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

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; D01


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.

But if Lovins has gone the corporate route to push his ideas, his living environment is very different. His 4,000-foot house-cum-office, perched at an altitude of 7,100 feet in a valley here in the Rocky Mountains, is a working model of what he sees as possible.

Though temperatures can drop to minus-47 degrees Fahrenheit and frost can form most of the year, the house runs on the amount of energy it takes to fuel one conventional light bulb, largely because of a good insulation and a central, sun-filled atrium, which is stocked year-round with tropical plants and fish. (Lovins says he's harvested 28 banana crops inside the atrium.) Some well-placed fans, vents and ducts circulate the air and distribute heat. Solar cells on the roof supplement the house's energy needs, which are modest, thanks to compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances, so eerily quiet that Lovins installed a small waterfall fountain for a little background noise. (True, the house did seem a bit dimly lighted as his interview-lecture lasted longer than the daylight.)

He used to share the house with his wife, co-author and partner L. Hunter Lovins, but the two split up in 2002. His current partner is Judy Hill, a landscape photographer. His entryway is full of stuffed toy orangutans, though he has no children.

Less energy demand from houses like his is part of Lovins's push for a future with fewer big, capital-intensive power plants and more localized power-generating facilities. "The power sector is now a black hole for capital," he said.

There's a security dimension, too. More than 20 years ago he wrote an Atlantic Monthly article about how "microgeneration" would help make the United States less vulnerable to sabotage. Now, with the post-Sept. 11 obsession with terrorism, Lovins finds himself getting renewed interest from national security experts on the conservative end of the political spectrum. R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director long interested in Lovins's ideas, co-authored a piece with Lovins on security in 2002.

Lovins testified before Congress in March on energy independence. He says that the United States has saved three units of energy for every new one produced since the mid-1970s. "The most comprehensive threat to our national energy security is our current national energy policy," he says.

Unlike some environmentalists, Lovins remains adamantly opposed to nuclear power, which he says doesn't make economic or nonproliferation sense. New U.S. subsidies in last year's Energy Policy Act, he notes, "are equal to the entire capital cost of the next six reactors . . . but is similar to defibrillating a corpse: it will jump but not revive."

He opposes the accord before Congress that would enable U.S. companies to help India's civilian nuclear power sector. India, he says, was the world's third-largest installer of wind-power generation last year (after Germany and Spain). It would do better by promoting efficiency, he said, than by sinking money into nuclear plants, which will account for only 4 percent of the country's energy needs. "We're going to blow up what's left of the nonproliferation regimes to promote a sector that doesn't make sense," Lovins said.

Automobile efficiency is a key element in Lovins's vision for ending America's oil dependency. For years he promoted a light, aero-dynamic "Hypercar" that he helped design, which he said got more than 100 miles per gallon. Ultimately, he said, it would run on a fuel cell powered by tanks of compressed gaseous hydrogen fuel. General Motors Corp. talked to Lovins but ultimately did not adopt it. Some colleagues say Lovins was unrealistic about Detroit. His company, Hypercar Inc., has morphed into FiberForge, a private company that makes ultra-light composite products for bike helmets, skateboards and laptop cases.

The goal is still to alter the automobile industry by making parts for lighter, more fuel-efficient cars without sacrificing safety. The Rocky Mountain Institute owns a fifth of FiberForge.

After 30 years, Lovins can seem quixotic in his quest for new energy policies and practices. As Lovins concedes, good ideas often lie fallow.

"He'll say you can do this in six years and in theory you could -- if there were no such thing as reality," said a person who has worked with Lovins and spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship. "There are interests, and you need to net in half of what he says for starters, maybe. If you're a CEO, you'll bring him in, listen and wean out the ones you can do."

But maybe his time is arriving. Even the Pentagon has talked to him about ways to save fuel.

And then there's Cary Bullock, chief executive of GreenFuel Technologies Corp., which is researching technology that would use sunlight and algae to convert carbon dioxide byproducts at power plants or factories into usable transportation fuel. In 1976, Bullock was working at a company that specialized in optical character recognition. After reading the Lovins article in Foreign Affairs, Bullock quit and went into the energy business. "It was a visionary article," Bullock said. "Every now and then someone wanders into a field and starts talking and has a dramatic impact."

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