Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute: The energy guru

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Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute: The energy guru
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Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute: The energy guru

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To halt global warming, we must eliminate greenhouse gas emissions at scale and with speed. With renewables today, we can ignite a new kind of fire, one that is emissions-free and lower cost.

Inaugurating season 3 is Amory Lovins, a physicist by training who is, by vocation, a fearless researcher, consultant, and advocate. In 1982, he co-founded the famed Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in the United States.

Amory is known worldwide for path-breaking ideas on energy sourcing and efficiency. For more than 45 years, he has been an advisor to building owners, corporations and governments. He connects dots on the big canvas, linking a global perspective on sourcing and pricing to how we design pipes in super-efficient buildings.

Episode outline

00:02:39 Energy
00:07:23 “Fortunately, we have the technologies we need. They will get better — and more R&D is good — but the ones we have are perfectly adequate to do everything we need to do to save energy and switch to renewables and make our energy supplies affordable, resilient, fair, reliable.”
00:08:50 “Fifteen percent of the world’s CO₂ comes from steel and cement… But we could save about half the steel and cement if we designed buildings and other structures to be structurally efficient.”
00:20:39 Carbon
00:25:24 “But I would rather take away all the subsidies. And I hope I live to see a world where all technologies and energy get to compete fairly at honest prices, regardless of their type, technology, location, size or ownership.”
00:28:08 “Once you’ve put the CO₂ in the air, it’s going to cost quite a lot to get it out by any means anyone’s thought of so far.”
00:33:24 Building scale
00:33:48 “And we’ve so far have harvested 80 passive solar banana crops with no heating system in at 2,200-metres elevation in the Rocky Mountains where the temperatures used to go as low as minus 44°C.”
00:39:40 “If you’re a developer, I would urge you to consider performance-based design fees where savings in capital and operating costs are shared with the design professionals in a predictable prearranged way — and of course adjusted from things that they cannot control… like weather and occupancy.”
00:53:50 “It turns out if you make pipes and ducts fat, short and straight instead of skinny, long and crooked, they have on the order of ten times less friction.”
00:54:47 Becoming Amory
00:55:19 “And a little libertarianism comes with that. The Ching’s verse that says ‘Govern a great country as you would fry a small fish: don’t poke at it too much’.”

Summary

In this episode, Amory Lovins shares paradigm-shifting strategies on how to transform the energy sector.

Amory proclaims that an energy revolution is underway, particularly in places like China and India, where renewables power is overtaking thermal. The transformation is propelled by a steep drop in the cost of solar and wind technologies.

Once carbon is in the atmosphere, there is no affordable way to remove it.
© IndustryAndTravel, Envato Elements

It is vital, he says, that we frame emissions not just in terms of the magnitude of reduction, but also cost and speed of implementation. A market-based approach is the fairest and most equitable way forward.

From this perspective, options like nuclear power are not attractive, despite the tech appeal and low-carbon performance. Per dollar spent, a nuclear power station does not reduce emissions as much as a solar farm of the same capacity, which is quicker to build and cheaper to run.

At today’s prices, a solar farm is a cheaper option than thermal and nuclear plants.
© andreonegin, Envato Elements

On the variance of supply and risk of breakdown, Amory points out that renewables are more predictable and reliable than thermal power plants by far. The latter needs more backup at higher costs than an efficiently designed portfolio of solar and wind.

In any grand vision of a carbon-free future, buildings and cities will play a significant role. There are many low-hanging fruits here. He cites steel and cement used in construction as examples; these are responsible for 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Rocky Mountain Institute is a mecca for thought leaders in front-line energy solutions.
© RMI

To demonstrate that his ideas are also actionable, his teams at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) offer consulting services to building owners, promising deep cuts in energy consumption. Retrofits strive for a minimum of 70% reduction.

RMI’s best-known retrofit is the Empire State Building, New York City (United States), which was fitted with façade insulation and super windows.
© haveseen, Envato Elements

Amory believes there is an even greater opportunity with new builds. For instance, a decision to replace thick concrete slabs with a vaulted shallow dome or corrugated thin slab with carbon fibre can save material, time, and money.

For mechanical-electrical systems, he advocates combining negawatts — trimming demand through efficiency and reduced loads — with ‘flexiwatts’ — managing demand over time — and topping it with onsite renewable sourcing.

For Amory, key to performance is the ‘integrative’ process in which the entire project team comes together at the start and works in a collaborative manner. This consortium promises holistic outcomes based on sound decisions that are less likely to be reversed later.

