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Shift to Energy Efficiency Could Pressure Putin, Says Conservation Pioneer Lovins

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is good reason to “crank with wartime urgency” the mass insulation of buildings and deployment of renewables, energy conservation pioneer Amory Lovins declares in an interview with the Guardian.

“We have a new energy crisis, and efficiency is the largest, cheapest, safest, cleanest, and fastest way to address it,” said Lovins, chair emeritus of the Snowmass, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. While new renewable technology usually gets more attention, he added, the time has come to focus on the energy efficiency measures that Lovins and others have been advocating for the last 50 years.

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Lovins also happens to be the grandchild of 20th century Jewish immigrants from small villages in Ukraine. Most of his Ukrainian ancestors were murdered by the Nazis in the infamous 1941 massacre of Tarashcha, which resulted in the deaths of 14,000 Jewish Ukrainians.

Eighty years later, fossil fuels are underwriting further vicious loss of life. But in the first two weeks of the war, western countries paid out €8 billion for oil and gas purchases from Russia, he told the Guardian.

The alternative is an urgently-needed shift to high efficiency in built environments through what Lovins calls “integrative, or whole-system, design.” For example, he said the decision to make a car out of carbon fibre rather than steel saves “two-thirds of the investment in water and half the energy, space, and time needed to put the car together.” And a lighter car means “a lot fewer batteries.” That means the higher cost of the carbon fibre is recouped by “needing fewer batteries and a smaller propulsion system all round.”

The cascading efficiencies that result from deploying whole-system design principles in every engineering context—from factories, to machines and equipment, to private homes, to public spaces—mean that “you’ll end up with several-fold larger energy savings than practically anyone now thinks is available. And the cost goes down.”

While whole-system design has to date been “mostly adopted by the private sector,” writes the Guardian, citing Walmart’s rethink of its delivery network as a case in point, “the prize for governments wanting to be truly energy efficient is huge.”

Lovins and RMI, the sustainability-focused think tank he founded in 1982, have “calculated that at least two-thirds (and probably as much as three-quarters) of all fossil fuel-generated energy could be profitably saved in most industrialized countries, and even more in developing countries, because they tend to be less efficient to begin with and can more easily build things right than fix them later,” says the Guardian.

Intelligent efficiency, smart buildings, and smart manufacturing are all gaining ground, with China the “undisputed champion” in the speed at which it is embracing the need to engineer energy conservation, Lovins said, citing the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. 

“The energy revolution has happened. Sorry if you missed it,” Lovins said, pointing out that “solar and wind are now the cheapest bulk power sources in 91% of the world, and the UN’s International Energy Agency (IEA) expects renewables to generate 90% of all new power in the coming years.”

Lovins cited nuclear power as “the most energy-inefficient design,”  writes the Guardian. “In 2020 the world added 0.4 gigawatts more nuclear capacity than it retired, whilst the world added 278 gigawatts of renewables— that’s a 782-fold greater capacity.”

That means renewables “swelled supply and displaced carbon as much every 38 hours as nuclear did all year.”