While many of us dream about an America that runs entirely on efficient, clean, renewable sources of energy, Amory and Hunter Lovins are doing a great deal to help bring such a future about. Indeed, as authors of some of the most important works in the field and consultants to governments and utilities, they are without doubt our nation’s most effective spokespersons for a sustainable-energy future.
There are two main reasons for the Lovinses’ unique impact. First, they give hard data for the soft path. All their conclusions are based on accurate (and numbingly thorough) research and calculations, and their analyses prove–over and over again — that investment in energy efficiency and renewable sources of power is simply less expensive than increased (or even continued) dependence on fossil or nuclear fuels. Second, they use a warm, positive, cooperative approach when dealing with advocates of hard, centralized technologies … partly because that’s good strategy (Hunter calls it “Aikido Politics “) and partly, we suspect, because both Lovinses are just naturally friendly people.
Amory first turned the energy world on its head when he was just 29 with his famous paper “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” (Foreign Affairs, October, 1976 ). That article said we should tackle the energy
shortage not by looking at ways to increase supply–the accepted build-more–power-plants solution–but by starting at the other end and analyzing use. As Amory later put it, we should “talk about who’s going to require how much of what kind of energy for what purposes for how long.” Mr. Lovins’“least-cost, end-use” plan thus called for matching up specific energy needs with the most appropriate source for that purpose. And it clearly showed that improved energy efficiency plus renewable sources coul d more than supply our nation is current and future energy needs.
The whole idea was so radically positive that, in spite of Amory’s air-tight reasoning and data, it sounded naively idealistic to most governmental and energy leaders. Ah, but that was back in 1976. Today–as the following interview will demonstrate–Amory’s words are being proved true … by the ordinary public, not our so-called leaders. (As both Lovinses are fond of stating, “Washington will be the last to know.”)
Of course, other changes have occurred since that landmark essay. Mr. Lovins married lawyer/political scientist/community organizer Hunter Sheldon in 1979, and the two have worked together as a perfect, complementary team ever since. (Hunter estimates that since they were married they’ve rarely been separated for even a few hours.) Although they both work mainly with energy policy — speaking, teaching, writing, testifying, and consulting — they’ve broadened their efforts into several other areas as well. And they’ve shown that they practice what they preach by building a totally passive solar home in Colorado’s snow-blessed Rocky Mountains. (A full report on the Lovinses’ remarkable, innovative house begins on page 134.)
With this issue, Amory also becomes the first person to repeat as subject (or co-subject) of MOTHER’s Plowboy Interview. Staffer Pat Stone attended an intensive three-day energy workshop that the Lovinses gave last February at nearby Warren Wilson College … interviewed them at his home in Western North Carolina … and then flew out with staffer David Schoonmaker for a three-day visit to their beautiful new house. As Pat reports, “Any longtime readers who recall this magazine’s talk with Amory back in 1977 won’t have to worry that this article will be a rehash of old material. In fact, the Lovinses have so many new and worthwhile things to say that — to cram as much information as I could into these pages — I’ve had to ‘cheat’ and run most of this interview as a monologue rather than a discussion! Even then I left out as many topics as I squeezed in and omitted most of the figures that substantiate their statements. (You can, however, find such evidence in their books.)
“So imagine, if you will, that you’re attending a special lecture in which the Lovinses lay out some of the key areas they’re working in today. Although frequently one takes over speaking for the other, in general, Amory — whose parable of the refrigerator starts things off — does most of the talking on the topics of energy and utilities, while Hunter dominates the discourses on water and communities. Afterwards, you’ll get to sit in on a short — but revealing — interview session.
“Before you get started though, Id like to slip in a couple of personal impressions of the pair. For one thing, they’re both astoundingly intelligent and knowledgeable. Amory, in particular, can punch a calculator faster than most writers can type … explain extremely complicated concepts in simple, humorous, financial, or (if need be) complicated language … and instantly recall a vast barrage of technical facts and numbers.
“The Lovinses are also two of the most sincerely nice people I’ve met in a long time. Actually, they’re quite a contrasting twosome. Hunter retains enough of her cowboy heritage to enjoy good dancing, wild mountain roads, and a free-for-all snowball fight … while Amory has a peaceful, almost Buddhist, calmness that he shares through great back rubs and gentle humor. Together, they’re an amazingly warm and considerate couple. It was a very special pleasure to work with both of them.
