Amory Lovins Named A World’s Best Leader By U.S. News

Amory Lovins
Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins is one of my true heros, and I’m thrilled to hear that U.S New has named him one of World’s Best Leaders in their report this week. Lovins has inspired multitudes (and this blog) with his vision of “getting off oil at a profit” and “drilling for negabarrels under Detroit.” The Rocky Mountain Institute, a “think and do” tank that he founded 26 years ago, takes this vision and makes it happen for Fortune 1000 companies, the military, and governments around the world (including Portola Valley, just up the street from me, where he spoke a few weeks ago).

Lovins argues that, contrary to the common belief, efficiency is much cheaper than energy use. Especially when pursued with a technique he calls “integrative design,’ doing efficiency right results in lower energy use, lower costs in the first place, and better productivity. The last point is critical – efficiency improves not only the bottom line by reducing costs, it also improves the top line by increasing productivity and profits.

So why aren’t we pursuing energy efficency faster, if it has so many benefits? Many companies are doing so, getting benefits that go directly to their bottom line and give them a competitive advantage, like Dupont. And Intel. And Wal-Mart.

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.

These companies, and many more, are enjoying an “unfair advantage” due to their pursuit of efficiency. But for many companies, there are mixed up incentives, such as between commercial landlords and their tenants. The landlord has to pay for the efficiency, but the tenant reaps the benefits – their interests are not aligned, and so “business is usual.” In his books and talks, Lovins provides techniques, guidelines, and policy suggestions to help align these incentives.

For more on Lovins, I can recommend his books, Winning The Oil Endgame and Climate: Making Sense and Making Money (both available free for download) and Natural Capitalism, written with Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken.

You can hear Lovins in numerous talks and interviews available as podcasts, including this outstanding series of five talks at Stanford University in 2007. Download those to your iPod or mp3 player and prepare to be amazed by the possibilities.

Congratulations Amory!

Watch Out For Unintended Consequences

Mojave Desert scene in Joshua Tree National Park.
Image via Wikipedia

In their editorial Green Energy vs. Actual “Green” Energy Basin and Range Watch point out that there are lots of opportunities for making a big mess of the environment while trying to save it. The focus of this site is the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts in Nevada and California, the targets of many new solar projects. “There are over one million acres of public land in the six states that are being considered for sacrifice.”

Most of these projects require a lot of water, and all require “clear cutting” the desert to prevent weeds and pests.

How ironic that this so called “green revolution” has taken the irresponsible direction of so much environmental destruction. Why not just use the countless rooftops and vacant space of the millions of developed urban acres in the southwest? Could it be that urban environmental planning is considered too costly? We are baffled by this because it defeats the purpose of green.

As we make the changes to our economy and our energy infrastructure that we have to make, we have to take care of our existing resources, such as the great deserts. For no other reason than we don’t really know everything about them. For example, it’s been learned recently that:

Desert plants and soils store carbon better than most northern forests. Desert plants are masters of storing carbon. CAM (“crassulacean acid metabolism”) plants are plants that use certain special compounds to gather carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis.

Don’t want to lose that while trying to eliminate carbon from our energy system, do we? We have a lot of carbon already in the atmosphere that needs sucking up. What else is this desert flora and fauna doing for Earth that we haven’t learned yet? Do we want to take the chance of upsetting yet more of the balance? We need to take a lot of care as we move forward with whatever large-scale energy projects we undertake.

I recommend this article, and I’d be interested to hear your thinking about how to avoid bad consequences while achieving energy independence.

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Economic Stimulus Via Renewable Energy Transmission Grid

Let’s hope Obama focuses the stimulus package on things we know we need to do anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind energy and solar energy projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative.

Arizona sunset
Arizona sunset

Al Gore and I are in agreement that Obama can kill two birds with one stone by structuring his economic stimulus plan around improving the U.S.’s energy posture – which everyone agrees we need to do, both to achieve energy independence and to mitigate climate change. In his op-ed in today’s New York Times he said:

Here’s what we can do — now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

So, following up on my post from Friday, let’s focus the stimulus package on things we know need doing anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind and solar projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative: Solicit the top five or ten proposals for new grid projects (a lot of organizations have already put these together), have a six month vetting process, and for the ones that pass the vetting process, provide substantial incentives for investing in those projects, or guarantee the first $100 million of financing for each.

