By Donella Meadows
–September 27, 1990–
In the September issue of Scientific American is a graph that sums up beautifully why we are on the brink of war in the Middle East and how we can back away from that brink.
It shows two curves estimating how much more efficient U.S. electricity use could be. One estimate was made by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the other by Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute. The curves start out fairly far apart, and they shoot off in totally different directions.
EPRI calculates that U.S. electricity use could be cut by 30 percent at a cost of less than four cents per kilowatt-hour saved. That’s with no loss of services — not turned-out lights but more efficient lightbulbs, not turned-down thermostats but better-insulated houses. The cost of savings beyond 30 percent shoots up past 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, EPRI says. (For purposes of comparison, I now pay 7-12 cents per kilowatt-hour depending on the time of year.)
A possible 30 percent improvement is a remarkable conclusion, but it’s nothing compared to Lovins’s. He says that for less than four cents per kilowatt-hour the U.S. could save SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT of all the electricity it uses, with no loss of services.
The difference between these two curves, and others like them, is crucial. Because John Sununu believes in EPRI-type numbers rather than Lovins ones, our administration thinks we can’t afford to combat the greenhouse effect. Because most power companies believe the EPRI curve, they would rather invest in new generating plants than in efficiency. Because few powers-that-be over the past twenty years have taken Lovins’s calculations on oil as well as electricity seriously, we are dependent on the Middle East for about one-fourth of our oil.
So which curve is right? Many people would say neither. EPRI is biased because it speaks for the electricity industry, which just doesn’t have a deep innate enthusiasm for energy-saving. Lovins is known as a wild-eyed environmentalist. The cautious, neutral analyst would say the real possibilities for energy efficiency are probably somewhere between EPRI and Lovins.
I don’t think that’s true. I know that both curves have been derived with great care, from detailed analyses, appliance by appliance, technology by technology. I think the EPRI curve represents the actual energy savings possible, given people who think like EPRI analysts, and the Lovins curve represents what is possible, given people who think like Amory Lovins. The difference in thinking has nothing to do with intelligence or knowledge. It has to do, as so many things in life do, with attitude — with whether one sees energy efficiency as an unfortunate duty or a great challenge.
To Amory Lovins energy efficiency is fun and delight. He travels the world scooping up the latest innovations with glee. He glows when he gives tours of his house/office, which he studded with energy-saving ideas when he built it several years ago — and which, he’ll tell you, he could redo better, given the technologies that have come out since then. His domestic electric bill runs about $5 a month. Electricity for his office, where 30 people work, costs more like $50 a month (the copier is a problem — he’d like to redesign the way they make copiers). He has no heating bill — and this is high in the Colorado mountains.
The ingenuity Amory brings to energy-saving can be released in just about anyone, with the right incentives. Back during the 1973 oil crisis Dartmouth College, faced with a sudden million-dollar increase in its oil bill, started a contest, with tangible rewards, to see which dormitory could save the most energy. The winning dorm even hit upon the idea of unplugging its soft-drink machine and placing beside it a tiny refrigerator that drew about one-tenth as much current. In the refrigerator they put half a dozen soft-drink cans. Anyone who wanted a drink would plug in the vending machine, drop in the money, take out the warm can, exchange it for a cold one in the refrigerator, and unplug the machine.
They’d have saved more energy by recycling the cans and even more by drinking water. The point isn’t that we should follow that example, it’s that there’s no end to our creativity when we’re fired up. This nation hasn’t come close to being fired up about finding a workable and sustainable energy system.
What might happen when we are is illustrated by a clipping sent to me from a Midwest newspaper. It’s about 81-year-old John Lorenzen of Iowa, who has never paid an electric bill and is about to stop buying gasoline and propane. He runs his farm with windmills he constructed from scavenged parts. He heats his buildings with solar collectors. Now he’s figured out how to make hydrogen fuel with electricity from the windmills, and he’s converting his truck, stove, and refrigerator to run on hydrogen.
According to EPRI it makes economic sense to cut our electricity use by 30 percent even if we don’t want to. According to Lovins, we could save 75 percent of all the energy we use, and do it economically, if we want to. And if Lorenzen is any example of the kind of ingenuity still alive and well in our nation, we could get whatever we don’t save from the sun. But we have to want to.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990