“I hope reading their words will inspire — and more important, motivate — you as much as meeting them has me.
Do you remember the pre-World War II refrigerators that had the motor on top? Those motors were close to 90% efficient. These days, refrigerator motors are more like 60% efficient. They’re also underneath, so the heat rises to where the food is. Thus, with the blessings of modern technology, refrigerators now can easily spend half their effort taking away the heat of their own motors!
Over the years, the manufacturers have also been trying to make the inside of the refrigerator bigger without making the outside bigger. (Given time, I suppose they would have had the inside bigger than the outside.) What they did, of course, was to skimp on the insulation, so outside heat comes straight in through the walls. They also designed the refrigerator so that when you open the door, the cold air falls out and the refrigerator frosts up inside. Most refrigerators therefore have electric heaters inside them which go on now and then to melt the frost. Many also have electric strip heaters around the door to keep the gaskets from sticking. Some even have electric heaters in their outer skin to keep humidity from condensing on it!
You can try if you like, but it’s hard to come up with a dumber way of using electricity. Yet if you don’t use electric water heaters or space heaters, refrigerators are probably the biggest single part of your household electric bill. Nationally, they use the equivalent of about half the output of all nuclear power plants.
Fortunately, there are smarter ways to build refrigerators. Consider how many kilowatt-hours it takes, for example, to run a typical refrigerator for one year. From 1950 to 1975 that electric demand nearly trebled to 1,800 kilowatt-hours per year. Then in 1976 California passed a law saying that you couldn’t sell a refrigerator there that used more than about 1,400. Within four years, virtually every refrigerator on the market met that standard, and the best — by Amana — did a third better. Meanwhile, the government was told by consultants that better motors, insulation, gaskets, and so on, could reduce the demand to 650 kilowatt-hours per year. Sure enough, by 1981 a typical machine on the Japanese market used only 700, and Toshiba’s best used only 550. The consultants now went back to the drawing board and concluded that by pulling out all the stops they could get it down to about 420; but a Danish engineer showed that 260 would be highly cost-effective. Upsetting all these theoretical estimates, a California engineering designer — Larry Schlussler — built a refrigerator in 1979 that used 288 kilowatt-hours per year; he is currently selling a handmade model that uses 175; he built a prototype in 1982 that used only 64; and his 1984 prototype uses 15. Furthermore, the passive refrigerator we’re building into our zero-energy house in the Colorado Rockies will use only about half a kilowatt — hour per year-to run the light that goes on when you open the door!
ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND RENEWABLES
As the parable of the refrigerator illustrates, we’re in the position of someone who can’t keep the bathtub full of hot water because the water keeps flowing out. People are still trying to sell us bigger water heaters when what we most need is a plug. And there have been some very clever plugs invented lately.
For example, the best and most cost-effective technologies presently available can double the efficiency of jet aircraft or of industrial electric motors and their drivetrains (saving enough electricity to displace every nuclear power plant in the country) … treble the efficiency of steel mills … quadruple the efficiency of household appliances and light bulbs … and quintuple the efficiency of cars. (Two years ago, Volkswagen tested an 80 MPG city/100 MPG highway Rabbit without even using all the best available — or most cost effective — technology.) And the best new buildings use about a tenth to a hundredth as much energy as the older buildings that are all around us. That means if you put up a new building requiring significant energy for space conditioning, you haven’t used the best state of the art — whether you’re in Miami or Fairbanks.
Since 1979, the United States has actually gotten more than a hundred times as much new energy from savings as from all net expansions of supply put together. That is, millions of individual actions in the marketplace — people weatherizing buildings, getting more efficient cars, plugging up steam leaks, and so on-have together provided over a hundred times as much new energy as all of the new oil and gas wells, coal mines, and power plants built in the same period, even though the latter got about six times as much capital investment and about ten or twenty times as much subsidy. This fact tells us that it’s faster to do lots of small, simple things that are accessible to everyone and that have very short construction times, than to build a few big, complicated projects that cost billions of dollars and take ten years to complete.
