One Man's Long Battle To Get U.S. to Kick Oil

Amory Lovins's 4,000-square-foot house stands at an altitude of 7,100 feet in the Rocky Mountains and is powered by alternative energy sources.
Amory Lovins's 4,000-square-foot house stands at an altitude of 7,100 feet in the Rocky Mountains and is powered by alternative energy sources. (Rocky Mountain Institute)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006


In 1976, Gerald Ford was president, Americans flocked to see "Rocky" (the first one), oil was $13 a barrel, and Amory B. Lovins wrote a massive piece in Foreign Affairs magazine declaring that the United States stood at a crossroads on energy policy.

The first path, he wrote, led to ever greater output of coal, oil and nuclear, a capital-intensive strategy dubbed "strength through exhaustion." The second path relied primarily on greater efficiency as well as the development of such alternative energy sources as wind, solar power and biofuels.

Thirty years later, the price of oil -- even after adjusting for inflation -- is almost twice as high and what President Bush has called the nation's "addiction" to oil has grown more dire. But the answer according to Lovins is pretty much the same: It's a lot cheaper, easier and faster to save energy than it is to buy or produce it.

"Churchill said that you could count on the Americans to do the right thing once they had exhausted all other possibilities," Lovins said, recalling the British leader's eagerness for the United States to enter the fight against Germany in World War II. "You could say the same about energy policy."

One thing that anyone listening to Lovins won't lack is a sense of possibility. "He's like a Johnny Appleseed of ideas," said Gregory Kats, a former employee of Lovins's, who now helps run the energy-consulting firm Capital E. With his reformulation of the energy issue, Lovins has been hailed as one of the country's most influential thinkers. As head of a nonprofit consulting and design group, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins says new technologies would not only ease the oil crisis but could help bring the end of the oil era.

Sitting in the dining room of his home, which doubles as an office for the institute, the balding, mustachioed Lovins, 58, sounds like the Oxford University don he once was -- before Oxford decided that studying energy wasn't a serious academic pursuit. He tosses out ideas on everything from more efficient military vehicles to commercial trucks, from decentralizing Iraq's utility sector to installing wind turbines in Britain, from making commercial buildings more energy efficient to improving automobile fuel mileage by using lighter materials for metal interior elements.

And he offers piles of studies, fistfuls of newsletters and a helmet made of light, carbon-nylon fiber.

"Our energy future is choice, not fate," says one of his studies, "Winning the Oil Endgame," which has glowing introductions by the likes of former secretary of state George P. Shultz and former Royal Dutch/Shell Group chairman Mark Moody-Stuart. "Oil dependence is a problem we need no longer have -- and it's cheaper not to. U.S. oil dependence can be eliminated by proven and attractive technologies that create wealth, enhance choice, and strengthen common security."

Back in 1976, Lovins, who had dropped out of Harvard to study and then teach at Oxford, was the British representative of Friends of the Earth. Since 1982 he has been at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which has a $5.2 million budget and peddles its ideas to more than 80 of the country's biggest corporations, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Coca-Cola Co., Texas Instruments Inc. and Royal Dutch Shell. One company, Rio Tinto Group, which was pressured into canceling a copper and gold mining project in Wales in the 1970s after Lovins wrote a book with photos on what he called the area's spectacular "Mountains of Longing," is now a client studying how to save money at an Arctic diamond mine. Sources familiar with his institute say that Lovins can command daily consulting fees of up to $15,000 to $20,000, a far cry from his days as an environmentalist.

"He's been fantastic," said Andy Ruben, vice president for strategic planning and sustainability at Wal-Mart. Lovins suggested that Wal-Mart get its truck drivers to stop using the main engine to air-condition their cabs while parked. Instead, he proposed using small, more efficient engines installed behind the fuel tank. Ruben says the change will save 10 million gallons a year for Wal-Mart, which operates 7,200 trucks, the second-largest private fleet in the nation.

Ruben said Lovins also introduced him to the idea of "phantom loads," electricity used by televisions, microwaves and other appliances while turned off. Wal-Mart may ask suppliers to redesign such devices. Lovins and his colleagues at RMI, Ruben said, are "big thinkers and have got a different lens they see things through." Lovins said he likes working with a company that can make decisions quickly and is big enough to have a real impact.

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