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Amory Lovins at Mass MoCA on the Oil Endgame May 2, 2008

Posted by ficial in environment.
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I saw Amory Lovins (of RMI fame) speak at Mass MoCA last Wednesday night about Winning the Oil Endgame. It was neat to have such a big speaker in town, and it took a collaboration among four colleges (Williams College, Bennington College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Souther Vermont College) to get him here. In addition to whatever else results from the talk, getting those four institutions working together is a Good Thing and I hope to see more of it in the future.

The talk itself was a little strange, both in content and in larger ways. In a general sense, it seemed like the sort of presentation that would be given before a group of diplomats, pentagon officials, industry leaders, etc. and not really appropriate for an audience of students, academics, and community members. While there were interesting parts, in many ways it came off as largely.. irrelevant. As a speaker he came across either as confident, optimistic, and visionary, or as conceited, overly glib, and unrealistic, depending on how charitable or mean one was feeling. Not knowing much about him, after seeing his talk I’d guess he’s a libertarian and an engineer. The talk itself covered a lot of ground, and I’ll just touch on a few points.

He spent a lot of time talking about the hypercar, the design principles behind it, and the way the automotive industry has responded. The hypercar concept is a good one and worth reading about in more detail. Essentially, the idea is that modern materials and manufacturing methods can let us build vehicles that are cheaper and safer than our current ones and that simultaneously get 3x or better mileage and can be adapted to run on fuels / power sources other than gasoline. The design process used was also interesting in the way it exploited spirals of efficiency. For example, lighter materials means the car weighs less which means it needs a less powerful, smaller engine which means it weight even less which means this that or the other part can be removed, and so on. The result is a vehicle built out of expensive parts and materials, but so many fewer of them that the finished car is actually cheaper than our current ones. It’s a nice reminder that there are positive feedback loops that can be good. The industry has responded slowly, but there are indications that they’re finally (after 10-15 years?) really beginning to buy into the idea and we may see cars that incorporate some hypercar ideas actually on the road in the next 5 years.

This touches on one of the less convincing aspects of the talk. He presented his ideas about the hypercar and suggested that it made such good business sense that whoever pursued it would dominate the industry and that it was nigh inevitable. This seemed largely at odds with reality. That is, the hypercar concept has been kicking around for quite a while now and he’s been advocating for it rather intensely and even with 3 million+ dollars worth of RMI effort in the project, it’s only now that the industry is even beginning to look at it seriously. If it was all as good as he says, it all should have fallen into place 20-30 years ago and we’d all be driving 200 kg cars that got 120 miles to the gallon. This discrepancy between his model and reality suggests that one of the other is flawed…

He tossed around a lot of numbers about various returns on investment and consumer savings, but glossed over the difference between societal benefit and individual or corporate benefit. For example, if things work out as he believes and we quickly manage to reduce our transportation oil consumption by 50% that represents a vast savings to the country at large. However, that also represents a vast LOSS for whoever would have sold that oil.

He also tossed around the phrases ‘cellulosic ethanol‘ and ‘algal oil‘ with gleeful abandon. Perhaps with his connections he knows something about pending breakthroughs and / or announcements. The last I heard we were still a long ways away from prime-time on those technologies. Anyone know any more details about that stuff? Regardless, there’s a lot to be said for designing for the future. The trick is designing for the future that will happen rather than just the future one wishes would happen.

On a related note, he seemed to have some strange blind spots, especially in the realm of ecology. He used the term ‘forestry waste products’ several times when talking about feed stocks for ethanol and avoiding using food crops for fuel, but came across as oblivious to the ideas that those ‘waste products’ are actually an important element for forest health. We’re already seeing some issues related to that in whole tree harvesting. With modern process there aren’t really any waste products. If, as he proposes, cellulosic ethanol is a future major fuel for our transportation then that may not bode well for our forests and associated systems. Environmental conscience aside, forests perform some really important services like water and air purification. It’s certainly worth some research into how much forest would be needed to sustain our current and future fuel consumption.

He stated the 70% of our oil goes to transportation and the remaining 30% to buildings. I’d thought agricultural use was a significant part of our oil budget as well.

ETA: The government data suggests the breakdown is something like 60% transport, 27% heating (fuel oil), and 13% everything else. Look at the Finished Petroleum Products section of the linked chart for more detailed numbers. So, he was off, but closer than my best guess was.

Back to the larger talk, one thing I found very strange was how he completely avoided talking about anything individuals could or should do. He focused only on the really large organizations: major auto manufacturers, huge retailers, the DoD, whole governments, etc. On some levels, that makes a lot of sense to me – such groups have huge leverage, and convincing the relatively small number of people that direct those groups can have a disproportionately large effect. However, the flip side of his message was that we as consumers should do nothing different, that the way we behave with respect to resource use is good and normal and even necessary. I have real problems with his implications in that direction and I think his lack of consideration on that front is a serious problem with his thinking.

He had some neat info about modern material and the toughness of carbon fiber composites. He didn’t get into the manufacturing process of such things at all. I’m curious about the embedded resources / energy. I suspect it’s less than metals (if you include mining costs) and more than woods. If anyone has more info about it please post a link or some such.

So, overall it was an interesting talk, possibly even a good talk, but definitely not a great one.



1. MJ - May 3, 2008

Thanks for the insight – I would like to have gone to see this charlatan, but it didn’t work out. Lovins is a fraud, a Big Business/Pentagon handmaiden, a greenwashing, pious engineer of cutthroat capitalism who deserves nothing but contempt. He is exactly the face of Williams, a place of suffocating self-enrapturement that is up to its eyeballs in complicity in the corporate war machine. I hope his precious Colorado banana plantation grows black.
I guess you could say I have my issues, and what better way than to let loose with a little feedback every so often…

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