Having discussed efficiency improvements a little bit, let’s focus for a moment on the other new winner in the energy marketplace: appropriate renewable sources, which we call “soft technologies.” In analyzing what soft technologies can do and at what cost, we’ve assumed only the presently available technologies in active and passive solar heating, passive cooling, high-temperature solar heat for industry (which we now know how to collect on a cloudy winter day), efficiently converting farm and forestry wastes into liquid fuels to run efficient vehicles (taking great care to protect soil fertility in the process), present hydropower, small hydropower, and wind power.
Soft technologies are not cheap, but they are cheaper than not having them. They cost less, even in capital cost, than the things you’d otherwise have to buy — power plants, synfuel plants, and so on — to do the same task. They can also meet essentially all the long-term energy needs in every country studied so far, including the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, West Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Japan — countries which are variously cold, cloudy, at a high latitude, densely populated, and heavily industrialized.
You don’t have to accept on faith our calculations that soft technologies are cheaper than hard technologies: Just look at how they’re succeeding in the marketplace. Since 1979, they’ve supplied more new energy than oil, gas, coal, and uranium … and we’ve had more electric capacity ordered from small hydro, and wind power than from coal or nuclear power plants or both (without counting canceled plants). The U.S. is now getting about twice as much delivered energy from wood as from nuclear power, which had a head start of 30 years and over $65 billion in direct subsidies.
Renewables, which weren’t supposed to be able to do anything in this century, now supply about 8% of our total primary energy, and the fastest growing part. For instance, in just a few years, California utilities have been offered power from privately financed, dispersed plants — more than half of them renewable — totaling six reactors’ worth of electricity and increasing by one reactor-equivalent per quarter.
Now, some people question the reliability of renewable power sources. But remember, every power source is intermittent. Different renewables, though, tend to fail at different times. A storm, for instance, is bad for photovoltaic power generation but good for hydro and wind power. And in every place analyzed so far, you can add up two of those three sources and get a firmer source of energy than large power plants offer now.
Renewable sources also tend to stop working for shorter periods than nonrenewable ones. A major outage in a light-water nuclear reactor lasts an average of 300 hours, at zero output. And each reactor is so large — 1,000 megawatts — that you need an equally big amount of reserve for when it does go out. (You got to have another elephant to pull away the one that died in the drawing room.)
Another reason for the higher reliability of renewables is that when they cannot work, it is for fairly predictable reasons (such as cloudiness, the daily rotation of the earth, etc.). But when non renewable sources cannot work, it is for reasons that are much harder to predict … such as terrorism, reactor accidents, or strikes. We have a lot more confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow than that somebody won’t blow up the Saudi Arabian oil terminals today.
UTILITY WOES . . .
In this country, out of all the energy delivered to where it’s used, 58% is required as heat, mainly at low temperatures. Another 34% is required as liquid fuels to run vehicles. Only 8% is needed for all the special, premium uses that require electricity and that can give us our money’s worth out of it. Electricity is a high-quality, expen sive form of energy, typically equivalent in terms of heat content to buying oil at over $100 a barrel — three times what we’re paying the Arabs now. Expensive stuff. If we were to use such a costly form of energy for running lights, motors, electronics, smelters, things that really need it — that price might be worth paying. Although these premium uses make up only 8% of our delivered energy needs, we now supply 13% of our energy as electricity. Thus, five-thirteenths of the electricity we use is spilling over into uneconomic uses. It is providing low-temperature heating and cooling — needs which can be met much more cheaply with other forms of energy or (cheapest of all) with good architecture. Furthermore, if some of our power plants weren’t sitting idle, unable to sell their output, we would supply 16% of our energy in electricity-twice the amount that could be used in a cost-effective fashion.
So debating what sort of new power plant to build — should it be coal or nuclear or solar? — is like debating the best buy in brandy to burn in your car, or the best buy in Chippenciales to burn in your stove. It’s the wrong question. It’s asking where to get more of a peculiarly costly form of energy, of which we already have twice as much as we can get our money’s worth out of. The real competitors with new power plants today are familiar things like weather stripping, insulation, greenhouses, heat exchangers, window shutters, and shades and coatings.