It’s important that the incentives are given to worthy projects, hence the vetting process, but time is clearly of the essence in getting these projects started, hence the six month window. Who does the vetting? Could be a “blue ribbon panel” (assembled very swiftly), or could be an existing industry group that volunteers (again, in response to an incentive of some kind if necessary).

The idea here is that new grid is likely to be cost-effective and pay for itself (that is, investors will get their money back) but in the current financial market and given the curent set of regulations covering conventional energy it’s difficult to actually raise that money. So the Feds can step in and help make sure that these projects, that are desirable for the economy and the nation in the long-term, are able to get off the ground in the short term. You want to avoid the Feds from “choosing the winners” – that will still be done by the market. But you also need to give the market a nudge along the lines of “we’ll give you some incentives to invest in this rather than in a non-productive financial instrument or in conventional energy.”

There are lots of legitimate fears out there about economic stimulus programs – they’re expensive, they’ll have to be paid back eventually, and they solve the wrong problems. So what does Obama and his brain trust need to make sure we avoid?

  • Assuming they can “choose the winners”
  • Funding something that only benefits the already wealthy and doesn’t create jobs (Paulson bailout, anyone?) or improve the country and its opportunities structurally
  • A set of incentives that are too localized

Al’s and my proposals, I think, address all of these concerns:

  • My vetting process allows the market to choose the winners
  • The project will be of benefit to all of us – we need a new grid, and it will enable new kinds of business opportunities for both large and small entrepreneurs. And the projects demand a huge range of skills, from the electrical engineers who design the grid, to the mechanical engineers and technicians who design the transmission lines, to the blue collar workers who manufacture the equipment and build the grid itself
  • The nature of the transmission grid, and in particular the types of problems this grid needs to solve, are inherently non-local – the electricity has to get from rural areas like Arizona and Wyoming to urban centers like San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago

I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea, and also your ideas for the initiatives Obama could pursue to address the financial crisis and the energy independence crisis at the same time.

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Obama’s Green Opportunity

US Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Ham...
Image via Wikipedia

On Wednesday, the Freakonomics blog asked:

If you had a seat at one of the tables where Obama will be meeting over the next days and weeks, what would be some of your suggestions for how he should shape his administration, address the economic mess, consider the energy future, engage the global community, and so on and so forth?

My suggestions for the president-elect:

  1. Energy independence is the biggest lever you have – it generates jobs (including lots in the red states for solar and wind farms and transmission lines as well as high tech jobs in the blue states), technological leadership, economic growth due to new global industries that should be based here in the States, a “sending a man to the moon” type of national goal, and the potential to change the political calculus with the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela. Yes, we want a market-based approach, but you have a great opportunity to accelerate the revolution through good policies and emphatic “nudges.”
  2. Quick action to start rebuilding relationships with the rest of the world, especially the parts that are not already our close friends – we really need friends everywhere, not just in Europe. Many options here, from driving worldwide action on climate change to a dignified drawdown in Iraq to, yes, drawing Iran, Cuba and some of our other “enemies” into the world community to reduce their threat to us.

At this critical juncture for the U.S. and the world, and with the world-changing potential of a new administration, energy and sustainability are the common thread leading to a desirable outcome.

In the comments, please let me know your thoughts on Obama’s next steps.

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DoE Solar Energy Report On Market Penetration Outlook for Solar PV

A laundromat in California with solar collecto...
A laundromat in California with rooftop solar collectors (Image via Wikipedia)

As we contemplate the future of energy, and the combination of utility-level and distributed energy, and of different types – solar PV, solar thermal (heat your own hot water for showers), wind, etc., one question I have asked myself is how much energy can realistically be produced by the solar collectors on the roofs of our houses and office buildings in the U.S.?

It turns out the United States government has done some research on this! There’s a very interesting set of Department Of Energy reports, including one (PDF) on the market opportunities for grid-tied distributed solar PV. It figures out, state by state, how much roof surface is available, how attractive the incentives and infrastructure are (e.g., is there net metering?) and uses some simple algorithms to come up with an expected market penetration for solar PV on commercial and residential roofs. The resulting amount of electricity generated in this distributed fashion is amazingly high. Their best case scenario has installed MWs of rooftop solar PVs rising from about 2,000 in 2008 to almost 25,000 in 2015, more than a factor of ten increase over seven years.

