Lovins outlines plans to end U.S. oil dependence

Williams students traveled by bus to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams last Wednesday to hear author and energy expert Amory Lovins. The lecture, entitled “Winning the Oil Endgame,” outlined his strategy for eliminating U.S. oil dependence by 2050. It was the inaugural lecture of the Four College Issues Forum, a collaborative effort between Williams, Bennington College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Southern Vermont College.

Lovins is the acclaimed author of 29 books and over 100 papers on renewable energy and energy efficiency, including the 2005 critical success Winning the Oil Endgame. He is the chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., an organization that specializes in developing innovations to improve sustainability in energy operations.

In her introductory remarks, Dean Merrill recalled an article from 35 years ago, written by Lovins, in which he predicted the 1973 oil embargo. Despite this bleak prediction, Merrill explained that Lovins’ success as an energy analyst has come from his positive, pragmatic outlook, describing him as an “environmental optimist” who believes that a combination of creativity and market forces can bring relief to our dependence on oil.

Lovins cut right to the chase, outlining several key energy shifts that have taken place throughout U.S. history. Most recently, from 1977 to 1985, the time “when the U.S. last paid attention to oil,” the country cut its use of oil by 17 percent at the same time that its economy grew by 27 percent. “In just eight years, oil imports fell by 50 percent and imports from the Persian Gulf fell by 87 percent,” he said. “That exercise of dominant market power from the demand side broke OPEC’s ability to set market prices for a decade.” Lovins expressed his belief that by turning the country’s focus inward, it can begin to break its “addiction” to oil.

One area that Lovins emphasized was the fuel efficiency of vehicles. “Only one-eighth of the oil burned in a car actually reaches the wheels,” he said, explaining that the rest of energy is lost as heat due to engine inefficiencies and idling. According to his calculations, of the energy that reaches the wheels, half is used to heat the road or the tire. Thus, only 6 percent of the fuel actually propels the vehicle. What Lovins sees as an even bigger problem, however, is that the driver only makes up 5 percent of the mass of the vehicle. In other words, only 0.3 percent of the gasoline put into a car goes to transporting its driver.

To combat this inefficiency, Lovins proposed the use of lighter materials to construct cars, such as light metals and carbon fiber composites. “Lightweighting is the hottest trend in the automotive industry,” he said, claiming that a reduction in the weight of vehicles could account for a doubling of fuel efficiency. “The technology is already there,” he said. “Plastics have changed since The Graduate.”

In one of the lighter moments of his presentation, Lovins showed video clips of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman experimenting with one of Lovins’ recent innovations: a car frame made entirely from carbon fiber. In the clips, Friedman easily lifted a large part of the car’s frame, and tried and failed to even dent another part with a hammer.

Lovins challenged the basic assumption that vehicle-makers need government incentives to improve efficiency. “With a robust business model, this can be solved outside the government’s control,” he said. However, he did suggest ways in which the government could speed up the development process, including a “feebate” program in which producers of heavy, inefficient vehicles would have to pay a fee that would in turn go to manufacturers of lighter, more efficient cars in the form of a rebate.

Ultimately, Lovins believes that people will come around to the new technologies when they realize the economic benefit to be had. Within the automotive industry, “Competition is now increasing faster than it has since the 1920s,” he said. “Companies are either going to change their managers or their minds – whichever comes first.”

Turning to the issue of fuel supply, Lovins outlined three ways in which the U.S. can turn to fuel sources other than Gulf petroleum. According to Lovins, the U.S. can save natural gas resources at a doubly efficient rate, which in turn can be used in place of oil where interchangeable. He also expressed hope for hydrogen technologies, but admitted they were probably the furthest in the future. His most immediate solution was the implementation of a bio-fuel industry “completely separate from the food industry.” By turning to grass instead of corn to get the cellulose needed to make biofuel, Lovins said U.S. farmers could simultaneously tap into a profitable industry without contributing to concerns of food shortage.

Lovins concluded his talk by addressing the issue of why public knowledge of his and his colleagues’ research is so limited. He quoted Marshall McLuhan, the famed media theorist. “Only puny secrets need protection,” he said. “Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.”

Next year’s Four College Issues Forum will concern transitions within the Supreme Court. The speaker will be Anita Hill, a professor of law at Brandeis University best known for her galvanizing 1991 testimony against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.