These are measures which, done right, cost something like half a cent to one-and-a-half cents per kilowatt-hour, whereas just the running cost for a new nuclear plant is about two cents a kilowatt-hour. So if you just built one, like Diablo Canyon in California, you’ll actually save the country money by writing it off and never operating it!
Such figures put electric utilities in a bit of a fix. They’ve always believed that electricity was a natural monopoly, that they had no competition. But they do have competitors … after all, your purchases are purely voluntary. Now utilities are facing some of the stiffest competition in the entire economy — at least 80% of the electricity sold now cannot stand up against efficiency improvements. Many of them are still investing in more — and ever more expensive — new power plants. They’re liquidating their companies to build power plants that they don’t need, can’t afford, and won’t be able to pay for … playing “You Bet Your Company” that it’ll take 50 years for you to find better buys. By the time they’re through, people will be running away from this grid and buying efficiency like it’s going out of style.
This is a very serious concern, because utilities — which have net assets of over $300 billion — are the largest single private sector of the U.S. economy. They issue half of all new industrial common stock and undertake a third of all corporate financing. Utility paper is built into the very foundations of America’s financial pyramid, including insurance companies, banks, pension funds, and mutual funds. Yet this year we should see the first utility bankruptcy. And some analysts say privately that a collapse in the perceived value of utility paper could crash the entire financial system.
It’s serious for another reason, as well. Lack of access to capital is arguably the most entrenched and important institutional barrier slowing the transition to efficiency and renewables. The opportunities to use these energy sources are dispersed in hundreds of millions of buildings, vehicles, and machines. However, today’s energy financing machinery is attuned to energy companies, not to their customers. There is no mechanism to get energy investment capital quickly enough into the millions of hands that can spend it most efficiently. Our nation is falling about $25 billion per year short of the investment in least-cost energy options needed to make the U.S. energy system sustainable and secure. And each year, electric utilities are spending some $25 billion — the same sum — to build ever more giant power stations. They’re spending twice as much as we’re investing in the car, truck, and steel industries.
. . . AND SOLUTIONS
Fortunately, utilities can help finance the energy transition … by acting in their own best interests. After all, to stay solvent they have to do more than cancel plants. They also have to turn their money over. And the only business we see that utilities can do at a reasonable profit is financing or otherwise participating in energy efficiency. A good way for them to do this is to provide loans at their own cost of money that are repaid out of the borrower’s energy savings. Say I’m a utility. I loan you $4,000 for improvements that cut your power consumption by $1,000 a year. You then repay me $1,000 each year — or slightly less, so your bill goes down a little — for almost five years. At that point, you’ll have paid off the principal and interest on the loan, and your bill will go down a lot … permanently.
To put it another way, each of us has a small oil, gas, or electric “well” right in our house, one that can be tapped fairly cheaply. In fact, such investments offer some of the highest rates of return available in the entire economy.
Since we first suggested doing this, utilities with over half of the U.S. generating capacity have set up loan programs and proved that saving electricity is far cheaper than making it. The Tennessee Valley Authority has lent $300 million — at low or no interest — to insulate 400,000 living units. Utilities in at least four states are “buying back” saved electricity, just as they do generated electricity. Others will pay you rebates for purchasing more efficient appliances. Some utilities finance your energy savings without your having to pay them back.
Sometimes, a third party will finance an energy improvement for you … just for a share of the savings! In New York, Independent Water Heating Systems, Inc., purchases solar water heaters for apartment houses. The group takes the federal tax credit savings plus 80% of the electricity savings the first two years, 50% the third year, and 25% the fourth and fifth years. After that, they sell the collector to you for one dollar and walk away!
Such groups and utilities are beginning to realize that efficiency and renewables are opportunities, not threats. In the long run, then, utilities are probably going to look like the phone company, back when there was a phone company. They’ll be mediators between zillions of little, loosely coupled demand and supply elements, a distribution service connecting many dispersed users and sources.
Utilities now have a choice between cooperation and obsolescence. By choosing cooperation, they will act in their own best interests and help our nation finance the transition to a sustainable energy system. The benefits of a secure, affordable, and environmentally benign energy system-including savings of several trillion dollars before the century is over-could then be achieved before the fossil fuel bridge to it has been burned.
