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RMI’s green revolution

Joel Stonington
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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Compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars were seen as quirky five years ago, weird 10 years ago and nearly unheard of before that. The only people advocating energy-saving technologies such as hybrid cars and green building design 30 years ago were thinking way ahead.Not these days.During Super Bowl XL this year, both Toyota and Ford paid big bucks to advertise their new fuel-efficient hybrid models. And energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs doubled their share of the market between 1999 and 2006. As energy-efficiency first gained a toehold in the U.S., Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass has been in the forefront, advocating market-based, conservation-minded changes. But only recently have so many of RMI’s solutions reached the mainstream.It doesn’t stop at consumer choices. President George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union speech sounded like parts could have been lifted straight from a book by RMI’s co-founder, Amory Lovins. “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” said Bush. “By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.”

RMI has had its share of naysayers over the years. But now that the nonprofit’s list of clients includes giants like Wal-Mart and the U.S. military, which are working with RMI to reduce their energy consumption, some of the loudest naysayers are RMI supporters, so-called progressives who feel RMI has gone to the “dark side.”For Amory Lovins, CEO and co-founder of RMI, the criticism is business as usual. “There is a revolution going on in corporate boardrooms here and abroad,” he said. “We’re proud to be part of that. We think it’s going to make a better and safer world.”How did Rocky Mountain Institute enter the mainstream?”Amory is not out on the fringe,” said Hal Clifford, whose first job out of college was working for Lovins at RMI and who is now executive editor of Orion magazine. “He has been out front. He’s worked for many countries and many companies. His interest is in being effective in effecting change.”According to Lovins, RMI’s mission is not to change lifestyles or to preach. It’s about getting economics to work for the organization in its quest for change. “What makes money and makes sense will actually happen,” Lovins said. “We’re not expecting people to do anything that makes them less successful. I’m not very comfortable telling other people how to live. I try to set an example. The institute’s work is about harnessing resource productivity.”At least part of the reason for RMI’s success is that Lovins and company are not fighting the market.”We try to take market economics seriously,” he said. “We think markets make a splendid servant, a bad master and a worse religion. We use markets creatively and intelligently to do what they do best. We don’t use them to substitute for ethics, politics or faith.”

Lovins acknowledges most of RMI’s employees have their own ideas about politics, and some even disagree about working with organizations like Wal-Mart or the Pentagon, but the RMI focus comes first. Lovins wants to make the most change in the smallest amount of time. In order to do that, he says it is crucial to work within the economic system. Further, he believes the private sector is the most important place to make change.”Over half of the top 100 or top 200 economic entities in the world are not countries, they’re companies,” said Lovins. “They often have a much keener understanding of what works than governments do. For over 30 years, my colleagues and I have felt that within civil society, working closely with business, we can best advance our mission of creating abundance by design. That is indeed how it’s turning out.”

Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in America, with $282.5 billion in sales last year and 1.3 million employees nationwide, in 3,700 stores.”It’s the scale of the undertaking,” said Lovins. “They use probably 1 percent of the energy in the country and what they sell uses more of that. What happens if they start selling efficient things?”But it’s more than that. Working with a large corporation offers a small nonprofit like RMI the ability to try out bigger projects. Wal-Mart’s clout as the largest corporation in the world can open doors to innovation and change.”I needed a widget that no one made,” said Lovins, talking about RMI’s work on an experimental “eco-Wal-Mart” in Kansas. “So I called the biggest widget makers and they said ‘We don’t carry it.’ I said, ‘My customer is Wal-Mart and if they like it they’ll buy two truckloads a day forever.’ They said, ‘When do you need it?'”RMI is working with Wal-Mart on two fronts. First, it provides expertise on how to make Wal-Mart stores more efficient through innovative heating, cooling, lighting and refrigeration. The goal is to reduce energy use by 30 percent.”It’s important for us to engage, listen and learn,” said Wal-Mart spokesperson Tara Stewart. “RMI brings expertise to the table, they’re folks that think outside of the box. They know who to go to, they know the experts in the field. They’ve helped us set the metrics, saying here’s where you need to be and here’s why.”RMI is also working to improve the gas mileage of Wal-Mart’s trucks, the largest fleet in America.”The best truck in their fleet gets eight miles per gallon,” said RMI outreach coordinator Cory Lowe. “We’re showing them how to double the efficiency of their trucks.”Among other low-cost changes, RMI has helped the company to limit wind resistance on its vehicles and switch the double tires on the rear wheels to one larger tire. “We choose our partners carefully,” said Lovins. “We do not work with partners who are inappropriate. On the other hand, we don’t reject those who have done bad things in the past but who sincerely wish to change. We believe in the possibility of redemption. As long as I’ve been in this work, which is approaching 40 years, I’ve made it a point to work with everybody. Those who prove unsuitable, we stop working with.”

