America can eliminate its addiction to fossil fuels by 2050. What’s more, the energy revolution doesn’t have to be compelled by Congress. That’s the message delivered by Amory Lovins, the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), the non-profit, energy think tank dedicated to transforming design and spreading innovation, at ULI’s Spring Meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Keynoting a conference with a theme of “Power to Lead, Energy to Thrive,” Lovins, who is RMI’s chairman and chief scientist, made a powerful, fast-paced presentation touching on the numerous ways corporate America can earn a $5 trillion savings in net present value and boost the economy by 150 percent.
RMI’s strategic focus maps a transition from coal and natural gas to wind and solar power. Lovins calls it “reinventing fire,” and he told ULI that the revolution can be “led by C Street, not K Street.” The uprising, he said, “needs no new inventions, subsidies or acts of Congress.”
Lovins, who leads a staff of 80 at the Colorado-based RMI, said the way to solve the nation’s energy problem is to expand it. Think not just in terms of “multiple benefits from one cost,” he said. “Treat costs not as overhead to be minimized but as profit centers to be maximized.” Energy efficiency “can unlock many doors to value,” Lovins said. It can contribute not just by having a lower cost but also by enhancing the owner’s reputation and creating strong investor demand. Moreover, it can lead to better labor productivity as “employees do more and better work.”
Green goes both ways, said the physicist, who advises governments and companies alike on advanced resource efficiency. “Energy’s real efficiency is in non-efficiency benefits” like health and productivity, he said. “And your profession, more than any other, can lead the way.” To leave oil behind, builders and developers don’t necessarily have to abandon it, Lovins said. They just need to look at energy a little differently. Building owners, for example, can capture savings normally ignored simply by replacing long, thin, crooked pipes with fat, short straight ones.
By Lovin’s count, America’s 120 million buildings use $400 billion in energy annually. “If they were a country, they’d be the world’s third largest country in terms of energy consumption.”
While developers can create vibrant projects by “inventing a flameless new fire that flows from above,” the energy guru said the greatest savings can come from retrofitting old structures. “Start with buildings that are about to be renovated rather than deep retrofits, and go from there,” he advised. As what he called “a non-violent advocate of bad design,” Lovins also suggested that the design profession be paid for what it saves, rather than for what it spends.