Q&A: Amory B. Lovins

Q&A: Amory B. Lovins
Energy Expert Talks About California’s Crisis

D.F. Tweney, Special to SF GateThursday, April 26, 2001

Noted energy expert and former experimental physicist Amory B. Lovins founded theRocky Mountain Institute, an influential energy think tank based in Snowmass,Colo., in 1982. While still in his 20s, Lovins rose to prominenceduring the oil crisis of the 1970s as an articulate advocate for energyconservation. Since then, his work has focused on market-friendly approaches tousing resources more efficiently and solving environmental problems. A recipientof a MacArthur Fellowship, Lovins’ most recent book is “Natural Capitalism:Creating The Next Industrial Revolution” (1999). During a recent visit toCalifornia, Lovins met with Gov. Gray Davis and made numerous public speakingappearances in the span of two days. We caught up with him on Earth Day to askabout technology’s role in causing — and perhaps solving — the Californiaenergy crisis.

Lots of people blame the Internet and California’s many Web server farms for thecurrent energy crisis. Yet California ranks 48th in the United States forper-capita energy consumption. What’s going on here?

The Western Fuels Association has very effectively spread the new urban myth thatthe Internet is using 8 to 13 percent of U.S. electricity. The actual number ismore like 2 percent.

In fact, California’s per capita power consumption has been essentially flat for30 years. Of course you have had a good deal of population growth, so your demandhas grown, but it grew in the ’90s at an average rate of 1.3 percent a year –which was two-fifths less than the national average. A quarter of all thereduction in electric intensity in the United States has been coming fromCalifornia.

It is a myth that server farms or information technology are causing, or thatCalifornia is experiencing, soaring demand. Demand didn’t soar, demand crawled.

What technology or what industry actually is the biggest consumer of power?

The biggest user of electricity in California is pumping water over themountains. And therefore, water efficiency is a very good way to saveelectricity.

Don’t the big Web-hosting facilities such as Exodus consume a lot of power?

You will often read in the press that they use 100, 200, even 300 watts a squarefoot, which would mean that they look like an office but act kind of like a smallsmelter. They don’t actually use that much — the measured intensity is typicallyaround 30 to 60 watts per square foot. However, even that could be very muchlower.

In our own office last year, we replaced four Windows NT servers with a littleLinux box the size of a book, called a Rebel NetWinder. It peaks at about 15watts, and normally pokes along at a few watts. It’s faster, cheaper and morecapable than the four NT boxes put together. It doesn’t take up much space, andit uses 98 or 99 percent less electricity than the four boxes it replaces.

Are there other technologies that could help solve the energy crisis?

Practically everything we do that uses electricity can be done severalfold moreefficiently, at lower cost, with the same or better service quality. My4,000-square-foot household uses $5 a month worth of electricity, a 10th ofnormal. Although it’s up near Aspen, where it can go to minus 47 (degrees) onoccasion, I’ve harvested 27 banana crops inside with no furnace. Thesuper-windows and super-insulation cost less than the furnace would have cost toinstall. The super-windows use a technology called Heat Mirror, from SouthwallTechnologies in Palo Alto.

One of Rocky Mountain Institute’s tenets is that “small is profitable,” andyou’ve argued that a decentralized power grid is more reliable than a centralizedone. So, how long will it be before we all have power plants in our back yards?

Back yards, basements, rooftops and driveways. I think that’s coming on veryfast. Hypercar Inc.’s Web site describes a car that we’ve been developing: a 100mile-per-gallon, midsize sport utility vehicle that runs on hydrogen fuel cells.It could be in volume production in five years.

When you have a hydrogen fuel cell car, you can drive it to work, plug it intothe spare hydrogen producing capacity that’s in the nearby building, and pluginto the electric grid. And then while you sit at your desk, your car is now alittle power plant on wheels, sending back 20 or 30 or 40 kilowatts to theutility. That can earn you back a third to a half the cost of owning the car.

The Hypercar vehicle fleet, fully built out, will have five or 10 times thegenerating capacity of the current national grid. It doesn’t take many peopleliking this value proposition to put the coal and nuclear plants out of business.

It seems like Americans are hell-bent on buying the biggest, heaviest, leastfuel-efficient SUVs that they can find, and electric cars haven’t sold well. Doyou think there will really be a market for fuel-efficient vehicles?

It’s true the battery cars didn’t sell all that well, for pretty good reasons.But the hybrid cars like the Honda Insight I drive and the Toyota Prius areselling like hotcakes.

Let me give you some basic specs of Hypercar’s Revolution concept car. It handlesfive adults, up to 69 cubic feet of cargo, half a ton of capacity and it can haulthat up a 44 percent grade. It looks a bit like a Lexus RX-300. It can go fromzero to 60 in about 8.2 seconds. It’s very sporty. It’s so light and slippery itcan actually cruise at 55 miles an hour on the same energy that the Lexus usesjust for its air conditioner. The body doesn’t dent, rust or fatigue. It’s radarstealthy. It could be bullet resistant — you know, these are useful attributesin a modern urban environment.

What technologies can I buy, borrow or steal right now that will help me use lessenergy?

On the RMI web site, you’ll find a book called “Homemade Money:Saving Energy And Dollars In Your Home,” which willtell you what to do, in what order, if you own or rent a house or apartment.Basically, whenever you get lights or appliances, you should get the mostefficient ones.

The American Council For An Energy Efficient Economy puts out anannual guide to the most efficient appliances on the market.

Do I have to give up my gadgets, like my Palm Pilot, my cell phone and my TiVo?

No. They use essentially no electricity. Indeed, there is good evidence, whichyou’ll find on the Web at www.cool-companies.org, that e-commerce and theinformation revolution probably save more energy and more electricity than theyuse.

If you’re in an office building, you can turn up the thermostat 4 degrees in thesummer on hot afternoons. Chances are nobody would even notice, but you couldsave 20 or 30 percent of that peak energy load.

Or, here’s a really simple one: If you’re in an office with venetian blinds, tiltthem up so that the light is bounced up on the ceiling as God intended. Then thewhole room will be suffused with diffuse, soft light, and you’ll find that youwill see better if you actually turn off the lights.

Are you optimistic that people will actually learn to conserve and use energymore efficiently?

Oh yeah, I think people are pretty smart, and they have plenty of incentive touse energy in a way that saves money. Some of what we need to do in the shortterm is curtailment, which needn’t be painful, it’s usually just turning offthings you’re not using anyway. The off switch is the best way to cut your billthis summer.

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Q&A: Amory B. Lovins