WATER AND AGRICULTURE
We suspect that by the end of the decade energy is going to be one of our lesser worries … not because it’ll be solved, but because there’s another, bigger, resource problem coming along: water. Over the next ten years, the water issue is going to explode. And we suspect the reaction will be much bigger than the response to the energy crisis.
“When we talk to utility people . . . we’ll
say, ‘Look, as far as we’re concerned,
[that nuclear plant] is fueled with Kitty
Litter. Let’s just look at your cash flow . “
At the Rocky Mountain Institute — our research foundation in Colorado — we’re trying to get ahead of this issue. When a crisis happens, there’s a teachable moment when people will listen to new solutions. We haven’t reached that moment yet in water, but we want to be ready when it comes.
We believe there are significant similarities between the problems of water and energy, so maybe some of the conceptual lessons we’ve learned from dealing with energy may help in facing this problem. As with energy, most policymakers are oriented to water supply, not demand … always asking how we can get more, never how to use what we have more productively. People always concentrate on giant projects: No one even knows what an appropriate scale is for water plants or projects. We also supply the highest quality water for all end uses. We flush toilets with drinking water … that’s the same as heating a house with electricity. And we’re making the same pricing mistakes with water that we have with energy, pricing new water at a small fraction of its replacement cost. So there’s no incentive to invest in water productivity.
However, there are several important dissimilarities between water and energy that will make this problem very difficult to deal with. Most fundamental, we get a free daily increment of energy from the sun, so there’s slack to play with there. That’s not true of water. What we have now is all there is. We can’t fill up the earth at a cosmic watering hole.
Several other factors — including water law, geographic distribution, and quality — complicate the problem even more, especially the fact that it’s closely interlinked with other important issues, such as agriculture. By far the greatest consumer of water in America is the farm sector. It’s accountable for 81% of all fresh water consumption. Why, just one California steer consumes enough water in its lifetime to flood a football field 12 feet deep! Our agriculture is one of the largest polluters of ground and surface water. Moreover, our current growing system is also using up soil, fuels, plant genes, farms, and farmers.
The current large-scale agriculture system is not working, so over the next ten years we’re going to get to know how to use water and grow things differently whether we like it or not. What we at RMI want to do is analyze what water is used for in the U.S. and what amount, quality, scale, and source of water can meet each need in the cheapest way. Nobody yet has done “the soft energy paths” of agriculture or water … it’s even hard to find the necessary raw data.
COMMUNITY ECONOMIC RENEWAL
Another project we’re starting work on is local economic renewal. We haven’t actually tried it, so our ideas are untested. But this is what we think for right now.
We hope to take the exact process that we’ve learned from successful community energy projects and apply that in health, food and water, housing, and finance … so we can help people learn how to work through these problems for themselves.
Perhaps the best example of what a community can do when it sets its mind to it comes from Franklin County, Massachusetts. It’s in the northwestern part of the state, an area that is very cold, cloudy, and economically depressed. It has some tenuous farms, old mill towns, a lot of people out of work. In 1975, a group of citizens sat down to look at their energy future. They first looked at their current situation and realized that each household was sending out $1,300 per year to pay for home energy. Added up, that was $23 million a year leaving Franklin County — in that case, going to Venezuela to buy oil. That figure was equal to the payroll of the ten largest employers in the county.
Then the folks took a look at the future. If they took the most optimistic forecast for energy needs and prices in the year 2000, they figured they’d be four times worse off. Each household would be sending out $5,300 per year just to pay for household energy … in 1975 dollars. To generate enough money in the county to pay for energy, the single largest employer would have to duplicate itself every couple of years until the turn of the century. This was in a region that’s losing jobs, not gaining them. It was at that point that the Chamber of Commerce and the utility people turned white and said, “The future’s not possible. We can’t get there from here.”
But residents had worked out something else: how to insulate buildings and stuff up little cracks, to use active and passive solar heating, to provide liquid fuels for vehicles via methanol from the sustained yield of some unused public woodlots, and electricity from microhydro or wind power. They could make all of the devices they would need right in the county: They had machine shops with people crying out for work. The cost of the soft energy path would be $23 million a year, the same amount that they were then paying out , But the difference is that what had been a bucket with a hole in it, a community bleeding to death, became a bucket that’s just had the hole plugged. The jobs, the economic multiplier effect, stay in Franklin County.
