By David Edward Clark and Erica M. Lee
We talked to Amory Lovins last night before his Convocation Lecture. In his own words, “In ’76, I published a Foreign Affairs paper that redefined the energy problem, and I’ve been real busy ever since.”
F+L: Okay, we hope you like puns for this one. We want you to think about when you first got turned on to energy. When and where did the bulb go on, who or what flipped the switch and how did you initially go about spreading the light?
Amory: Oh dear.
Let’s see. In the late ‘60s, I was reading books by people like John Holdren, who is now the President of the Science Department, about the connections between energy resources and environment development and security. It was clear that there were serious problems in the world that I wasn’t helping to solve. There was a black activist at the time, Stokely Carmichael, who said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” That started to get to me.
Meanwhile, I was realizing as we got to the early ‘70s that the—and my first professional paper on climate change was actually in ’68–that the academic work I was doing, although very interesting, was not nearly as important as these bigger problems, because if we didn’t solve those, then the academic pursuits would be purely academic. I wanted to do a doctorate in energy. This was two years before the Arab oil embargo in ’73. I was at Oxford at the time–I was a Don, which is kind of like a faculty member. Oxford said, “Well, energy, what’s that? That’s not an academic subject, is it? We haven’t a chair in it. Pick a real subject.”
Meanwhile, through a series of coincidences having to do with mountain photography, I had become involved with David Brower, who was the greatest conservationist of the twentieth century, and ended up doing in ’70, ‘71, an exhibit format book–one of the big Sierra Club books, Friends of the Earth books and so on–for him on the mountains of North Wales. It was a case study of the British national park policy; we were having a huge fight with the world’s biggest mining company, which wanted to mine and dredge in my favorite national park.
Anyway, I decided to resign my fellowship, move to London, and work on energy there to work for Davis, his British rep. He was a big mentor and influence, but I had many fine teachers. Gradually, it became as clear to everyone else as it was to me that energy is like a master key to all those locks: resources, environment, development, security, economy, either by solving those problems directly or by teaching us how to think about other issues like water. It’s been very fruitful. In ‘76, I published a Foreign Affairs paper that redefined the energy problem, and I’ve been real busy ever since.
F+L: You’ve worked with hundreds of business and political leaders on their energy policies. Tell us some of your favorite stories from those interactions.
Amory: Well, I’ll tell you a shorter one and a longer one. They both happen to be government, which is unusual because I work mostly with the private sector, but many of those stories are more proprietary.
The short one is about Energy Secretary Steve Chu. He’s a Nobel physicist. He had me write a white paper on energy efficiency four years ago. Last year, when he was still running Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, he was to approve the routine refresh of their supercomputer center. He read the proposal and said, “Wait a minute. This is going to use more electricity than the rest of the lab put together. I’m not going to approve that. Bring me back a design ten times more efficient and I’ll consider it.” And he called me in to tell them how to do it. This is a guy not afraid of the sound of breaking glass. In fact, I think he runs toward it.
The second story is a little longer and is about the beginning of my naval lessons and the difference between leadership and management. In ’95, I was briefing a group of admirals and marine generals about megawatts and hypercars, how the resource efficiency revolution would transform the Navy. Where I was headed with that is we won’t need to fight over the oil, because we won’t need the oil.
I did the first ten minutes on the brief on buildings, because that’s a very intuitive way to explain how to make very large energy savings cheaper than small ones, and as I was switching from buildings to vehicles, the chairman of the meeting stopped me–Admiral Joe Lopez, who in the end, was one of the two people in history of U.S. Navy to go from enlisted seaman all the way to four-star admiral. At the time, he was the most powerful three-star in the building. He owned the Navy’s budgets, programs, planning, personnel, and facilities, and the Navy is a hundred billion dollar a year operation. So he stopped me and turned to his exec[utive] and said, “This is really interesting, what he’s saying about buildings. Find out who are all the architect and engineering firms that never told us any of this and make sure they never work for us again.” Then he turns to me and says, “I suppose you know who’s good at this integrative design.”
“Well, sir, we think we know most of them.”
“Do you think you could get a suitable group of them here in the next two weeks, because then we’d put them around a big table with our best designers. Together, we’ll redesign a big building we just designed, so we’ll have something to compare it with. Then we’ll build it your way and measure it, and if it does what you say, we have $6 billion worth of construction we’ll do that way next year, and seven billion the year after that, and we want you to indoctrinate our top 350 designers.”
So we did, and they moved out smartly and courageously and did some very good work. After a year, the Admiral called me back, and said, “Okay, we’ve got 8 buildings measured now. They do what you said they would. Write me a report card. I want to know what to improve next.”
I tell this story to our private sector CEOs in the hopes that they’ll get that good. Some of them are—not very many yet. Are those good stories?
F+L: Those are very good stories, thank you very much.