Energy guru Lovins to carmakers: Time for big bets

Amory Lovins, hero of environmentalists and adviser to Fortune 500 firms, says it's time for bold changes in energy and transportation, focusing first on efficiency.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Amory Lovins, a renowned author and big thinker on energy, specializes in making the impossible real.

His 4,000-square-foot Colorado home has no furnace, uses a few dollars' worth of electricity a month, and features an indoor tropical garden with banana trees and papaya plants. In conversation, he's quick to pull out his iPhone to show a car prototype inspired by the Hypercar, which is three to five times more efficient than conventional cars.

He's the chief scientist and co-founder of nonprofit advisory firm Rocky Mountain Institute, which develops environmentally friendly solutions using business as a lever. Among the organizations it advises are Ford Motor, Wal-Mart, and the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, Lovins spoke to investors and entrepreneurs at a forum on clean tech organized by Xconomy, where he was interviewed by venture capitalist Paul Maeder about energy and the environment. (On Wednesday, he spoke at Harvard University.)

Rocky Mountain Institute chief scientist Amory Lovins. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

With the U.S. automakers' financial woes and an incoming president high on everyone's minds, Lovins offered his trademark unconventional thinking bolstered by a blizzard of data.

The biggest danger to cash-strapped U.S. auto companies is making incremental changes to their product lines, he argued. Instead, they need to make radically more efficient cars by adopting several technologies aimed at efficiency. (Lovins coined the term "negawatts," which refers to watts that are not used.)

"Right now they view accelerated transformation as a risk and a distraction. I think it's actually a low-risk strategy. When your competitors new and old all around the world are coming up with radically more efficient, safe, (and) durable cars, you can't afford incrementalism," Lovins said in an interview after his talk.

"It would be tragic to bail out the industry now and see it go under in another five years as competitors' faster innovation takes hold," he said.

Pinning incumbent automakers' turnaround on electric powertrains through plug-in electric cars is a myopic view of the available technologies.

Cars can be made half as heavy as they are today by using composite materials such as light but strong carbon fiber, a choice that gives manufacturers more flexibility and reduces costs in production. "Lightweighting" lowers the engineering bar for alternative powertrain technologies as well, he argues. With less weight to haul around, expensive batteries can be smaller and fuel cell vehicles become feasible.

The other technology changes required to set automakers on the right path are aerodynamics and software for remote diagnostics and other tasks.

"Whatever your advanced powertrain is, especially if it's all-electric, it will be a great deal smaller and cheaper and lighter if you first get the platform physics right--making the car light and slippery," he said. "If you don't do that and your competitors do, you're toast."

Many businesses fail to make high-performing products because they don't practice what he calls "integrative design," or making design choices to optimize the entire vehicle rather than individual components. In the case of U.S. auto companies, there's a cultural bias toward powertrain engineering.

Carbon pricing or negawatts?
In buildings, too, existing practices and delay-ridden business processes slow down adoption of efficient home energy systems.

In its projects, the Rocky Mountain Institute has found that building owners can get energy savings of 60 percent with a three-year payback for energy-efficiency retrofits. The group found that new green building constructions can be done for lower capital costs than traditional methods, contrary to the prevailing view.

When asked what words of advice he offers President-elect Barack Obama, Lovins said the new administration needs to coordinate efforts between the Department of Energy and any climate initiatives.

Many investors and consumers expect that putting a price on carbon emissions--through a cap-and-trade system or tax--will make many clean technologies more economical. Lovins thinks carbon pricing is a good idea but it's not essential.

"You could make lots of money off of efficiency with zero carbon price. We know how to save half the oil and gas and three quarters of the electricity in this country," he said. There are, however, "institutional barriers" that block adoption of energy efficiency practices, he said, apparently referring to incumbent fuel and energy companies.

Longer term, he said it's not clear that carbon prices will remain high enough to drive emissions reductions as intended.

Policy and geoengineering
On specific policy levers, he offered two ideas: "decoupling" in the electric utility industry and a "feebate" structure in transportation, even if they are both implemented first at the state level.

Regulations in about 40 states are structured so that utilities make more money by selling more electricity to consumers. With decoupling, utilities are incented to introduce more efficiency.

The per-capita electricity usage in the state of California, for example, has held steady since the 1970s, while its economy has grown, he noted.

The goal of a feebate--combining the words "fee" and "rebate"--is to incent consumers and automakers to value efficient vehicles.

When consumers purchase cars, there is a sliding scale where they receive a rebate for purchasing the most-efficient vehicles and a fee for the least-efficient.

"It widens the price spread between the most- and least-efficient models and...automakers can make more money because there is more technology content in the cars."

With his emphasis on energy efficiency and practical solutions, it's probably not surprising that he, like many other scientists, are wary of geoengineering ideas, such as putting sulfur particles in the air to cool the earth or seed the ocean with iron to stimulate carbon-sequestering algae blooms.

"Geoengineering is pretty scary. We really don't know what we are doing," Lovins said. "On climate science, there's a whole lot we don't know and most of the surprises are bad surprises...When you've got one planet and you've got to keep living there, you don't want to try anything irreversible."