As we see it now, there are three principles for such economic renewal. The first is to reduce or stop the outflow of money … in every area. For instance, health care is 9% of the GNP — it’s an enormous figure — but it’s not health care, it’s illness care … and not even very caring. We think there are least-cost analogies between wellness care and the kinds of things we are doing in energy.
Second, look at your own resources and try to find what you already have that you can market to the outside. Velarde, New Mexico, had a lot of seemingly useless aspen trees until it realized that they’re superb for making Japanese chopsticks, which that town now exports abroad. Glenwood Springs, Colorado, is building a thriving commodity brokerage trade, because it has remarkably clean airwaves for satellite transmission. There are enormous opportunities everywhere, but you have to be creative, clever, and self-confident.
The third principle is to carefully scrutinize new economic activity. Will the new enterprise bring a net economic benefit or only the illusion of it? Will the new employer bring its employees with it? Cities used to engage in smokestack chasing; now it’s chip chasing. But in either case the chances are that such a “rescuer” is a myth . . . that it won’t come and it may not rescue you if it does. So instead, take all the money and advantages you were willing to offer “Zorch Chemical’.’ to lure it to come, and spread them around the existing viable or nearviable parts of your current base. That is where you can really look for exciting opportunities.
At Rocky Mountain Institute, our goal is to develop a modular, standalone manual that we can ship out across the country to help communities with self-renewal. We’ll just provide the model … the actual working out of that process will change from community to community. But we are committed to involving local people from the beginning — rather than doing a top-down government study — so that you get the wisdom of all the different segments of society. Although it is a messy, thrashing, struggling process to work through, when all is said and done the groups that have put such a plan together own it. It’s their plan; it’s what makes sense for their community.
We’ll be testing these ideas this year in the town of Carbondale, Colorado. So we should know better in a year or so what works, what fails, and what needs to be restructured. If the process works, the program will then be available for whoever wants to use it.
AND A SHORT DISCUSSION
PLOWBOY: Amory and Hunter, I’ve noticed these last few days that you most often stress economic rather than environmental or social benefits for moving toward a soft energy path. Why is that?
AMORY: You’ve got to talk to people in their language — and about their concerns — or they won’t hear you. So when we try to convince a banker to install energy-efficient lighting in the office, we’ll say, “Hey, you’re passing up a loan with an 80-point spread!”
HUNTER: Or when we talk to utility people who are stuck with a costly and controversial nuclear plant project, we’ll say, “Look, as far as we’re concerned, it’s fueled with Kitty Litter. Let’s just look at your cash flow and work together to help you get out of this mess.” That way we’re much more likely to set up a working relationship that will actually change the utility’s behavior.
PLOWBOY: Are you using economics as a cover for what you’re really after?
HUNTER: No. What we are really after is helping people meet their energy needs in a way that’s cheapest for them, and that doesn’t cause disruption somewhere else in society. And we’ve found that market economics is a pretty good mechanism for accomplishing this. That’s not to say that there is such a thing as a free market, There isn’t, there never has been, there never will be. The market we have is very imperfect. But there are real market forces, and one can operate either against them or with them.
AMORY: There are a lot of things the market economy doesn’t do — it doesn’t address the issue of fairness, for instance — but it’s doing very well in addressing the energy problem. A lot of energy policy in this country is influenced by subsidies and special interests. But if you debate on economic grounds, you can smoke that stuff out.
It’s also tactically smart to be well to the right of utilities and oil companies. And I think where we depart from some of our friends on the left
HUNTER: These days we’re getting a lot more criticism from the left than from the right.
AMORY:— is that they are not willing to ride the market as far as it will go, to use it to do the things that it does peculiarly well.
PLOWBOY: Is it just a coincidence that market forces happen to be moving in the direction that’s environmentally good as well?
AMORY: Well, it’s natural that as depletable fuels like coal and oil become scarcer, their prices rise to the point where, sooner or later, renewable sources are cheaper. What’s coincidental is that we seem to be at that point now rather than 50 years ago or 50 years from now.
