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Amory Lovins goes even greener at home

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder and chief scientist Amory Lovins' influence helped get the nonprofit in a position to help China grow its economy in a sustainable and energy efficient way.
Aspen Times file photo |

OLD SNOWMASS ” Standing in his new kitchen, Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins enthuses about his new cookware ” or at least its scientific aspects. All of his new pots have copper bottoms that won’t warp when heated, he explains, so they can make exact, efficient contact with his new electric stove.

Like an ordinary remodel, the Amory and Judy Hill Lovins’ update has a nicer kitchen “but it also showcases most of the latest, energy-efficient technology available.

Having a house that is also a showplace of the latest energy-efficient technology isn’t anything new for Amory Lovins. In the early 1980s, with the help of more than 100 people, he constructed a home in Old Snowmass that he says paid for its energy-efficient features in 10 months.

He later opened it to public tours. And with more than 100,000 visitors coming from all over the world, Lovins said he felt it was important to showcase the best technology available.

One of the biggest changes is an update to the home’s photovoltaic system, courtesy of Ken Olson, of Carbondale-based Sol Energy. Olson tied the old solar panels ” along with a new six-kilowatt system ” into the grid, allowing the residence to use 100 percent solar energy produced on site during the day, and purchase additional wind power at night.

Thanks in part to legislation that requires utility companies to purchase homeowner-produced energy, the ability to tie into the electrical grid is perhaps the greatest advance in solar-panel technology since the home was built, Olson said.

“Wherever you’re standing now, I bet you’re not any farther than 10 feet from an electrical outlet. And all of that comes from a centralized generation plant. Now what we’re seeing now with the opportunities that renewable energy gives … is distributed generation,” said Olson. “Every rooftop can potentially generate power.”

But the “islandable” system also retained the ability to switch over to battery storage, allowing the electrical system to work even in the case of a grid outage.

“This is important if, like me, you know about the vulnerability of the grid to major disruption,” Lovins said. “I think, in the future, this will become a general practice.”

Next to the new photovoltaic panels are a row of new solar thermal panels ” which will not only provide hot water to the showers and sinks, but also to heat the floor. Lovins says he hopes the new heat source will allow him to retire his two wood stoves, currently the only traditional heating in the house.

Inside the home, updated xenon-filled windows and thick doors with vacuum panels inside provide additional efficiencies.

Opening one of the huge doors in his bedroom, Lovins pointed to the air-seals on all four sides and the unusually thick width.

“It closes like a bank vault,” he said.

But though the house is sealed up tight, six “heat exchangers” work to push the old air out and bring fresh air in ” while retaining 98 percent of the heat, according to Lovins.

A new day lighting retrofit brings light in from the roof through Solatubes mounted on the roof ” then floods it into a dark hallway. Where artificial light is needed, LED lights continue to cut energy needs.

In the kitchen, a highly efficient dishwasher senses when the water starts to run clean and stops washing the dishes, according to research fellow Bennett Cohen. And a refrigerator with a motor on top releases heat into the home, not into the refrigerator. In the winter, the refrigerator’s coolant is run through a cooling fin on the exterior of the house, further reducing energy needs.

Lovins has kept the famous greenhouse ” which he refers to as the home’s furnace ” at the center of the house, but recently updated that as well, replacing the salty, exhausted soil and creating a new floor plan. But he has retained the tropical feel, with banana, avocado, and mango trees ” and frogs and turtles ” flourishing among the fish ponds.

“We have, I think, 11 kinds of predatory insects destroying pests,” Lovins said, as he examined a leaf for damage.

With the latest remodel, Lovins will now be able to figure out how efficient each element of the house is: A Johnson Controls data-collection system will use 170 measuring devices to gather and analyze data, allowing Lovins to adjust the home’s systems where needed.

“For the first time, it will be a fully instrumental science experiment,” he said.

But Lovins insists that now, as in 1983, the home’s efficiency comes not from its individual elements, but from an integrative design that optimizes the house as a system.

RMI research fellow Alok Pradhan agrees.

“It’s not just about taking these windows and putting them in your house,” he said. “It’s about changing the way your house is built.”

Public tours of the Lovins’ home are scheduled to resume this summer.


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