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Rocky Mountain Institute Turns 25: The Distributed Generation of Amory Lovins’ Brainpower

by Warren Karlenzig:

One of the world’s leading energy and environment think (and do) tanks celebrated its 25th anniversary in characteristic style this past week. With numerous references to the looming risks of global climate change, peak oil and energy disruption, combined with developing nation social-political and national security challenges, the event took on the air of urgent practicality.

Besides the Rocky Mountain Institute’s stellar staff and its fearless founder/leader, Amory Lovins, the Aspen-based event attracted a jaw-dropping line-up. On-stage were former President Clinton, past CIA director R. James Woolsey, former New York Governor George Pataki, Sustainable South Bronx’s Majora Carter, Wal-Mart Chairman Rob Walton, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, technology luminary Bill Joy, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and British Sky Broadcasting CEO James Murdoch.

Offstage things were no less dull, with a brain-pummeling cast of physicists, business leaders, authors and technologists mixing it up in perpetual reminiscing, scheming and celebrating. "You can bet I will be so on your ass," said a longtime corporate dematerialization expert to a clean tech incubation strategist he had just met, after they plotted how the United States can capture various sectors of global innovation markets.

What was extraordinary at the two-day session of panels and parties was how much RMI’s iconic founder has altered the consciousness of those present. It was as if little bits of his brain were implanted into the words, plans and outlook of those at the dais and congregating in the beaux arts hallways of the venerable Hotel Jerome.

Lovins has developed many world-changing concepts over his 35-year career including "negawatts"—reducing the need to produce energy through conservation--and its economic cousin, "the soft path." An Oxford-educated physicist, Lovins uses hard data as the basis for making the world’s economy radically more energy efficient through better planning, design and day-to-day use in both buildings and industry. More recently RMI has presented ideas on leapfrogging comatose American automotive innovation with superlight materials and hyper-efficient engine and drive train functionality.

"The demand side of energy efficiency is not as sexy as solar or wind energy, but it is much more effective," said Joy. Working with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, Joy is working on "looking for something in green technology advances to make a factor-twenty change on a long-term basis."

Joy highlighted three areas as meriting research and development investment: super-efficient energy storage, solar energy production using non-exotic materials (current PV solar uses ample amounts of both silicon and crystal) and combustionless coal-to-energy production.

There was much discussion at the event of how antiquated or poorly devised policy impedes development of better and cleaner technologies.

"We need to decouple utility earnings from revenues so utilities earn profits by saving electricity instead of just by selling more power," said Woolsey, now a VP with Booz Allen.

Woolsey and others also highlighted world dependence on oil because it creates such an extreme national security risk. "We need to do for oil what electricity and refrigeration did for salt," Woolsey said. "Salt was a strategic commodity until the twentieth century. Now, nobody dominates their neighbor because they have more salt mines. We need to be able to break that control."

Another thread that ran through the high mountain air was the empowerment of developing economies through the use of renewable energy and appropriate technology, with Clare Lockhart of The Institute of State Effectiveness pointing out the political and cost ineffectiveness of approaches by the World Bank.

"There is a need for distributed political and economic power," Lockhart said. "The most important thing is that people should be trusted to make their own decisions. How can we obtain that and a distributed network for alternative energy?"

Lovins mentioned his continued frustration at U.S. insistence on continuing its "bigger is better" development philosophy in Iraq and beyond with centralized electric power production.

"The bad guys keep knocking down power lines faster than we can put them up. To give you an idea of how bad it is, the Pentagon has stopped reporting on electricity availability in Iraq. These things may be coming to a theater near you, too, because the same things can be done to the power grid in the U.S," Lovins said.

Despite such failure analyses, discussion of solutions dominated the proceedings, underscoring the track record of Lovins and RMI.

Clinton credited Lovins and RMI as being "relentless optimists devoted to facts that are solutions based—they’re not in the complaining business." He added that the non-profit does its analysis in a way that makes good economic sense, particularly in these times. "It’s the ultimate triumph of negawatts."

Lovins looked at the bright side from an economic perspective in summarizing the advent of small-scale power solutions. "One third of the world’s new electricity comes from micropower sources such as co-generation and distributed renewables," Lovins said. "Distributed power has lower costs and financial risks."

Clinton, whose foundation is working with RMI on energy retrofitting older buildings in the world’s 40 largest cities through an unprecedented $5 billion program financed by major banks, gave examples of how economic growth can continue while reducing greenhouse gases.

"The Danes have experienced 50 percent economic growth with a zero percent increase in greenhouse gasses," Clinton said. "Think about that."

"We are moving to solutions RMI has coordinated for 25 years. Mr. Lovins, you have lost a lot of battles, but you are winning the war."

Warren Karlenzig is Chief Strategy Officer at SustainLane, where he directs the company’s US city rankings, and SustainLane Government, an open-source best practices sustainability knowledgebase for state and local government officials and their constituents. Warren is lead author of the newly released How Green Is Your City? The SustainLane U.S. City Rankings (New Society Publishers). His blog is

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Mr Karlenzig,
"Offstage things were no less dull..."?
While the article was engaging, editorial slips like this may undermine one's credibility.

Posted by: Bruna Brylawski on 16 Aug 07

Good article. Note on the grammar, do you mean there needs to be a comma after "offstage"? I looked up offstage on and it doesn't need a dash.



Posted by: Ken Ott on 16 Aug 07

James Woolsey, "jaw dropping"? Give us a break.

This former spook is nothing but a neo-con shill for the Pro-Israel lobby.

While on the one hand pretending to be concerned about climate change and peak oil, he's openly advocating war against Iran. What gives?

Woolsey can't be taken seriously; he's working actively to betray America and its democracy.

Posted by: Gryphon on 23 Aug 07



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