HUNTER: The fact that we have renewables and efficiency coming on as fast as they are now is a result, I think, of a shock. After the Arab oil embargo, the price went up very quickly. People simply turned their minds to that problem and bored in on it.
AMORY: One thing we haven’t figured out
HUNTER: Among others!
AMORY:— is why there is such a happy coincidence that what is cheapest to do in energy also turns out to be best for national security, for the environment, and so on. Why do all these supposedly conflicting interests happen to converge? We don’t know the answer to that.
HUNTER: A lot of people in our society want energy abundance. They want not to have to worry about energy. And I share that wish to some extent. I like to be able to get in my truck and drive wherever I want and not have to worry about whether some clown in the Middle East is going to blow up my supply of oil. I would like even better, however, to know that the fuel for my vehicle is much more locally controlled.
AMORY: And isn’t going to run out.
HUNTER: And isn’t going to do damage to the earth somewhere else. Now, if it were a choice between mobility and a sort of ecological purity, I’m crotchety enough that I just might choose my mobility. But the opportunity we now have is to move toward a system of having our cake and eating it too — a system that would allow all of that mobility and provide a high standard of living but would also be protective of the earth, protective of individuals, and much more under our own control. Why deny ourselves that?
PLOWBOY: When do you abandon your economic arguments and say, “Now my values are going to come in. My moral beliefs differ from what the dollar sign says, and I’m going to stand up for them”?
HUNTER: We don’t, because we’re pluralists; we don’t want to impose our values on other people. We honor the diversity in this country, the ability of everyone to make up his or her own mind about exactly that question. So we really try to take great care not to involve our values in our analysis. We live them in our own lives, not in everyone else’s.
PLOWBOY: But as you mentioned, the free market system does not address the issue of fairness, of social equity. Do you do anything about concerns such as that?
HUNTER: We work with states, utilities, and to some extent the federal government, trying to design programs that will make poor people less poor. We just don’t feel that energy policy is a good means for creating social equity. In general, you just sort of mush up both programs. But it is an urgent social agenda of ours that individuals not have to choose between heating and eating … and that the parts of the country that are still the way the good Lord made them be left that way for the people in the future to enjoy.
PLOWBOY: In your speech the other night, Hunter mentioned something about communities beginning to work on real security. What was that all about?
AMORY: That’s a reference to another of Rocky Mountain Institute’s programs — building true security from the bottom up. We’ve worked on security issues for years, of course, trying to stop the spread of nuclear bombs and to make the energy system more resilient, but we’ve also come to reexamine what makes people feel secure. It seems to be things that touch their lives directly, like having reliable and affordable necessities, a healthful environment, a sustainable economy, a cohesive society, a legitimate system of self-government, and so on. But these things are most responsively provided at the scale of a city council or block association rather than at the scale of a congress or president. The Economic Renewal Project is therefore a way of putting into practice the concept of building real security by nonmilitary means.
HUNTER: If that works, then we may have a concept that can give individuals something they can do about ending the arms race.
PLOWBOY: Hold on a minute! You just made a jump from promoting community self-reliance to stopping the global arms race. Would you mind running that by me again?
AMORY: In the past few decades, we have fallen into the trap of supposing that security comes from ever larger piles of weapons. Yet although our country now has 30,000 more nuclear bombs than it had in 1945, we can all be devastated at any second. Whatever our military budget of $10,000-a-second is buying us, it’s not buying us real security.
HUNTER: Present policy with the Soviets doesn’t work. It’s not cost-effective. If, on the other hand, communities and regions and therefore our country felt secure, then the urgency we feel as a nation to throw our weight around and maintain manifestly unnecessary stocks of nuclear bombs might greatly diminish.
If you enjoy the elements of security — what used to be called Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness — you can retain them only by making sure that your neighbors have them, too … so you don’t worry about their coming to take away what you have and they don’t. If we reverse our whole military posture of threatening the Soviets and start offering them as much security as we can push out the door, we start making the globe safer for everyone. We should make others feel more secure, not less, whether on the scale of the village or the globe.
PLOWBOY: How do we offer this security to the Russians?
