Op-Ed: My Breakfast with Amory Lovins

Rocky Mountain Institute founder leaves you hungry for more

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Amory Lovins is everywhere these days. Turn on the TV, and he’s on Charlie Rose. Open “The Economist,” and there he is being celebrated. It was kind of surreal to see him come walking into my boardroom for breakfast recently.

If you don’t know Amory, you should.

He is more than an iconoclast — he’s a genius on a mission. Deconstructing his most recent work, “Winning the Oil Endgame,” is a popular cocktail party game in the salons where energy policy wonks gather.

Twenty-six years ago, Amory founded the Rocky Mountain Institute. He wasn’t interested in staffing a think tank — he wanted a “do tank” to focus on a wide range of environmental and energy issues. Since then, RMI has redesigned more than $30 billion worth of business facilities with the goal of achieving radical energy efficiency. The impact and passion of his work finally is being fully appreciated by the engineering community.

For more than two decades, Amory has urged that universal energy efficiency be our highest priority. In an era of ever newer and more elaborate concepts behind alternative energy sources, Amory pushes the simple idea that existing “bad engineering” is wasting staggering amounts of energy and, as a consequence, putting this oil- and gas-dependent nation at risk.

He enjoys the reaction he gets when he says he advocates nothing short of the “non-violent overthrow of engineering as we know it.” RMI projects would not enjoy the successes they’ve racked up, Amory says, if existing engineering was really good.

As an engineering dean, I could feign offense if I didn’t agree so much with Amory’s core principles. I recently preached from this column that we are late to the table in focusing on energy-efficient designs. Further, we know that systems consuming significantly less energy also have less impact on our environment. This is the very foundation of good engineering — getting two or more benefits from one design principle.

RMI is starting a new initiative Amory calls “10Xe” to seek out ways to achieve order of magnitude improvements in engineering — particularly in the areas of efficiency and the environment. This is the same kind of big push that has been the basis for DARPA’s success in developing path-breaking security and defense systems.

Incrementalism is way too common in engineering today and we are more afraid of risk than ever (just consider our space program). Our education system is clearly a big part of the problem — largely unchanged since the second world war. What we really need now is the non-violent overthrow of engineering education as we know it. Not an easy challenge, but we won’t develop more Amory Lovins by pushing talented students through an education system that performs like a bloated 1970s American car.

Amory Lovins is a MacArthur Fellow with no fewer than 10 honorary degrees, but this is also a man who talks over breakfast with real passion (and in incredible detail) about the crop-producing banana farm inside his home on the outskirts of Aspen. The “Man Who Has Finally Been Proven Right” is particularly proud that while his Colorado home/farm sits more than a mile-high in the frigid Rocky Mountains, his bananas don’t drain any energy from traditional heating methods.

Yes, this was a very satisfying breakfast, but I seemed to have left hungrier than ever.