Labor of Lovins

The cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute talks about America’s path to becoming more energy efficient

By Tracie Mcmillan

You like to make the point that living efficiently doesn’t have to take sacrifice, that we can keep our creature comforts. But don’t we need to use fewer resources?
Efficiency is already our biggest energy resource by far—and we have barely scratched the surface of how much it’s worth. With today’s better technologies, if we fully applied them, we could save over half our oil at a fifth of its price, three-quarters of our natural gas at an eighth of its price, and three-quarters of our electricity at an eighth of its price. That is enormously bigger than what we’ve done so far.

Say we solved efficiency. What’s next?
The shift from big power plants to small ones in making our electricity. In 2005, micropower—cogeneration of electricity and useful heat in factories and buildings, or decentralized renewable sources of electricity other than hydropower—provided one-sixth of the world’s total electricity and one-third of the world’s new electricity. In fact, if you add up micropower and “negawatts” (electrical savings), they now provide more than half the world’s electricity. And centralized power stations, for which we were told there was no substitute, provide less than half. Why? Because they cost too much and there’s too much financial risk involved.

Your home in Colorado is such a showpiece for eco design that you offer regular tours. What’s your favorite part of the house?
Coming in out of a midwinter snowstorm at 7,100 feet in the Rockies, where it can get as cold as minus 47 degrees, and there you are in the banana jungle, where I’ve harvested 28 crops so far. And then you realize there’s no heating system—I didn’t need it. We have airtight construction with lots of ventilation through air-to-air heat exchangers that recover most of the heat you would otherwise lose. So the building uses one percent the normal amount of energy for heating space and water. And the bananas are really tasty.

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Building Green is fine, Amory. But what about retrofitting. With the exception of the coming building boom in Southern California (following the current fires), so many of us are struggling just to get along, let alone considering building something new. What are the 100 million Americans living in the colder parts of the country to do? I can barely pay the electric bill, let alone the gas for my 1998 car, which I can't consider $40K to replace with a hybrid or better. So beyond CHANGING THE LIGHTBULBS (which I already did, thank you), you've given me exactly 0 ideas. Not even a banana!

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