HUNTER: Look first at what is making them feel insecure. There are a number of fronts. Soviet, agriculture is about to collapse. Their system of production is not working. Help them with that. Try to give away our successes because, in a very selfish sense, that’s what will make us more secure.
This doesn’t mean that we trust and like the Soviets. I don’t trust them. I really don’t feel good about their intentions. On the other hand, I don’t feel good at all about blowing each other up because we don’t trust each other’s intentions.
PLOWBOY: Excluding the possibility of a nuclear war, what do you think is going to happen in the next few years? What does the future hold?
HUNTER: All of us in this energy business owe our careers to a single shock in 1973, but we cheerfully assume a surprise-free future.
AMORY: It’s not going to be like that at all. In 1974, I wrote a list of the 20 most likely surprises in energy policy over the next couple of decades. Near the top of the list were a major reactor accident and a revolution in Iran.
HUNTER: We’ve been looking for that list lately.
AMORY: I also remember that number 20 on that list was surprises that we haven’t thought of yet, and I’m sorry that I can’t give you any examples, but there are certainly going to be some.
PLOWBOY: OK, excluding nuclear war and the surprises you haven’t thought of yet, what would you predict?
AMORY: Well, I think that people will continue to be well ahead of their governments. That’s not a surprise. The action in energy policy and most other things, as well — will continue to be at an individual and local or state level, not at the federal level. Those officials will be trying to catch up.
HUNTER: Some technologies are moving very rapidly, too. If either very cheap photovoltaic cells or photolysis-the breaking down of water using sunlight and a catalyst-comes through, we can all convert to hydrogen and quit worrying about energy. The big utility companies will be out of business. Those are the two jokers in the energy deck.
PLOWBOY: What do you think the next predictable crisis will be?
AMORY: Probably the integrated crisis of water, agriculture, an energy…
HUNTER: I also think there’s a good chance of another reactor accident, one that will cause a public outcry to shut down a lot of operating reactors.
AMORY: Yes. I don’t know whether it will be here, in France, or somewhere else, but it’s going to happen. We’ve had some near misses.
HUNTER I also really do not understand why we have not yet seen major nuclear terrorism. I think that’s likely, probably in the next five years. The thing I’m most scared about is what they call the cancer drop, in which conventional explosives are wrapped in nuclear material and contaminate a big chunk of a city. At that point, people will be really tempted to bring in a leader who will resort to police and military “answers” … so-called answers, because of course such steps can’t do a thing to stop that kind of terrorism.
But if people can learn the skills of doing for themselves — like the Economic Renewal Project we’re talking about — before this type of crisis comes up, then there will be a much greater tendency to react in a sane and considered way.
PLOWBOY: Then you agre with René Dubos’s dictum, “Think globally, act locally”?
HUNTER: That’s what it comes down to. There are a few peopleand occasionally we’re among them-who have the opportunity to do something that really has a global effect. But the option for most people is to work locally while seeing themselves as part of a global context. That’s not “punting” on the global problems, because, as we said, the only long-term solution we see to the questions of national security and the arms race is to begin to build security from the bottom up in very mundane ways.
PLOWBOY: You seem to have great faith in individuals.
AMORY: Yes, we actually take seriously what is perhaps the most basic premise of market economics or of populism. That’s the notion of the sovereign consumer — the Jeffersonian concept that most people are pretty smart and, given the incentive and opportunity, can choose wisely for themselves. That’s opposed to the Hamiltonian tradition that most people are pretty dumb and that complex technical issues must be decided by unaccountable experts. Since the mid-70’s we’ve been running a large-scale national experiment in energy, which has proved beyond doubt, I think, that Jefferson was right.
HUNTER: A lot of people who just sit in universities and look at the magnitude of the potential problems ahead are very discouraged and pessimistic. But we have an advantage: We are out working with people in communities. Look at the incredible speed with which individuals got on with solving what looked to be a hopeless situation, just did it.
AMORY: If anybody had said a few years ago that by now there would be a million solar homes in this country, and that orders of electricity from small hydro and wind power would be outpacing those from coal and nuclear plants, we would have thought that was wildly optimistic.
The revolution has already happened.