 summers hiking and leading trips. He had overcome some of his physical handicaps with a regimen of special exercises designed to strengthen his joints.
At 16, a National Merit and Presidential scholar, he went off to Harvard. He hustled lunch money playing pool and purging circuit noise from nuclear magnetic resonance machines. The synovitis in his knees kept him out of Harvard his second year; when he returned he took graduate courses and some law. Harvard wanted him to declare a major. He got a one-page application to Oxford, filled it out, and was admitted.
After two years at Magdalen College and aiming toward a doctorate in biophysics, he applied for a scholarship. He was called before a roomful of stone-faced dons in black robes who, he was surprised to discover, were considering him for a post on the faculty of Merton College. He was elected to the plum office of junior research fellow, though dons were supposed to have at least a master’s degree and Lovins didn’t even have a bachelor’s. A special gown with shortened tassels was designed for the degreeless new don, who was, at 21, the youngest faculty member in 400 years.
The good thing about the post was that he had few duties other than reciting grace in medieval Latin when the “senior classical postmaster” was absent. He was free to go tramping in the mountains of Wales, which he had discovered not long after moving to England. His weak knees got stronger, and in those stone climbing huts, those misty cwms, those wind-scoured summits of Yr Wyddfa and Tryfan and Pen-Llythrig-y-Wrach, he met a new side of himself, an energy that had first stirred in the woods of Silver Spring. A muse descended: “These torn stones on which we stand,” he wrote, “this blinding fire and the snow on which it casts our shadows high and thin, this freezing air that sears our throats—of these things we are made, and in the grace of an instant and a place we dissolve into them again, single in exaltation. There is no we and no time, nothing but the blazing silent earth. There are no words.”
Learning of a mining company’s bid to open a copper mine in Snowdonia National Park, Lovins’s life swerved from academia. He had taken many pictures of the wild lands in jeopardy. Eventually they found their way to David Brower at Friends of the Earth, who commissioned Lovins’s first book, Eryri, a collection of photographs and rapturous essays, and a strong indictment of those who would despoil the Welsh wildlands. The copper company tried unsuccessfully to prevent the book from being published and eventually abandoned its efforts to develop the mine.
Brower became Lovins’s mentor. After two years at Merton College Lovins had developed a passion for energy policy but was unable to do a doctorate because no such field existed. He was ready to move on. Brower was convinced that Amory and his calculator could be of immense help to the cause. Consider what he proposed to do for the Sierra cup: Lovins sketched some 11 improvements to that classic implement of 1970s backpacking, including a new rim that wouldn’t collect dirt, a knurled bottom to keep the cup from sliding, scribe marks on the inside for measuring liquids, and a handle that could be readily grasped in mittens. Brower persuaded Lovins to put aside his education and take up a new position representing Friends of the Earth in Britain.
One of the most frequently reprinted articles ever published in Foreign
Affairs, that distinguished organ of policy wallahs, is “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” The paper went through 12 drafts; with a hurricane threatening to knock out power lines in Maine, Lovins stood in a phone booth near Camp Winona for 14 hours, combing galleys.
He made many points, but the main one was that the country had to decide which of two routes it would travel into the future. We could continue down the Hard Path or take a road less traveled. The Hard Path relied on a technical elite to operate huge, centralized power stations; the Hard Path was expensive, rigid, and bureaucratic, and it separated the benefits of power from the costs. (New Englanders, for example, enjoy the benefits of Hydro-Québec; the Cree Indians lose their hunting grounds.) Driven to consume more and more nonrenewable resources, we would be obliged to raid the earth’s wild places, despoil the air and water.
Or we could take what Lovins called the Soft Path toward a system of energy that would rely on renewable resources like sun and wind and on the more efficient use of energy already available. Soft Path technologies were “flexible, resilient, sustainable, and benign,” and they enhanced democratic values because energy decisions were closer to the people using the energy. Lovins did not foresee the Soft Path immediately solving the energy problem, only keeping it from getting worse. He didn’t call for throwing away the power plants already built or for a halt to the turning of fossil fuels. Rather, he envisioned a 50-year transition to a new energy system.
