Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken

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In this landmark piece from 1976, Amory Lovins describes the two energy choices then facing the nation. There is the “hard path” and the “soft path.” The hard path resembles federal policy of the time and is essentially an extrapolation of the recent past. The hard path relies on rapid expansion of centralized high technologies to increase supplies of energy, especially in the form of electricity. The soft path combines a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy, rapid development of renewable energy sources matched in scale and in energy quality to end-use needs, and special transitional fossil-fuel technologies. This path diverges radically from incremental past practices to pursue long-term goals. Lovins argues that both paths present difficult—but very different—problems. The first path is convincingly familiar, but the economic and sociopolitical problems then facing the nation loomed large and insuperable. The second path, though it represents a shift in direction, offers many social, economic and geopolitical advantages, including virtual elimination of nuclear proliferation from the world. For Lovins, it is important to recognize that the two paths are mutually exclusive. Because commitments to the first may foreclose the second, Loins argues that we must choose one or the other—before failure to stop nuclear proliferation has foreclosed both. “