Influence of system pricing, net metering policy, federal tax credits, and  interconnection policy on cumulative installations
Influence of system pricing, net metering policy, federal tax credits, and interconnection policy on cumulative installations

The report uses conservative numbers for solar PV cost improvements – breakthoughs and innovations like the ones mentioned in Technology Review every week (like this one), will make the market penetration even faster (and higher) as they come to market.

I was pleased to see that our government has done this kind of research. Think what could be done if funding for renewable energy research and development was an order of magnitude higher!

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Running Gore’s Numbers: An Edifying, If Simplistic, Analysis

Photo: Bill Gantz
Photo: Bill Gantz (Creative Commons License: Some Rights Reserved)

In his galvanizing speech a few weeks ago Academy Award and Nobel Prize-winner Al Gore exhorted the United States to “produce all electricity from “carbon-free sources” by 2018.” This is a pretty abstract goal, in those terms – Gore (appropriately) didn’t go into great detail about how this should be done or even what it means in specific practical steps. Depending on your point of view and background knowledge about energy, the goal may seem easy or incredibly difficult, or even impossible, especially without further analysis.

So I thought it would be interesting to run some numbers on the goal. The idea is not to define how it should be done, but to look at some very simple scenarios for how it could be done to get a sense of the scale involved. The calculation is based on the Topaz Solar Farm project, which California’s PG&E utility just contracted for – a 550 megawatt solar generating station.

My initial calculations makes some gigantic simplifying assumptions, so it’s not “correct” – but it should be the right order of magnitude. For details of the calculation, see the analysis below. The conclusion is as follows:

As a very rough estimate, we would need about 800 Topaz-sized plants, total cost about $1 trillion, to meet the U.S. electricity demand. And it would require about 8,000 square miles of sunny land.

The Key Parameter

Gore’s goal is equivalent to saying “We need to be able to generate on the order of 400 GW of electricity from carbon free sources.”

A few other useful or interesting numbers:

  • 550 megawatts: Generating capacity of the Topaz Solar Farm, one of two new solar electric plants PG&E is building in the California desert, announced a few weeks ago
  • 9.5 square miles: Size of the Topaz Solar Farm
  • $1 billion: Cost of the Topaz Solar Farm
  • 1 gigawatt: Generating capacity for a “large” coal-fired generating plant
  • 50 GW: California’s typical peak energy demand
  • 24%: portion of PG&E’s currently contracted generating capacity that is renewable

Assumptions

For the purposes of this analysis, I’m making a few simplifying assumptions. These make the analysis “invalid” from a technical sense, but allow us to quickly see the big picture:

  • Electricity demand will stay constant: This may or may not happen – in California energy intensity (the energy used per person) is going down, and this summer absolute energy use went down. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute believes we can cut energy intensity by 50% via efficiency, which would definitely cut energy use. On the other hand, most scenarios dealing with energy use assume it will continue to grow.
  • Disregard base load issues: The sun don’t shine at night, but people still use electricity then. This is called “base load.” You often hear that “solar can’t provide base load,” which may or may not be true in the future, depending on storage technologies that might be developed. In any case, I’m not considering it in this analysis – I’m assuming “a megawatt is a megawatt.”
  • Disregard transmission issues: We’ll assume that if the energy is generated somewhere in the U.S., it can be used anywhere else it’s needed.
  • Disregard technology improvements – this calculation is based on the technology planned for the Topaz Solar Farm

First cut

We now have enough data to make the most simplistic conceivable analysis. How many Topaz Solar Farm equivalents (TSFs) would we need to supply total U.S. energy demand (given the assumptions above)?

Total demand = 400 GW

TSF = 550 MW

Demand/capacity = 400 GW/550 MW = 800 (number of plants needed)

Cost = 800 * $1 billion = $1 trillion (approximately)

Conclusion: In our simplified energy world, we’d need about 800 Topaz-sized plants, total cost about $1 trillion, to meet the U.S. electricity demand. And it would require about 8,000 square miles of sunny land.

Now, there are many ways that this analysis is “wrong” – since my assumptions simplify the world quite a bit. So it could easy be off by a factor of 50% or more. But, because the assumptions also tend to cancel each other out, it’s not off by a factor of five, say. For example, I’m not considering base load (which solar PV today can’t provide effectively), but on the other hand, solar PV is the most expensive energy source. We will probably need more than 800 plants, but a lot of them will be cheaper, per megawatt, than the Topaz Solar Farm.

