Energy expert Armory Lovins argues to Michelle Nijhuis that efficiency improves the quality of life and strengthens our national security.
You popularized the term “negawatt.” What are negawatts, and why should we care about them?
Negawatts are watts saved by more efficient use. It’s enormously cheaper—probably eight times cheaper on average—to save electricity than to make it. Negawatts often come with improved quality of service—for example, you get higher labor productivity in energy- efficient buildings, and food stays fresher longer in efficient refrigerators. Negawatts also improve our national security, because if you’re not using so much energy to do the same jobs, you’re less dependent on insecure sources and infrastructures—of which the electric grid is the least secure.
What are the greatest sources of negawatts generally found in an average American home?
The biggest uses of energy inside a house are typically heating, cooling, refrigeration, hot water, and lighting. Rocky Mountain Institute has now made houses that are comfortable with no heating or cooling equipment—no furnace, no air conditioner—and yet cost the same or less to build. My refrigerator uses 8 percent the electricity used by a typical refrigerator its age, so every year it saves enough coal at the power plant to fill up the inside of the refrigerator. We now know how to make it roughly three or four times more efficient still—and it would probably cost even less to build if we did that.
If these energy savings are so affordable, why have they been ignored for so long?
Most people have assumed that they’re expensive, or they simply haven’t had the knowledge and skills readily available to get and install them. The skills to weather-strip and insulate your house are, in a way, very ordinary, but if you really want to do it right, you’ll find a house doctor who has special equipment to diagnose your house’s chills and fevers. But a lot of what we need to do is actually very simple. My mother-in- law, an 87-year-old lady in Hermiston, Oregon, scrapped her 1950s vintage freezer that was using some 3,000 kilowatt-hours a year and replaced it with one that uses 450-odd. So there’s a lot of old stuff sitting around that’s worth more dead than alive. We should take these things out back and shoot them.
Any updates on how Red, White, and Black, the main characters in the story, are doing in South Korea?
I hope to never lose touch with these three. They are all so brave and kind, like most of North Korean defectors I met both in China and South Korea. White continues to recover from cancer surgery, but is still not well enough to move into her own apartment. Black left his construction job and is now working at a historical site in Seoul. He says he wants to train as an interior designer. Red had some bad luck with a boyfriend, a fellow defector, who beat her up, and afterward she moved into Durihana housing with White. Meanwhile, Pastor Chun continues to spirit North Koreans out of China.
Part of your strategy for ending U.S. dependence on oil by the 2040s calls for us to double the amount of work we get out of each barrel—producing a lot of what you call negabarrels. Where would they come from?
Mostly from cars, trucks, and planes, because transportation is 70 percent of U.S. oil use. The other 30 percent would come from industries and buildings. We can achieve most of these savings with existing technology. For example, if you start off with a good hybrid, like a Prius, and drive it properly, you’ll roughly double your fuel efficiency. If you then make it out of very light, strong materials and design it to be more slippery as it moves through the air and along the road, you’ll double your efficiency again. If you run it on sustainably grown 85 percent ethanol—say from switchgrass—then you’ll save three-quarters of the remaining oil. If you then make it a plug-in hybrid—which will be on the road in a year or two—then you’ll save at least half of what’s left, so that you’re using 3 percent of the fuel you started with.
Do you see a role for clean-coal technology in our energy future?
Clean coal is a marketing mantra, not a reality. In principle, we can figure out ways to take the carbon out of the smokestack and put it back in the ground where it doesn’t mess up the climate. However, the technology isn’t proven, and it isn’t cheap—of the available ways to get the electrical services we need, it’s about the fifth best buy. So I doubt we will need it.
I understand you don’t particularly like being called an environmentalist. Why?
Environmentalism isn’t really what we do at Rocky Mountain Institute. What we do has environmental benefits, but it also has other kinds of benefits, like security and prosperity. So it’s a mis-description of our motives and actions.
You're often described as an energy optimist.
I distinguish applied hope from theoretical hope. Applied hope comes from taking specific actions and making specific choices that create a world worth being hopeful about.
Interview by Michelle Nijhuis