35 Years of Bold Steps in the Clean Energy Race: Part 2

An Interview with Amory Lovins and Jules Kortenhorst

As RMI celebrates our 35th anniversary as a nonprofit organization, we are in a very exciting, but also very critical, time in our race to a clean energy future. We recently held a web discussion, 35 Bold Ideas to Win the Clean Energy Race, with RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst and Cofounder and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins.

This second blog post from the web discussion, which was moderated by RMI’s Kelly Vaughn, focuses on what individuals can do to help bring us to a clean energy future and some of RMI’s work that Lovins and Kortenhorst are most excited about both domestically and internationally. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Vaughn: As many of us listen to the news and follow what RMI and other innovative companies are doing, there are many reasons to be positive. But we’re also seeing some of the not-so-great news that makes us want to take action on our own. What would you say individuals can do to really help drive toward a clean energy future?

Kortenhorst: I would say that, as always at RMI, we start with energy efficiency. Just walk through your house and feel the windows and check whether there is cold air or, on a warm day, hot air coming in through the sides of the window. And if so, it is really the simplest step to put some insulating tape in it or if you can afford it, replace your windows. Of course the next step is to think about the vehicle that you drive. Is it an efficient one, and are you considering a plug-in hybrid or even electric vehicle? It is remarkable how quickly these are becoming cost-effective and how the range is expanding so that you can even start to think about travelling from Boulder, which is the office where I work from, to Basalt, over the mountains, in an electric vehicle. Another obvious question is, is it the right moment for you to start thinking about solar panels on your roof?

There is another option that I will mention and it’s one that is often forgotten, but that is to think about the carbon footprint associated with your diet. I love a good piece of meat. I can’t deny it. But the reality is that if you eat a more flexible diet that has more vegetables and maybe a little bit less red meat, you significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with your food. Finally, when people ask me what can I do, I can’t help but say you can go to our website and you can find the page where you can make a contribution.

Lovins: And of course vote your values. And your values are quite diverse. There are many kinds of people listening to this. There’re even more in the country. But remember that there are many kinds of outcomes from the energy transition that many kinds of people would like for different reasons. You can get a clean, prosperous, secure future that I think we all want for our kids. You could get better national security, greater competitiveness, strong communities and families, greater community, and individual choice. And you don’t have to agree about which of those values is most important. You don’t have to agree about climate science or any other particular outcome. If you like one or more of the many outcomes that the energy transition yields, you could support it. And therefore we focus on outcomes—not just motives—because then everybody can play. And we all want the outcomes, though maybe for different reasons. That’s fine. We have a diverse society. Diversity is good.

How do you organize people to do different things? First you talk to one person, then you talk to two people, and you address their concerns in their language. You talk to them where they’re at, not where you’re at.

Kortenhorst: Amory, tell us a little bit about some of the work going on at RMI right now that you feel is most exciting.

Lovins: Where to start? Well, I’m just back from Delhi, where we helped the prime minister’s office and the government’s strategic planning agency, NITI Aayog, run a design charrette with very powerful national-government and private-sector representation to transform India’s mobility. And this is taking off like a rocket. A lot of the stuff we are recommending—and a report—is already happening. They’re moving so fast. And this was actually suggested to me a year ago by the energy minister, the same guy whose auction designs made renewables cheaper than coal. So you have to take this guy very seriously. And he said, can you help me come up with a way to make every two-, three-, and four-wheeled personal vehicle in India electric by 2030? And he meant old and new, by the way. The level of ambition is just astonishing, and we’re helping that happen, bringing in best practice from all over.

Then, I mentioned the energy–IT mash-up. We’ll be making an exciting announcement rather soon about ways to harness a wonderful new technology that tells you at any given moment which power plant is just about to turn on if you use more electricity. So if you have a choice in letting your devices turn on—and quite often you do without inconvenience—you could do it in a way that will minimize your carbon emissions and indeed your costs. And this is all done by smart chips. You don’t need to actually do anything. But having that information, which comes right off the websites of the grid operators streamed to our energy-using devices, we can give very large benefits to society, and we’re engaged in the way to make that happen.