In future posts I will expand this model to make it less simplistic and more realistic, and to take into account technology improvements, base load requirements, the ability of energy efficiency to change the demand line, and lots of other details that are just dropped on the floor for this analysis.

I’m very interested to hear your comments on this analysis. In particular, I hope for some constructive guidance on the next steps for making it more realistic. I want a simple model that’s easy for the layperson to understand, but which doesn’t over-simplify too much (as this model does). I’d consider this a “zero-order” approximation – the next one should be a “first-order” approximation.

Other reading

  • The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog posted the text of Gore’s speech and allowed commenters to annotate it – interesting reading if you have a few hours to get through all the comments!
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Some Experts Say “Moore’s Law Does Not Apply To Solar PV” – Kurzweil (and Page) Disagree

Exponential growth of computing. 20th to 21st ...Image via Wikipedia

In his call to action two weeks ago, Al Gore compared the future development of solar electricity sources to the development of the semiconductor industry. His implication was that Moore’s Law, which reliably predicted that the price/performance of semiconductors doubled every 18 months, would also apply to photovoltaics.

ComputerWorld, in an article two weeks ago, assesses this comparison as flawed. (As did Harry Gray of Cal Tech, as I reported earlier today.)

“But does Moore’s Law also apply to the solar energy industry? The short answer is no. As with microprocessor technology, the price and performance of photovoltaic solar electric cell is improving. And Gore can clearly point to price drops of solar cells to make his case. But the efficiency of those solar cells — their ability to convert sunlight into electric energy — is not increasing as rapidly.”

The article goes on to suggest reasons that Moore’s Law might not apply – there’s a lot more to solar panels than just silicon, while the price/kilowatt has been coming down, it doesn’t seem to be coming down fast, etc.

However, there are other opinions. The best explainer and interpreter of Moore’s Law, and exponential growth in general, is Ray Kurzweil. His Law of Accelerating Returns is essentially a generalization of Moore’s Law that applies to all information technologies. (Learn a lot more about accelerating returns and exponential growth in his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.)

A panel convened by the National Association of Engineers, including Kurzweil and Larry Page of Google, concluded that:

“We are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels.”

Kurzweil characterizes solar energy technologies as “information technologies,” especially as nanotech gets into the picture.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

I think we may be at one of the most interesting points in human history, when technology is changing so fast around us that in twenty years the world will almost literally be unrecognizable compared to today. (One of the side effects of the Law of Accelerating Returns is that the world changes completely on a regular basis – it just gets faster and faster!)

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Efficiency profitable for energy-independent Denmark

Thomas Friedman’s OpEd on Sunday describes how Denmark has achieved energy independence, and illustrates the numerous benefits for the country, including a very low unemployment rate and a large new export market.

When the 1973 oil shock hit, Denmark got 99 percent of its energy from the Middle East. Now they get zero. The country has combined massive energy efficiency programs, such as using waste heat from power plants to heat homes (known as “cogeneration”), with alternative energy sources like windmills (20% of their energy comes from the wind now), effective use of their own petroleum resources in the North Sea, and incentives for lowering energy use via high taxes on gasoline.

As a result, Danes enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, an extremely low unemployment rate, and a healthy export sector in alternative energy products.

Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.

Engel suggests why this might concern us here in the United States.

“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months, and not one out of the U.S.”

If Denmark has been able to achieve 100% energy independence, at net benefit to their society economically, what does that say about America’s chances? Denmark has some advantages – it’s much smaller than the U.S., it has new oilfields in the North Sea – but we have advantages as well – our Southwest is much better for solar than anywhere in Denmark, we have whole states available for wind power, we have comparatively high rates of energy inefficiency that represent massive “negawatts.” Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has outlined a set of steps for getting the U.S. off oil by 2025 – Winning The Oil End Game – that provides one possible, well-researched scenario for a profitable transition.

In the 35 years since the ’73 oil shock, Denmark has accomplished something remarkable. Now we in the U.S. need to set ourselves a similar goal. Using new technologies, such as the fuel cell breakthroughs I mentioned last week (here and here), we should be able to get there a lot faster than 35 years.