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Inside "Winning the Oil Endgame," An Interview with Jonathan Koomey

This article was written by David Zaks in November 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

OilEndgame_Cover.gif Jonathan Koomey led the Energy End-use Forecasting group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which analyzes markets for efficient products and technologies for improving the energy and environmental aspects of those products. He is also a Consulting Professor at Stanford University where he held the MAP/Ming visiting professorship. Dr. Koomey co-authored Winning the Oil Endgame with colleagues from the Rocky Mountain Institute. He recently visited Madison and I had a chance to sit down and ask him a couple of questions.

David Zaks: It has been two years since Winning the Oil Endgame was published. What emerging signs have you seen, or what are the next big steps that need to be taken to point us to a sustainable future?

Jonathan Koomey: I’ve been encouraged by various actions at the state level, particularly in California. Change often starts at the state and local levels in the U.S., and then percolates up to the national level, and I suspect that change will manifest that way on this issue as well.

Using the purchasing power of governments and large corporations, as proposed in Winning the Oil Endgame, is one important way to accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency. For example Wal-Mart has publicly devoted itself to doubling (and eventually tripling) the efficiency of its trucks. Wal-Mart is one of the largest purchasers of trucks in the country, and if it decides to buy more efficient trucks, the manufacturers will change quickly.

DZ: It seems as though we are all suffering from a bit of carbon blindness, where global warming trumps other social, environmental and economic issues in need of innovative solutions. What ideas do you have for finding win-win situations where carbon-free energy solutions couple with other burgeoning issues?

JK: Any solutions that solve multiple problems will be easier to implement from a political perspective. Beware of the “tyranny of OR�? and focus on the “the genius of AND�?. The choice is not economy OR environment. We can have both improved economic activity AND a cleaner environment, if we are smart about it.

The adoption of new technologies happens most rapidly when a new device is so good in so many ways that people just want it. So to most quickly deliver energy efficiency and reduce fossil fuel usage, you should deliver better products. For example, the Toyota Prius gets about twice as many miles per gallon as other midsize cars, but it is just a better car. It has reasonable acceleration, Bluetooth, voice recognition, and GPS. It isn't just that it is efficient; it is a higher level of service. The Prius shows that if you build something that is just plain better, people will grab for it.

DZ: One important lesson that has been learned in ecosystem modeling is that not all systems behave linearly. In regards to energy forecasting, how do you incorporate the chaotic nature of social and technological parts of the system into making a robust forecast?

JK: The first and most important lesson is to be humble. It is really impossible to forecast precisely what will happen in the future. That doesn't mean that you can't learn something from forecasts, but it is impossible to predict exactly when and where pivotal events will happen.

Forecasts can teach you about the key drivers, and about options for action. For example, it's important to know the fraction of buildings and equipment that will be replaced in the next 20-25 years. Cars turn over in about 15-18 years, buildings turn over every 50-75 years, and power plants turn over every 40-50 years. You don't know these parameters exactly, but even a rough estimate can help you make better decisions about policy actions now, given how long it takes to replace capital equipment.

DZ: Communicating complex scientific ideas, like global warming, is somewhat of an art. With scientists feeding policy makers and the public so much data and information these days, what is the most important aspect of effective communication?

JK: The most obvious thing to realize is who your audience is. Speaking with policy makers is different than speaking with members of the general public. Determine what motivates your audience; understand what technical capabilities they have, and target your message so that the audience can best understand your point.

For a public presentation, it is important to talk about everyday life, stories, anecdotes, and ways that individuals can make a difference. Most people can’t understand abstract statements about probability, but if you can talk about the potential consequences of climate change to their everyday life (and to that of their children) then they will grasp it quickly.

Worldchanging Interview: Jonathan Koomey is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

Image credit: The Rocky Mountain Institute

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