A physicist, researcher, entrepreneur, banana farmer and much more, Amory Lovins is many things. But there is one thing Lovins is definitely not: a quitter. Long before renewable fuel standards and clean energy venture capital funds, Lovins was touting the economical and environmental benefits of energy efficiency and fuel economy. He began his energy-efficiency crusade in 1976 when he published “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Through his work at Rocky Mountain Institute, which he co-founded in 1982 with his former wife Hunter, Lovins has helped numerous global corporations, including Pacific Gas & Electric (NYSE: PCG), revolutionize the way they produce and transport products to market—proving such practices gives them a competitive advantage. He is perhaps most famous for challenging the global automotive industry with the hypercar concept, an ultra-light hybrid vehicle using advanced composite materials that could achieve three- to five-times the fuel economy of today’s cars. Author of numerous papers and books including “Natural Capitalism” and “Winning the Oil Endgame," Lovins continues to serve as chairman and chief scientist of RMI, which today has an annual budget of $13 million. Lovins also serves as an advisor to PAX Scientific Inc., a company for which Paul Hawken also serves as an advisor.
Sustainable Industries spoke to Lovins upon his return from a trip to Colombia before the busy fall event season to learn about the projects he is currently most excited about, learn more about the ambitious remodel of his already uber energy-efficient home, and find out how he maintains an optimistic view of the future.
SI: Rocky Mountain Institute’s focus is driving the profit-based transition from oil and coal to efficiency and renewables—a task you’ve referred to as “Reinventing Fire” (which is also the name of RMI’s conference in San Francisco in October). What projects have best proven that clean energy solutions can also be profitable?
AL: Over the years we’ve designed more than 1,000 buildings and various land and sea vehicles. We’re consistently finding that through integrated design, we can make very large energy savings cost less than small or no savings … expanding not diminishing returns when investing in energy efficiency. The findings are quite surprising. For example, we lately redesigned more than $30 billion worth of factories in 29 sectors for radical energy efficiency. We’re typically saving 30 percent to 60 percent of the energy with two- or three-year paybacks on the retrofits. With the new plants, we are achieving 40 to 90 percent and the capital costs always go down. Our latest design for a data center to be completed within weeks in Britain is expected to use a quarter the normal amount of energy but produce four times the computing power and cost 10 to 15 percent less to build. Our mining design uses no electricity, and no fossil fuels. It runs on gravity.
SI: Are you using off-the-shelf technologies in these projects?
AL: Our other projects are a wide range of petro-chemical, heavy chemical and manufacturing—pretty serious installations—but the only exotic stuff we’re using is catalogues, maybe just different catalogues than most people order out of.
SI: Speaking of spin-offs, can you give an update on Hypercar?
AL: Hypercar Inc., which changed its name to Fiberforge, was RMI’s fourth for-profit spin-off. Nine years ago, it developed a midsize SUV with nearly quadrupled fuel efficiency that was more comfortable and safer than other cars and would pay back in about a year. We were looking for partner capital for mass production at the same time the capital markets dried up (November 2000), so we couldn’t find it. But automakers were very interested in how we designed it and how it would be built. The ultralighting would be free thanks to 99 percent lower tooling costs, no body shop, optionally no paint shop, and a two- to three-times smaller powertrain. Automakers saw it as strategically imperative to make cars this way. But they didn’t know if they could afford advanced composites, so at their request, my colleagues validated the manufacturing process and are now commercializing it.
Now Fiberforge is a provider of innovative manufacturing technology for ultralight structures to the aerospace, automotive and several other sectors.