There was little reaction in the first weeks after the Foreign Affairs article came out, but a debate began to build as it made its way around he energy community.
“I thought it might make a stir, but I had no idea how much,” Lovins recalls. And indeed, were it not for some three dozen critiques, ranging from reasoned rebuttals to ad hominem denunciations, the article might have faded into oblivion. Instead Lovins rode to fame on the outrage of his critics.
“Reckless,” they called him. “Myopic.” “Irresponsible.” Nuclear advocates were beside themselves about Lovins’s nonnuclear scenario. The Soft Path was “a Shangri-la,” said General Electric executive Bertram Wolfe. Lovins’s ideas were “flaccid and flatulent,” said Charles Yulish, a former employee of the Atomic Energy Commission and a public relations consultant for the nuclear industry who gathered ten critiques of the article into a book. The most melodramatic denunciation came from University of Arizona professors Aden and Marjorie Meinel: “Should this siren philosophy be heard and believed, we can perceive the onset of a new dark age.”
Lovins was not easily intimidated. Two months after the article appeared, he testified before a congressional committee. What had proved especially controversial was his argument that the two paths were mutually exclusive. He explained to the committee: “In principle nuclear power stations and solar collectors can coexist. But soft and hard paths are culturally incompatible: Each path entails a certain evolution of social values and perceptions that makes the other kind of world harder to imagine…. Every dollar, every bit of sweat and technical talent, every barrel of irreplaceable oil, every year that we devote to the very demanding high technologies is a resource that we cannot use to pursue the elements of a soft path urgently enough to make them work together properly.”
Over the next two years Lovins parried every critical thrust—time he considers wasted today. Where questions were raised about his numbers, Lovins directed critics to the technical companion paper he presented to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After extensive correspondence, Hans Bethe, the Nobel laureate, conceded that a disputed calculation was in fact sound: “Thank you very much for your detailed discussion of seasonal storage with solar heating. I am very much surprised that it works. The figures seemed based on solid statistics.”
Where the social implications of his scenario were doubted, Lovins reminded commentators that he had simply launched an experiment as a scientist, exploring what was possible from existing data. He claimed he had not tried to make his numbers fit his values, but rather articulated values only upon obtaining numerical results—results that were, as it turned out, rather congenial.
Where his work had been met with ad hominem attacks, he professed a policy of taking the high road, “lest I approach here the fatuity of the material to which I am responding.” Along with his daunting calculator, he had a polemicist’s knack for finding ever more subtle ways of patronizing opponents, a cheeky Oxford wit, and an elegant and lucid style. He could be neither outcalculated nor outargued. “This baby-faced expatriate,” said Newsweek in 1977, “has become one of the world’s most influential energy thinkers.”
Lovins had struck at a belief system, and the blow was felt at many levels. No less an authority than Margaret Mead later suggested that some of the hostility toward the concept of a Soft Path came from the unmanly overtones of the phrase. Was Lovins not, in essence, urging a phallocentric generation of men who had energized great metropolises with turbines and transmission towers to give up their life’s mission and devote themselves to the humble task of retrofitting homes with better insulation and more efficient light bulbs? It was the equivalent of trying to recast John Wayne as a hostage negotiator from the U.N.
Time for more tea. In what seems seconds, the water comes to a boil. Water boils fast at altitude but here in the “bioshelter” it’s being whizzed along by an English copper kettle with a heavy coil rim that traps hot gases. Most of the heat is put to work and does not escape up the side. (The fuel saving has been calculated, of course.) After a while in Lovins’s company you begin to see waste and inefficiency everywhere; an ordinary house peppered with spendthrift incandescent bulbs is positively offensive.