“One of the reasons the Pentagon likes this work is that they wouldn’t have to fight over oil,” Lovins said, explaining RMI’s work with the Defense Department. “This would probably be their biggest-ever national security win. They can better carry out their mission, not only the obvious mission of fighting wars, but the less obvious one of making peace.”RMI has caught a good deal of flack for working with the military. In the latest RMI newsletter, Lovins responded to comments such as, “Don’t help the military kill people more cheaply” and “The military does many things of which you must strongly disapprove.”Lovins said the military has a great deal of influence, and helping to make it more efficient will encourage good ideas on a much broader scale.And just because RMI helps the military doesn’t mean Lovins agrees with U.S. military policy. “It would be self-defeating to say that because they’re not perfect and they sometimes do things we don’t like, we shouldn’t work with them,” he said.”A military focused on light materials would transform the car and plane industries to lead them away from oil,” said Lovins. “The biggest gain with the Pentagon is that we gradually help them understand the fighting benefit of more efficient platforms, things ranging from tanks to ships to airplanes, which can save lives, redeploy people more effectively and save money. That also makes the military a leader in ultra-light materials and manufacturing. This then creates the dynamic by which the Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, created the Internet, GPS, microchip and jet engine industries.”

In keeping with RMI’s market orientation, the organization has spun off four for-profit companies to advance certain ideas.In 1991, Lovins invented the Hypercar, a light, low-drag, hybrid-electric vehicle. And in a bold move in 1993, he made the concept part of the public domain, enabling any person or company to use the invention.Soon after, RMI started looking into volume production of the cars and lightweight car parts. The design of an experimental vehicle, with 17 industrial partners, spawned a company now known as Fiberforge, a North American leader in creating thermoplastic advanced-composite structures. It’s the same material that Formula One racing cars are already made of.The ultra-light and ultra-strong components absorb energy in a crash better than the metals in conventional cars. The big push is to make them cheaply enough to manufacture on a large scale.”It will be an evolution,” said Fiberforge CEO Jon Fox-Rubin, a former RMI employee. “People will be more and more comfortable with plastics in their lives doing high-performance things.”As an example, he mentioned ski bindings and car racks. Plastic ski bindings first appeared in the 1990s, but now it’s hard to find one made from anything else.”It’s only a matter of time before entire cars made out of composites are affordable enough,” said Fox-Rubin. “Today you can buy a number of cars that have advanced composites in them. The BMW 3-series has performance thermoplastic composite bumper beams.”The light materials should dramatically increase fuel efficiency. “Vehicles that get 80-100 miles per gallon are in the midterm,” said Fox-Rubin, “in the next 10-20 years.”He sees efficiency playing a lead role in a new and less wasteful American culture.”I think our culture will evolve a bit beyond the suburbs,” he said. “People will move back to city centers. Our culture will change … In this valley, eventually, transit will be the fastest way to get around.”Michael Shepherd, another former RMI employee, now works at a for-profit spinoff called E Source. It started as an in-house RMI project, and is now a company wheeling and dealing in a wealth of knowledge. E Source advises major corporations and energy producers on how they can be more efficient.”It’s fair to say many of Amory’s ideas have become quite mainstream,” said Shepherd. “However heretical people felt the ideas were 25 or 30 years ago, he’s been much more right than wrong. He’ll always be out ahead of the pack.”

The idea of saving energy, and thereby money, is firmly entrenched in the mainstream, Lovins said, and he only sees his ideas gaining momentum. “The potential for energy efficiency keeps getting better and cheaper,” Lovins said. “It’s like an ever-expanding oil well.”And it seems clear that RMI’s current work with Wal-Mart and the military will only accelerate things.”This is at least a half-century job,” he said. “We’re here for the long haul. It’s about half-done. Getting off oil is about another 40 years but it’s made a promising start.”

These days, many signs point to the likelihood that world oil production is peaking and oil is running out. The impact on the national economy is bound to grow as cheap oil becomes expensive oil and, eventually, no oil at all. There is also the problem of global climate change, which most scientists agree has been triggered or at least exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels. RMI’s main focus in coming years will be something that Lovins has discussed for a long time – ending the use of oil.To many, the idea sounds impossible or absurd. For Lovins, it is simply and absolutely necessary. His latest book outlines how to do it, while still making a profit. “It’s not good enough just to publish papers and do business cases,” said Lovins. “It’s also helpful to weave them into a powerful story that helps people understand what’s happening and what they can do about it.”That story is “Winning the Oil Endgame,” Lovins’ 29th book. The two-year, million-dollar effort was partly funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Naval Research. “It showed how to get America off oil by the 2040s,” said Lovins. “This was completely opposite to previous leadership, which was all about the oil problem, not the solution. Since it was published, we’ve launched an ambitious effort to make it happen.”The basic idea is that the U.S. can double fuel efficiency by 2040. The other half of the oil currently used could be replaced by advanced biofuels and saved natural gas. President Bush’s State of the Union commitment to increase clean energy research by 22 percent is only a drop in the national energy-spending budget, but it’s clear that Lovins and his ilk are being heard in Washington.Lovins’ general approach, however, has been to let other groups lobby the government. He sees his role as going after the private sector. Change is not only necessary, Lovins claims, it’s profitable. And that’s a message big corporations like to hear. Evidently Wal-Mart agrees. The Wal-Mart project was the first major outgrowth of “Winning the Oil Endgame.” As RMI outreach coordinator Cory Lowe commented, “We want to save as much oil as possible and we don’t care who’s saving it. That’s a barrel of oil saved.” Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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