Labor of Lovins

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

By Tracie Mcmillan

Amory Lovins might not be a household name, but the ideas he’s put forth for the past 30 years have affected virtually every household in America. Increasing energy efficiency, supporting small and local power generation from renewable sources, and building smart rather than big are just a few of the concepts he’s promoted. Lovins started when he was 29, using the energy crisis of the late ’70s to reach President Carter’s ear. This year, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the nonprofit organization devoted to energy research he founded with his wife, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a forum attended by luminaries such as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and Majora Carter of the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx. Plenty stole a few minutes of Lovins’s time to discuss ultralight cars, an indoor banana garden, and why efficiency is the best alternative fuel we’ve got.

What are the easiest ways for Americans to do what you propose: boost energy and financial efficiency?
The best known one is to unscrew an incandescent bulb and put in a compact fluorescent—you get the same light, it uses five times less electricity, and it lasts about ten times longer. And next time you’re going to buy a household appliance, get the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s guide to the most energy-efficient appliances (; you can get them two or three times more efficient than normal, and typically they don’t cost more.

Those are pretty common tips. Are there bigger changes to make?
Actually, it’s easy to build a very efficient house. But you have to optimize the whole system for multiple benefits, and that’s a way of thinking many people aren’t used to. A super-insulated window, for example, isn’t just insulated—it actually has ten different benefits.

If green building is so easy, why aren’t more people doing it?
The information on how to do it is not very widespread. Some of the big merchant builders are picking up on it, but they have a long way to go. Most people don’t understand they can do it, or contractors say it will cost you more or you won’t like it.

In the late 1990s, you talked about selling Hypercars—ultralight vehicles made out of carbon fiber. Are you driving one yet?
I’ve been driving the same car since 2000 or so—a Honda Insight, which is a two-seat, aluminum hybrid that gets 64 miles per gallon. We could actually do about 67 miles per gallon with a carbon-fiber midsize SUV; that’s how light carbon fiber is.

A lot of traditional environmental work has focused on pushing for greater government regulation, but you argued early on that it’s more effective to show businesses that they could save money by going green.
I think most of the changes we need in the world will come from innovative technology and design rather than regulations. There are three main loci of power and influence in our society: business, civil leadership, and government—generally in decreasing order of effectiveness. Because we at the Rocky Mountain Institute want to get things done, we work almost entirely with the private sector and very little with government.

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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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