The night before, he had noticed that his wife had attached a Basalt Volunteer Fire Department tag to the bumper of his Honda—or “Pongomobile” as he calls it, in honor of his beloved orangutans. (Orangutan portraits cover the walls of his bedroom.) The little plate was sticking up into the slipstream. He had calculated the increase on the car’s drag coefficient and the waste chafed on his nerves.
Hunter walks in. She works at the house and runs the institute with Amory, but she now has her own apartment down the valley. They were introduced at the Los Angeles airport by the chief economist of Arco. She was a lawyer, a political scientist, an active environmentalist, and an admirer of his work. They were married in September 1979 in an aspen grove in the mountains around Crestone, Colorado: an Episcopal-Zen-Ute Indian ceremony. Amory wore an Indian headdress. Paul Winter played the soprano sax. Are the marital strains that have produced separate living arrangements amenable to a technical fix? Amory is happy to see his wife, and strokes her hand while they talk. Since 1978, they have been inseparable professional partners, coauthoring books and articles, appearing together on “60 Minutes” and in a film about the Soft Path. Hunter is technically Amory’s boss.
Hunter says she has to buy a washing machine. “Get a front loader,” he says. “It uses half the water and half the energy.”
“I don’t want a front loader,” Hunter says. “You have to bend over to put your damn clothes in.”
“You just put the clothes in,” he says. (Later he would find that a horizontal-axis top-loader is more efficient and would amend his position.)
RMI now has a $1.4 million budget and employs 39 people. With its goal of fostering the efficient and sustainable use of resources, the institute does policy research in five areas: energy, water, agriculture, security, and economic renewal. The budget comes from consulting work, grants, contributions, and the sale of publications. Many of the so-called RMltes are the sort of bright idealists who might have gone into public-interest work in Washington but were lured to Colorado by the mountain setting and the communal spirit of the nonprofit enterprise. The RMI community also includes a stable of nine horses, two peacocks, three beef calves named Barbeque, Brunch, and Dinner, and Nanuq’s sometime adversary Bandit, who is part coyote and who enjoys bathing in the alpha waterfall. Lovins presides over the research staff with an air of benevolent distraction; the best way to get some time alone with him is to take him for a walk—there’s a sign-up sheet on a bulletin board. The workplace atmosphere is casual, but the fax machines are always croaking and the in-boxes are stuffed. Several of Lovins’s former employees have spun off businesses from their work at RMI; the growing professionalism of the institute is reflected not just in rising budgets but in new marketing efforts. RMI recently hired a publicist, and some of the new brochures feature corporate-report-style logos and velum flyleaves—true evolutionary milestones for what began as a kind of countercultural think tank. Sometimes on Thursday afternoons there’s a staff meeting to discuss broad topics such as “Efficiency for What?” People in jeans circle up over trays of cookies and fruit; strawberry hulls are pitched directly into the garden; conversation may halt if Iggy or Juana makes a stir in the bougainvillea.
“Hey, Hunter?” says Amory as she heads for her office. “You know that little fire department plate on the front bumper of the Pongomobile?”
“We’ll have to move it. It’s right in the slipstream. I figure it’s probably costing us upwards of a mile per gallon.”
“Horrors,” she says.
To the distress of Amory Lovins, news of the efficiency revolution has not reached Washington, where the political power and PAC money of the supply side are well entrenched. Certainly some of the reluctance to brandish the banner of efficiency comes from the connotation of scarcity and doing-without that energy conservation acquired when President Carter lowered the White House thermostat and donned his infamous cardigan.
President Reagan understood conservation to mean being hotter in summer and colder in winter. In 1980 the Solar Energy Research Institute made the first comprehensive government study of what the country could save with an approach that maximized renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. The draft was finished as Reagan was assuming power, and one of the first acts of his new regime was to try to shut down the study and suppress the results. Staff members stayed all night photocopying the draft and mailing it out before the order could be effected.
“The potential for energy savings was so huge that we had one scenario in which the U.S. could join OPEC,” recalls Karl Gawell, former project director for the SERI study and now an energy aide for Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota).