Similarly, we’re excited about a new technology you may have heard of called blockchain, which enables secure and just about cost-free financial transactions, even at a very small scale. If you could do things like attach labels to your electricity (which we’ve never had before) so you’d know where it’s coming from as it’s being made, you could make smarter choices about what you’re using and when. And if you want to do microtransactions or, actually, let your devices do microtransactions, like selling certain capabilities of your electric car when it’s parked to swap power and services with the grid, you could do that. The car could do it transparently, in the background, securely, at practically no transaction cost. And that adds enough value to the grid to pay half the total cost of your electric car.

The same is true of our hallmark work in buildings, and of other ways where we can bring modernization to developing economies. Jules, we’re working with new business models there, too.

Kortenhorst: Very exciting work is going on in our buildings sector. We learned a lot of lessons from our own building here in Basalt, which is a net-zero energy building. In fact, it’s built in the Roaring Fork Valley, where Aspen is located, where it is bloody cold in the winter and nice and warm in the summer, but we just don’t have an air conditioning system. We don’t have a heating system. The point being that we have learned the lessons here and we’re now rolling out this model, this technology, to other parts of the country.

And we’re involved in building projects in the Midwest, building projects in California where we’re demonstrating how net-zero buildings or even whole zero-energy districts can transform the way we think about energy in the built environment. Excitingly, that is also happening in China. In fact, in China, a lot of our work is now centered around implementing the vision that was embedded in Reinventing Fire: China, the study that we published together with the Chinese government about a year ago. And the cornerstone for implementation that the Chinese government has identified is cities. They believe that cities are the scaling mechanism, just as we talked about earlier here in the U.S. So we’re supporting the Alliance of Pioneer Peaking Cities, cities that are mandated to peak their carbon emissions early, helping them put in place plans that actually significantly reduce their emissions.

And the third portfolio activity that I want to mention—because it is so exciting—is the work that we do in developing economies. One of the exciting parts of the agreement reached in Paris a year and a half ago is that 195 countries committed. Not just the rich developed countries, but countries including the poorest, like Rwanda and Sierra Leone, the countries at the bottom of the economic pyramid, committed to reduce their emissions, limit their emissions growth, or switch to a renewable energy system. So we are working in Rwanda. We’re working in Sierra Leone. We’re working in Uganda. But we’re also working with small island nations in the Caribbean and beyond to help them plan the transition to a much more cost-effective and also sustainable energy system. And because of the dramatic fall in the cost of, particularly, solar for those countries, we are seeing those solutions are not just sustainable, but also economically advantageous for these countries. So that’s very exciting.

Vaughn: One trend that we’re seeing is that these developing economies are trying to provide increased energy access and electricity for their populations with renewable, more localized minigrids and such. Can you speak a little bit about how RMI is expanding its horizons through some of our growing international portfolios?

Kortenhorst: The work in the countryside in Africa is a really important illustration. Of course we also look at the centralized energy system in some of these countries. But there is increasingly a recognition that, particularly in rural Africa, the right way to provide access to energy is not through the illusion of an electricity grid being extended at some point (which would be very unaffordable), but to put in place a minigrid or a home system that provides electricity in a very cost-effective way.

Lovins: And of course the key to that is efficiency. Berkeley Lab has demonstrated, for example, that with this much solar panel [gestures], you can run a 26-inch color television, a very efficient one, a bunch of lights to light up your whole house, a clock radio, a mobile phone charger, and a fan. That’s a pretty good start at a decent life. And it’s less than half the cost of doing the same thing inefficiently with a lot more solar cells. So again, less capital spreading more benefit to more people a lot faster. And it’s not only about electricity. I was just on the phone the other day with the research director for the alliance that does clean cookstoves all over the world, where one and half billion people or so are cooking on wood and dung. Billions of people per year are dying of resulting lung disease from indoor air pollution and losing their eyesight from smoke and so on. Well, they do terrific work on stoves. I added ten things to work toward on their agenda about developing more efficient pots, which then integrate with the stove. So now we’re figuring out how to get that into their agenda worldwide.

This is the second in our series exploring the important issues discussed in the webinar. Part 1 is available here. Stay tuned for the next post coming soon or download the full transcript of the discussion.