Lovins remains the optimist

March 14, 2012

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We have followed Amory Lovins’ career since he expressed his highly influential views, which became known as the soft path. As energy interests pushed for rapid expansion of all forms of energy, he counseled redesigning our society to be energy efficient and focused on developing resilient regional energy systems.

When Meg Bushnell was chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, she encouraged ComEd to develop an energy efficiency program for its customers. At our suggestion, she sought the advice of Lovins and Charles Komanoff.

One outcome was that ComEd offered each customer an opportunity to purchase one compact flourescent light bulb for half the market price.

When Hunter Lovins spoke at our Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifesyle Fair, she said Amory had become carried away with his focus on building the hyper car to the neglect of his broader interests.

As an international energy guru, Lovins remains faithful to his notion that energy efficiency and new technologies will let us continue to maintain our consumptive lifestyles without sacrificing comfort or convenience.

When Komanoff was at the Energy Fair, he commented that Lovins seldom, if ever, addresses the social justice aspects of energy consumption.

In their latest publication, Reinventing Fire, Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute present a blueprint for a transition to a renewable energy economy by 2050. Always interesting and optimistic, they expect to see cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, electricity and biofuels. More than 80 percent of trucks and planes will run on biofuels. The transition will save $5 trillion in energy costs and result in an economy that is nearly 160 percent larger than today’s.

The transition will occur rather effortlessly as marketplace solutions will make an end run around the federal government’s energy inertia. Some critics point out that Lovins’ views are in opposition to those of James Howard Kuntsler, Heimberg and others. Their work suggests it is not possible to continue to expand population and economic growth on a finite planet.

Critics see danger in his popular “Why worry everything will turn out fine?” approach in that it could weaken the effort to rebuild local communities along more sustainable lines.

Early in his career, Lovins determined he would approach energy issues from an optimistic perspective. Marc L. Bernstein and others feel he is far too optimistic when they consider widespread ecological damage caused by the global economy. Climate change, aquifer depletion and pollution, loss of biodiversity, the collapse of global fisheries and many other environmental issues continue to accelerate in a world of 7 billion people competing for fewer resources.

The rosy picture painted by Lovins does inspire and bring hope to his followers and the corporations and governments relying on his insights. While we have not interacted with him recently, we always found his ideas interesting and stimulating. Rest assured that Lovins’ latest work will also provide some stimulating ideas.

The late Richard Williams built a home near Cherry Valley modeled on the principles developed by the Rocky Mountain Institute. The home performed up to his expectations, and he indicated the biggest challenge was that of finding a builder willing to build following the principles. Finding an appropriate builder remains a problem, although more are willing to follow energy-efficient practices.

Correction to Feb. 29-March 6 article “Boone County solar farm”: A 100 MW installation would cost $30 million.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the March 14-20, 2012, issue

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