Seven years ago, if Amory Lovins had appeared at the Colorado School of Mines for a debate on energy policy, it would have been rather like sending a lone gladiator to battle the lions.
The school is one of the nation's foremost training grounds for mining and petroleum engineers. Mr. Lovins, a soft-spoken physicist, has been one of the leading advocates of an energy policy based on conservation and the use of renewable resources such as solar energy and wind power.
It's a sign of the major changes that have occurred in the nation's thinking about energy that at a recent debate with Lovins here, School of Mines professors found themselves conceding a number of points to the environmentalist , although often with serious reservations.
Since 1976, Lovins has been a controversial figure in energy circles. While a British representative of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, he published an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine that set the energy establishment on its ear. Lovins crafted a coherent energy policy using technology that wouldn't harm the environment. Many in the energy industry bitterly attacked his work. Still, his labeling of conventional technologies - coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear energy - as ''hard'' and renewable energy sources as ''soft'' has played a major role in shaping the United States energy debate ever since.
Compared with the emotional clashes between Lovins and his critics in the past, this recent encounter was cordial, even friendly. Still, there was an underlying tension borne of divergent views, coupled with a common realization that fuel shortages and heated energy politics can, and probably will, return.
Many of Lovins's pronouncements are as free-market oriented as those of Interior Secretary James Watt. If the energy market were deregulated and government subsidies for traditional technologies were removed, conservation and alternative energy would have an even greater edge, Lovins maintains. Unfortunately, this is politically impractical, he adds, quipping, ''It would be nice if we had an administration which really believes in the marketplace.''
Events in recent years have reinforced a number of his positions. The estimates of future US energy requirements Lovins made in the mid-1970s, dismissed at the time as unrealistically low, are now higher than current official estimates of the US Department of Energy.
''Within eight years, the highest official projection dropped below the lowest, unofficial one. This just goes to show that none of us were very good prophets,'' Lovins comments.
The big surprise since 1979, he says, is the quickness with which energy conservation and the use of renewable energy sources have taken hold. Since then , energy savings have been a hundred times greater than the amount of additional energy supplies that have been developed. And more electrical capacity has been added in the form of small-scale hydroelectric plants than in coal- and nuclear-fired power plants combined. New electrical power plants simply cannot compete in the marketplace with conservation, Lovins argued: ''Forget about construction costs, conservation is cheaper than operating new power plants.''
Lovins has also been raising the matter of national security recently. He's come up with a new corollary to the philosophy, ''Small is beautiful'': ''Big is brittle.'' In a recent book, he and Hunter Lovins, his wife and collaborator, argue that a decentralized energy system based on soft technologies would be much harder for terrorists or foreign agents to disrupt than the current, highly centralized system.
A decade ago, the argument over energy conservation centered on whether or not it was practical. Today it has shifted to determining conservation's ''point of diminishing returns.'' As energy efficiencies increase, additional conservation becomes more difficult and costly. At some point, further conservation is no longer practical. While Lovins sees increased energy efficiencies as ultimately cutting US consumption to less than a quarter of what it is currently, his School of Mines critics are more cautious.
''In evaluating potentials, like conservation, it is easy to become overly optimistic. Engineers who have extrapolated too far from normal ranges have built bridges which have fallen and dams that have broken,'' points out Frank Matthews, an engineering physics professor.
Another professor, Phillip Burgess, finds several areas of agreement with Lovins: ''I think we all can agree that we need more conservation, and that this will be achieved primarily by pricing rather than education. We also agree that we need more realistic energy pricing over the long term.''
While it's easy to nitpick specific figures in Lovins's work, the strength of his basic argument cannot be denied, Mr. Burgess says. ''The real irony is that Reaganomics is working, is bringing about the ends which Lovins advocates,'' he adds.