Think Tank on the Efficient Energy Trail
The Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado gives energy-saving advice to companies and countries
OLD SNOWMASS, COLO. — FIFTEEN years ago, a young physicist named Amory Lovins made news when his article in Foreign Affairs quarterly outlined a "soft path" for United States energy policy. A couple of oil shocks, a Chernobyl meltdown, and a Gulf War later, his basic message - the need to emphasize efficiency and renewable resources over oil and nuclear power - is still a minority view, at least with the White House officials who put together the Bush administration's recent "National Energy Strategy."But among many utility companies, state agencies, private businesses, overseas governments, and international organizations, the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute - headed by Mr. Lovins and his wife Hunter Lovins - is not only heeded but also much sought after. At last count, some 200 clients in 32 countries had signed up for the institute's "Competitek" program, a consulting service, which helps large energy providers and users implement cost-saving efficiency measures. At the current rate of increas e, that number will double in 14 months - largely by word of mouth. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) was founded a decade ago as a mom-and-pop think tank with Amory the idea man and Hunter, a lawyer, running the shop. "I said to Amory, 'You think, I'll manage, and we'll get along fine, Hunter recalls. The idea, she says, was to have a dozen or so friends and colleagues "bouncing ideas off each other." But the areas of interest kept expanding, and so did the staff and budget. Today, it's a million-dollar operation with a staff of 50 (30 full-time). Forty percent of RMI's funding comes from its Competitek program, with most of the rest from foundations and charitable trusts. Most of RMI's efforts continue to be directed toward energy, but programs also focus on water, agriculture, local economic renewal, and international security. In these five areas, says Amory, "The most important thing we do is make connections that haven't been made before.... That's our guiding principle." The recent war in the Gulf, for example, clearly illustrated the connection between energy supplies and national security. So, too, does the relationship between farm and water policy and the health of rural economies. "We're run off our feet trying to keep up with the demand for information," he adds. "And we're having to pick our slots carefully because there's only 36 hours in the day." Over the years, the RMI staff has produced more than a dozen books, plus scores of reports and articles. The Lovinses and their colleagues have been invited to talk to hundreds of widely diverse audiences, ranging from the radical environmental group Earth First! to the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Penta gon. The morning after he was interviewed recently at his home/office 7,200 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, Amory was off to Atlanta to talk about global warming at a conference sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry. "He's really coming into his own as something of a world expert," says Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona. While RMI deals with ideas and theories, it sells its work largely on the basis of its practicality. Among the big-name companies that have sought RMI's help in lowering their electric bills are Xerox, Apple Computer, Marriott, and Boeing. Energy program director Michael Shepherd spends much of his time showing how minimum efficiency standards for lighting and motors can save considerable energy (and money) just as they have for appliances. RMI's economic renewal program stresses practical steps that have helped revive economically troubled towns. 'THE most important thing that happens as a result of our program is that people begin to talk with one another - often people who hadn't trusted each other before," says program director Michael Kinsley, who was a Colorado county commissioner for 10 years before joining RMI. "We don't stress theory; we stress what actually works in these little towns." Mr. Kinsley recently spent several days in the Sierra Nevada town of Placerville, Calif., where he met with the city council and appeared on the local ca ble TV channel. "What RMI is about is least-cost, demand-side analysis," says Kinsley, whose program's clients include the US Small Business Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the International City Manager's Association. Least-cost, demand-side thinking is especially important in charting the energy future, says Amory Lovins, and apparently many energy professionals agree. Among Competitek subscribers are 70 utilities and 50 to 60 government entities, including the US Energy Department, the USSR Academy of Sciences, and agencies in France, Switzerland, Thailand, Canada, the Netherlands, China, Australia, Sweden, Hong Kong, Italy, and New Zealand. Among RMI's board of directors are the head of Pacific Gas & Electric's demand-side activities and the head of strategic planning for the London Stock Exchange. RMI is an independent, nonprofit organization that does not engage in lobbying or litigation. "We talk to everybody and we have good relations all over the political spectrum," says Amory, although he adds that "I don't have much affection for corporate socialists who hide behind market rhetoric in order to promote their favorite turkeys." THE Lovinses have been very critical of the Bush administration's energy policy. "Reading the NES [National Energy Strategy], one has the feeling of having just wandered into a hidden valley populated by creatures long thought to have become extinct," Amory told a Washington press conference earlier this year. "We feel very strongly that it's a well-balanced strategy," responds Beth Miller of the Energy Department. "We are enthusiastic about conservation and renewables and alternate fuels, but we believe that conventional fuels are going to be around for some time longer and that we can't ignore the supply side of the equation, that we're not going to get there looking exclusively at demand reduction." As evidence that the administration is interested in more than just fossil fuels and nuclear power, Ms. Miller notes that the federal Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colo., (which suffered budget cuts during the Reagan years) is soon to be designated as a national laboratory for renewable energy. The Lovinses may have major philosophical differences with the Bush administration, but within the federal government and the energy industry, RMI does have its fans. Peter Johnson, former administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon has described the institute's role as "people who can come in and help us strip away the old delusions that block our view of today's realities." As chairman of the Southern California Edison Company, Howard Allen lauded Amory Lovins, stating that "his fore casts of a decade ago on electricity demand proved far more accurate than most of the prevailing mainstream views at the time." As to the future of RMI, Hunter says Competitek, the consulting service, may be spun off as a separate profitmaking organization operating out of Boulder, Colo., with its own board of directors. Looking ahead at new subjects to tackle, she cites third-world development as "an enormous black hole that could make or break [environmental and economic] sustainability." "One of the things we've always tried to do is remain flexible to issues that pop up," she says. "We try not to bind ourselves so irrevocably to a particular program that we can't go off in another direction - or create a new one."