To Lovins, efficiency never entailed life-style compromises. Efficiency meant doing more with less. Efficiency meant saving money, and it should have appealed to free-market Republicans, except that where energy was concerned, free-market Republicans often behaved, in his words, like “corporate socialists.”
It’s true that federal policymakers in the Bush administration continue to act as if no alternative exists for eliminating the country’s dependence on foreign oil—and the need for further military adventures in the Middle East—but to march full speed down the Hard Path beating a 55-gallon supply-side drum. The Bush energy blueprint is embodied in The National Energy Security Act, which was voted out of the Senate Energy Committee in July. Sponsored by Senators Bennett Johnston (D-Louisiana) and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyoming), the bill would launch another round of nuclear-power subsidies (now called “incentives”), authorizing “an advanced nuclear reactor,” and forgiving the industry’s $10 billion debt for uranium-enrichment services. It would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, resume oil exploration and development on the outer continental shelf, weaken the Clean Air Act, and exempt new power plants from emission-control standards.
“We’re doing as badly in oil efficiency as we are doing well in electricity,” says Lovins. “Technical fixes alone could cut U.S. oil consumption by 80 percent. Each barrel saved would cost you only a few dollars, so it’s cheaper to save oil than drill for more, let alone do anything with it if you find some.”
“If you want to find the innovation and achievement in efficiency, Washington is the last place to look,” says Ralph Cavanagh, energy program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You have to look at state regulatory agencies and the utilities.”
Indeed, far from the Beltway, the heresies of the Soft Path are rapidly becoming the by-words of conventional wisdom. Thanks to costly supply-side fiascoes, many utilities have discovered that it is cheaper to save energy than to produce it. Between 1981 and 1987, utilities in the Pacific Northwest spent more than $900 million to buy more energy through efficiency measures. What is called end-use/least-cost planning is now in place or under development in 43 states. That means that before new plants are built, lawyers and experts argue before public utility commissions over the cheapest way to provide energy services. Environmental costs are being factored into the price of power; some states have severed utility profits from sales, removing a major barrier to saving electricity. At least eight states require projects that will add to the supply of electricity to compete in an open auction against programs designed to save power by improving customers’ efficiency. About 60 utilities offer rebates to encourage the buying and selling of energy-efficient appliances. Electrical efficiency has become a $4 billion-a-year business.
California, as usual, is leading the way. Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest private utility, plans to meet at least 75 percent of its needs in the nineties with efficiency programs to hold down demand; the other 25 percent will come from renewables. By last year the amount of electricity consumed per dollar of California’s gross product had decreased 20 percent, flying in the face of the supply-side assumption that economic growth and electricity use rise in lockstep. Utilities in the Northwest, New York, New England, and Wisconsin are finding the equivalent of new power plants in caulk guns and fluorescent bulbs. In California alone, increased efficiency has already saved $23 billion. (Lovins estimates the United States has spent more than $270 billion on unneeded generating capacity.) Since 1979 the United States has gotten seven times as much energy from saving energy as from increasing energy supply. No coal or nuclear plants are under construction in the western United States. “The future has gone over to the mammals,” says Ralph Cavanagh. “The dinosaurs no longer roam the earth.”
“The energy problem is conceptually solved, but about 50 years of details remain,” says Lovins. “The important, elements of the transition are already firmly and irreversibly embedded in the market. Now within the industry, future demand is not fate, but choice. What we had before was a Stalinist planning system where a small group of people would decide how much energy we needed and ram it down our throats whether we needed it or not. The battle’s been won in all except a handful of places.”
Lovins was once a prophet without honor—utility executives would leave the room when he showed up, and Hans Bethe refused to shake his hand. More recently some of his old adversaries have had second thoughts, and Lovins now has the satisfaction of seeing many facets of energy use unfold according to his numbers. His 1972 estimate of total energy consumption in the year 2000 was, a mere six years later, the industry estimate put forth by Ralph Lapp, one of his staunchest critics.
