By Donella Meadows
–June 2, 1988–
Amory Lovins shuttles around the world carrying a small suitcase that contains, he says, the equivalent of 200 large power plants plus all the oil that runs through the trans-Alaska pipeline.
What it really contains is energy-saving lightbulbs, motors, showerheads, and other devices. They help Amory get across the most basic points about energy, namely:
1). No one WANTS energy. No one is pining to have a kilowatt-hour of electricity or a barrel of oil for its own sake. What people want are energy SERVICES: hot showers, cold beer, the ability to travel at reasonable speed and in relative comfort.
2). Energy is not a benefit, but a COST of getting energy services. The less energy we have to spend to heat the shower or cool the beer, the better off we are.
These are simple enough points, but the policy of nearly every country ignores them. Nations pride themselves on energy production, not energy efficiency. They search the wilderness for oil, pump it from the bowels of the earth, fight wars over it, invest billions in electricity plants. Oil companies and electric utilities think of themselves as selling energy, rather than selling energy services at the lowest possible cost.
Amory and his colleagues at Rocky Mountain Institute are trying to get across the idea that more efficiency can produce the same results as more energy, for less money, with less environmental damage. If we can turn a motor, light a bulb, or cool a room with fewer watts or barrels, that’s just as good as discovering new barrels — better, actually, because a discovered barrel can be burned only once, while an insulated house or more efficient car goes on saving barrels over its whole lifetime.
As Amory puts it: “In the lower 49 states are two supergiant oilfields, each bigger than the largest in Saudi Arabia; each able to produce sustainably (not just to extract once) almost 5 million barrels per day for less than seven dollars a barrel; each capable of ELIMINATING U.S. oil imports before a new synfuel plant or power plant or frontier oilfield could produce any energy whatever, and at about a tenth of its cost. They are the ‘accelerated-scrappage-of-gas-guzzlers oilfield’ under Detroit and the ‘weatherization oilfield’ in the nation’s attics.”
Amory carries conversion factors in his head and a calculator in his pocket and writes in dense sentences, amply footnoted. Those sentences contain some amazing figures. For example: “Superefficient lights, motors, appliances, and building components can together, if fully used in existing U.S. buildings and industries, SAVE ABOUT THREE-FOURTHS OF ALL ELECTRICITY NOW USED, at an average cost far below that of operating a typical coal-fired or nuclear power plant, even if building it costs nothing.”
Let that one sink in slowly. We could write off 75% of our existing power plants, invest in efficiency technologies, still have our energy services, and save money. And produce no more nuclear wastes, much less acid rain, much less air pollution.
Maybe it’s the enormity of that claim that makes it so hard to grasp. It’s not easy to admit that we are constructing an energy system that violates a basic law of the free market — which is that you invest in the cheapest option with the highest payback first.
Energy efficiency is the cheapest option. Some smart investors are recognizing that. Despite national policies that subsidize supply rather than efficiency, the U. S. now uses 38 percent less oil to produce a dollar of GNP than it did in 1973. The 1973-86 improvement in the car fleet mileage (from 13.3 to 18.3 miles per gallon) saved in 1986 more than twice as much oil as we imported from the Persian Gulf that year. From 1979-86 the U.S. got fifteen times as much new energy from savings as from increases in nuclear plants and fossil fuels.
And we have just begun to tap the possibilities for efficiency, says Amory, reaching into his suitcase. He pulls out a lightbulb, screws it into a socket, and as it lights up he says, “this bulb gives as much light as those 75-watt floods up there in the ceiling, but it uses only 8.5 watts and lasts four times as long.”
He holds up a sample of glass coated with heat mirror — it is as transparent as any window, but it retains heat as well as an insulated wall. He has water-saving showerheads, and electronic ballasts that save 50 to 90 percent of the power needed for fluorescent bulbs, and a device that reduces friction loss in motor gearboxes. Not in the suitcase, but in Amory’s mental bag of energy-saving technologies, is a Toyota prototype car that gets 98 miles per gallon, and a Renault Vesta four-passenger car that road tests at 121 mpg.
The government is slow to see that what Amory calls a “negawatt” or a “negabarrel” is as good as a watt or barrel. But companies and localities with eyes on the bottom line are catching on. Southern California Edison has given away over 500,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs to its customers and saves more from reduced generation than it paid for the bulbs. The Central Maine Power Company offers factories cash grants to adopt more efficient equipment. The city of Austin, Texas, has, with Amory’s help, figured out how to save 7 to 9 times its share of the South Texas Nuclear Project, pay its debt for that Project, and lower electric rates.
Still, efficiency is a hard idea for the production-minded to grasp. A managing director of a large oil company, struggling with the upside-down thought of selling negabarrels, once remarked to Amory that once you sell a negabarrel, you can’t sell it again. Amory replied that once you sell a barrel of oil, you can’t sell IT again either. The question should be, he said, which sale will produce the greatest energy service at the lowest cost and with the least regret?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988