Amory Lovins’ home in the Rocky Mountains is optimised as a system rather than treating insulation as a component.
© Judy Hill Lovins

Amory’s private residence in Snowmass, Colorado (US), exemplifies integration. He prescribed envelope insulation to a degree that the heating system could be eliminated. Despite cold winters, the tropical garden yields multiple crops of bananas.

Amory Lovins harvests solar banana crops without a heating system at home, in his own tropical garden.
© Judy Hill Lovins

Amory points out that we already have the technology to do what’s necessary. The real challenge is to remove the system of rewards and incentives that encourage inefficiency and prioritise obsolete technologies.

The structure of consulting fees, for instance, rewards a team that proposes larger buildings and bigger systems. Paying for operational performance, instead of capital spending, will go a long way to changing the culture of design.

More critically, Amory exhorts us to set aside a ‘silver bullet’ mindset. Technology is important but it is not enough. Design matters. By applying an integrative approach to multiple actions, multiple systems can deepen and accelerate outcomes.

Gallery

Images

Videos

Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:03:04 “…the number one strategy for mitigation and reversal for climate crisis…”
The Climate Crisis – A Race We Can Win” | United Nations
00:03:07 “…remains to this day the decarbonisation of the energy sector…”
Challenges in the decarbonization of the energy sector” | ScienceDirect
00:03:16 “…we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels…”
Fossil Fuels” | National Geographic
00:04:47 “…there are also some rather important emissions of methane, of nitrous oxide…”
Importance of Methane” | EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency)
00:04:47 “…there are also some rather important emissions of methane, of nitrous oxide…”
nitrous oxide” | Britannica
00:04:56 “…there are other greenhouse gases…”
Greenhouse gases” | World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
00:05:34 “…Then we need to roughly double our pace of the energy transition…”
Helping countries support a balanced energy transition” | World Economic Forum
00:06:49 “…Nuclear power comes to mind…”
What is Nuclear Energy? The Science of Nuclear Power” | IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)
00:08:21 “…how to do electric chemical steel at 60°C’…”
Electrical Steel” | ScienceDirect
00:12:01 “…I teach what’s called extreme energy efficiency…”
E^3: Extreme Energy Efficiency” | Stanford University
00:16:16 “…at higher costs for big thermal power stations…”
Thermal Power Station:How does it Work,Working Principle and Diagrams” | Thermodyne Boilers
00:16:50 “…if they press the start button on their gas turbine…”
Gas turbine” | Energy Education (University of Calgary)
00:18:29 “…efficient use — negawatts — and timely use — ‘flexiwatts’…”
Negawatt Revolution” | Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)
00:18:29 “…efficient use — negawatts — and timely use — ‘flexiwatts‘…”
Clean Energy 101: What Are Flexiwatts and How Can I Get Some?” | Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)
00:21:25 “…like the ‘Reinventing Fire‘ book we did a decade ago…”
Reinventing Fire” | Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)
00:26:37 “…and looking after the marine environment and soil carbon’…”
The marine environment is an essential component of the global life-support system” | United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
00:26:37 “…and looking after the marine environment and soil carbon…”
Soil Carbon” | ScienceDirect
00:26:54 “…very rapidly restoring devastated rainforests…”
Rainforest” | National Geographic
00:27:21 “…So you end up with a vibrant local economy…”
Local Economies Definition: Everything You Need to Know” | Sustainable Business Toolkit
00:28:04 “…Thermodynamics is quite unforgiving about that…”
laws of thermodynamics” | Britannica
00:28:23 “…I read a paper of yours which dates back to 1976, ‘Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?‘…”
Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” | Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)
00:28:44 “…You’ve been called a ‘prophet of the New Order‘…”
Amory Lovins: Prophet of a New Order” | MIT Press Direct
00:41:12 “…like the relationship with the classical Chinese wellness doctor…”
Traditional Chinese medicine” | Wikipedia
00:55:07 “…you have a strong foothold in Eastern philosophy — the Book of Tao…”
The Tao Te Ching by Laozi: ancient wisdom for modern times” | The Guardian
00:55:19 “…And a little libertarianism comes with that…”
Libertarianism” | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)
00:06:34 “…Just remember what Peter Bradford said to that…”
Peter A. Bradford” | U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
00:11:52 “…At Stanford, I teach…”
Stanford University
