Energy efficiency represents a $5 trillion business opportunity to reshape civilization and make a profit.
That’s the view of Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins, who spoke to a capacity filled audience at UC Santa Barbara on March 21. Lovins spoke in advance of the Wall Street Journal’s annual Eco:nomics conference taking place at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta.
“We can all die of oil wars, climate change or nuclear war,” Lovins said, painting a dim view of a fossil-fuel dependent economy going forward. The alternative, he said, is “reinventing fire as a path to sustainable future.”
Indeed, “Reinventing Fire” is the name of his latest book charting a new energy future.
According to Lovins, fossil fuels enabled an advanced industrial society but today’s economy is out of balance,with three-fourths of oil used for fuel. Three-fourths of electricity, much of it generated from coal, goes into buildings, he said.
A new path toward getting 75 percent of energy from renewables by 2050 could save $5 trillion, Lovins said. Such a path could be business driven with no government spending and Lovins said huge opportunities lie ahead in advanced vehicle design and distributed electric systems
A vast opportunity, totaling $1.5 trillion lies in high-efficiency autos, where elimination of oil use could save billions in dollars in payments to OPEC payments, economic inefficiencies due to price instability and defense costs from securing Persian Gulf oil routes.
Cars suffer from “epidemic obesity” Lovins said, adding that carbon fiber could make cars much lighter, enabling electric power, oil-free autos such as those being pioneered by Volkswagen, its Audi brand and competitor BMW. He said he expects their electrified carbon fiber cars to hit the market in 2013 and said “Germany is the technology leader.”
Advanced designs that can triple fuel efficiency for trucks and airplanes are on the way, he said, noting that industrialized countries already are beginning to see declines in gasoline consumption.
When it comes to buildings and a redesigned power grid, the rewards from efficient windows and new chiller technology are huge and can come quickly. Improvements to existing power plants can have a two to three year payback and tremendous savings are available quickly from improving electric pumps and fans which account for 30 percent of electricity consumption.
Although solar and wind energy is often derided for being inconsistent, nuclear and coal plants have downtimes amounting to 11 percent to 12 percent per year.
A new and dispersed grid would reward customers for efficiency, be more secure from cyber attack and work interactively with electric vehicles coming onstream, he said.
One constant in Lovins’ equation is the use of a conventional fuel – natural gas – which is increasingly abundant in the U.S. He projects that it will remain at about 24 percent of total supply in a new energy economy. For policy makers, he said, the key is to “focus on outcomes not motives” and put ugly debates about climate change and giving up cars into the background.
“This is a once-in-a-civilization business opportunity,” he said. “It’s a $5 trillion prize.”