America's Best Leaders: Amory Lovins, Energy Scientist

For this bright light in the field of alternative energy, it's all about efficiency.

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Amory Lovins

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BOULDER, COLO.—Amory Lovins is leading a group of donors through the garagelike workshop of Hybrids Plus, a Boulder-based company he admires that converts Toyota Priuses and Ford Escapes into plug-in hybrids. A lively disagreement breaks out over the future of the automobile. One man, who identifies himself as an engineer, claims that making engines more efficient could have a bigger, quicker impact on oil use than all-electric vehicles. A second man disagrees, saying electric vehicles are the most promising option for reducing oil dependency.

Standing between the two men is Lovins, listening intently and pivoting his head as if following a tennis match. "The real question," the cofounder of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute chimes in, "is, 'What's the most economic, cheapest way to do it?' "

The response is typical Lovins. For decades, he has been arguing—in journals, at conferences, to big-name CEOs and Pentagon officials, and, for that matter, to anyone who will listen—that the inefficient use of natural resources is one of the main culprits behind the country's energy problems. The best way to fix it, he believes, is to show people that they can make money by adopting energy-efficient technologies. In a characteristic argument, Lovins says that less than 10 percent of the energy in gasoline is actually used to propel a car forward. The rest gets lost somewhere in the process.

To many Americans, energy efficiency is still a somewhat hazy goal. Even the most green-conscious politicians prefer to talk about ways of harnessing new sources of energy—whether offshore oil or wind or solar—than about how to better use existing supplies. Among the media, "almost all of the consideration is to supply," not conservation, says Lovins.

Because of recent concerns about shrinking oil supplies and volatile energy prices, Lovins, 61, is attracting new praise. But his basic approach is an old one. Twenty-six years ago, he founded RMI, a nonpartisan consulting outfit that calls itself a "think and do tank"—one part idea factory, one part laboratory. Since then, Lovins and his staff, which has grown to nearly 100 people, have worked with more than 80 Fortune 500 companies, from Chevron to Texas Instruments, as well as state governments and the U.S. military. He also has written 29 books, including 2004's Winning the Oil Endgame.

"Global weirding." In person, Lovins has a dry, somewhat sarcastic sense of humor. He calls climate change "global weirding" and refers to roofs without solar panels as "obligatory stupid dark" surfaces. He speaks quickly, and his regular use of statistics in conversation attests to his training, years ago, as a physicist. His research at RMI, in fact, has yielded breakthroughs on everything from lightweight fiber composites (to improve fuel efficiency in cars and airplanes) to hybrid electric drive systems and led to four spinoff companies.

Though much of the debate over climate change and energy today is shrouded in partisan politics, Lovins prefers to think of himself as "transideological," choosing to work with people he believes have the potential to serve, along with their projects, as models for the rest of the country.

In 2006, for example, RMI partnered with Wal-Mart to boost the fuel efficiency of the retailer's truck fleet. "When Wal-Mart came to us," he says, "we had a lot of internal discussion, because they have big issues," notably the company's history of labor problems. "But we decided if we worked only with perfect companies, we wouldn't get anything done." The collaboration has proved fruitful. Wal-Mart is now working to retrofit its 6,800 trucks with designs developed by RMI that should allow its fleet to go from getting 6 miles a gallon to between 16 and 18 miles a gallon by 2015, saving about $500 million annually.

His supporters span the political spectrum. There are the usual environmentalists, of course, like ones overheard at a recent RMI conference comparing how many miles per gallon their Priuses get. But he also draws praise from business leaders and military officials concerned about profits and national security. At one talk in Denver, Lovins was joined by Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper, a liberal alternative-energy advocate, and by former CIA Director James Woolsey, who advised John McCain's presidential campaign on energy.