00:12:17 “…would be within the forecast envelope of the International Energy Agency…”
IEA (International Energy Agency)
00:22:17 “…there’s a remarkable study from a group called INET — I, N, E, T — at Oxford…”
About INET Oxford” | INET Oxford (Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School)
00:26:02 “…from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria…”
About IIASA” | IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis)
00:26:51 “…Willie Smits‘ work in Borneo…”
Regrowing Borneo’s Rainforest–Tree by Tree” | Scientific American
00:36:20 “…we were visited by an architect from Bangkok, Soontorn Boonyatikarn…”
Thailand slowly wakes up to a green dawn” | Taipei Times
00:37:51 “…and convening centre called the Innovation Centre of Rocky Mountain Institute…”
Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center” | CBE (Center For the Built Environment)
00:42:06 “…is Chris Benedict‘s projects in New York…”
Chris Benedict R.A.” | Architizer
00:48:55 “…when Willis Carrier, around 1921, came up with the chiller…”
Willis Carrier” | Wikipedia
00:55:23 “…The Tao Te Ching‘s verse that says…”
Tao Te Ching – Verse 80 – If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content” | Hari Nam Singh Healing Heart Center
00:56:24 “…So as Mary Oliver said…”
Poem 133: The Summer Day” | Library of Congress
00:57:34 “…where the pioneer Bill McLarney was in his center…”
BILL MCLARNEY” | Mainspring Conservation Trust
00:58:22 “…following the advice of Raymond Williams…”
About Raymond Williams” | The Raymond Williams Society
00:08:17 “…there’s an Indian entrepreneur here in Colorado…”
Colorado” (United States) | Britannica
00:17:38 “…as we see empirically in places like Germany or Texas…”
Texas” (United States) | Wikipedia
00:26:51 “…Willie Smits’ work in Borneo…”
Borneo” (Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia) | Wikipedia
00:36:20 “…we were visited by an architect from Bangkok…”
Bangkok” (Thailand) | Wikipedia
00:41:39 “…about a zero carbon building in an urban condition, say New York or Mumbai…”
New York City” (New York, United States) | Britannica
00:41:39 “…about a zero carbon building in an urban condition, say New York or Mumbai…”
Mumbai” (Maharashtra, India) | Britannica
00:43:09 “…We did work on the Empire State Building retrofit…”
The Empire State Building a model for climate action” | Earth Stone Station
00:45:01 “…classic curtain wall office building near Chicago…”
Chicago” (Illinois, United States) | Britannica
00:49:04 “…look back at the classic Victorian buildings, say in London…”
London” (United Kingdom) | Britannica
00:57:26 “…where the pioneer Bill McLarney was in his centre in Costa Rica…”
Costa Rica” | Britannica
00:09:46 “…It could be a vaulted shallow dome…”
The Shallow Masonry Domes – Alternative Traditions in Roofing Systems, by Hunnarshala Foundation” | ArchitectureLive!
00:33:31 “…is a net-zero building with a tropical garden…”
What is a net zero carbon building?” | World Green Building Council
00:33:31 “…is a net-zero building with a tropical garden…”
Tropical garden” | Wikipedia
00:37:25 “…to build the experience with German passive houses…”
Passivhaus: everything you need to know about this eco-friendly German building design” | Livingetc
00:45:01 “…classic curtain wall office building…”
Curtain Walls” | WBDG (Whole Building Design Guide)
00:45:31 “…was to put in tuned super windows tuned to each elevation…”
Video: ‘Super window’ technology is giant leap in saving the planet” | The American Ceramic Society (ACerS)
00:47:36 “…Now you talk a lot about integrative design…”
Integrative Design: A Disruptive Source of Expanding Returns to Investments in Energy Efficiency” | Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)
00:49:04 “…look back at the classic Victorian buildings…”
What Is Victorian Architecture?” | The Spruce
00:47:57 “…and then you’ve got somebody else in charge of the MEP systems…”
Understanding MEP in Construction” | Enscape (Chaos)

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Managing editor
Kruti Choksi

Communications executive
Sana Gupta

Sound technician and editor
Kelvin Brown | Phlogiston

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Can architecture heal our planet? In this bonus episode, we delve into the power of regenerative design. From restoring existing structures to rethinking material ownership, find out how sustainability and healing go hand in hand.
All the noise around sustainability can be dizzying. In this episode, Bjarke Ingels returns to discuss BIG’s Plan for the Planet. Can a global framework based on real-world strategies help us achieve better individual solutions?
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All the noise around sustainability can be dizzying. In this episode, Bjarke Ingels returns to discuss BIG’s Plan for the Planet. Can a global framework based on real-world strategies help us achieve better individual solutions?

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