“I’ve been reevaluating Amory Lovins,” says Charles Yulish. “I think he was very prophetic in many ways and deserves to be revisited. I would not retract ‘flaccid and flatulent,’ but I should have added that in spite of what he is and the way he says it, there is an irresistible quality to the simpleness of his ideas that ought to be tried.”
“We’re very close to Amory on the technical potential of efficiency,” says Tom Morran of the Edison Electric Institute. “Our disagreement is over the market potential. In our judgment you’re still going to have to build a power plant or two.”
Lovins himself has grown up some, too. No longer inclined to do the General Nuisance March, he tries to practice what he calls aikido politics, which means that you don’t fight with an opponent, you dance with a partner. It’s not enough to be right; Lovins wants to get along, to help translate theory into practice. So he spends his days dreaming up ways for utilities to finance investments in efficiency, ways to reform regulations to reward efficient energy use. Perhaps the best tribute both to the wisdom of what was once his heresy and his abiding commitment to the efficiency crusade is RMI’s Competitek service—exhaustively researched technical encyclopedias of the latest in energy-efficient lights, motors, air conditioners, heaters, appliances, and office equipment. The series costs $9,000 a throw. And among its many subscribers are more than 70 utilities.
We should all live as elegantly as Amory Lovins, adding the minimum of noxious gases to the air, treading lightly and economically on the land. Lovins has created a little paradise of his own in which theory and practice are one. Home fits with work as yin with yang. For lunch someone may bring down a pot of beans cooked for free in the solar oven on the roof. Sometimes at night when the waterfall is turned off and the greenhouse glass is full of stars, the proprietor may roam about with gadgets that tell him where heat is leaking, where power is being wasted. To the extent it’s possible, Lovins has dominion over his world. Even pests in the garden are controlled by natural insect predators that he has carefully introduced.
A life as elegant as his is bound to acquire an aura of myth, but the truth is that nothing is as exact as a page of numbers. It turns out winters in utopia can be chilly. The energy-efficient appliances extolled in RMI’s visitors’ guide do not include the two 600-watt space heaters that are occasionally plugged into the grid. The throngs who come on tours do not see the institute staff occasionally donning long johns and fingerless gloves. The solar-heating failure can be explained by the fact that some of the superefficient windows need to be fixed, that the weather stripping never seems to get installed on time, and that the design of the house doesn’t take into account that people sometimes forget to close windows or shut doors. Maddening human caprice can ruin the best of calculations. The heaters, explains Lovins, who cannot be beaten in last-word PingPong, “are mostly used by one elderly person with poor circulation.”
Tonight there is a rodeo picnic in Snowmass. The archangel of the Soft Path is sitting under a tent with a foam tray of ribs and corn on the cob and powdered lemonade. Children bound about, and good ole boys cut up in a Wild West show, discharging six-guns and dying like hams. Lovins flinches when the guns go off. He seems a little preoccupied, and it’s hard to blame him. It’s hard not to wonder how he fits in among the clichés of the West, with his cowboy hat and snap-button shirt, with his calculator asleep in his pocket.
The crowd drifts to the wooden bleachers. The dirt in the U-shaped arena is dark ad pungent and freshly plowed. Armory always sits at the far end, near the gate, so he can watch when Hunter rides in. On come the bucking broncos and bawling calves, the lariats and clowns and beauty queens on a stagecoach. Short-legged cow-dogs nip the bulls back into their pens, their life is their work, too.
Lovins looks on with mild interest until Hunter appears, blond hair cascading from under the black brim of her hat. His colleague, his coauthor, his business partner, his wife. She flashes across the dirt, rounds the barrels, and digs for home—alas, not fast enough to win. He seems to suffer her loss.
Sun long gone under an indigo wash, the rodeo winds out under the glare of some homely lights. “Those are old mercury-vapor lights,” Lovins says, suddenly brightening. “New high-pressure sodium lights are twice as efficient.”