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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

From Megawatts to Negawatts

Air Date: Week of

Instead of consuming megawatts, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute says we need to be producing negawatts. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Amory Lovins about his energy efficient lifestyle.


GELLERMAN: So, if you can’t make more megawatts how about producing negawatts?
The idea of the negawatt conserving energy through greater efficiency started out as a typo – an “n” in place of an “m”. Energy activist Amory Lovins came across the mistake in a Colorado Public Utilities Commission report. The goof caught his fancy, and may help us power our future.

Amory Lovins founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that focuses on energy issues. He was in Hawaii when I caught up with him by phone and asked him about the negawatt.

LOVINS: A negawatt is electricity that’s saved by using it more efficiently or at a smarter time. So, you don’t need to produce it to get the same hot showers, cold beer, or other effect that you want.

GELLERMAN: And you’ve been living in a negawatt world for what – 25 years now?

LOVINS: Yeah. I live up in the Rockies, and the first thing we did was insulate it so well that it uses only about one percent of the normal amount of heating energy, and that comes from a couple of occasionally-run wood stoves, because you’ve got to burn the energy somehow. And then it also made the house eleven hundred bucks cheaper to build because super installation and super windows cost eleven hundred bucks less to put in than it would have cost just to install a heating system, let alone to run it. So, we then took the saved money plus another $6,000—$1.50 a square foot—and used it to save, among other things, 90 percent of the household’s electricity. So, if we bought that instead of making it with solar, it would cost five bucks a month. And that’s with 1983 technologies that pay for themselves in the first ten months. If we did it today, the house would cost less than normal to build. With even greater efficiency, the household electric would be only about two bucks a month worth.

GELLERMAN: Have you upgraded your house since you built it?

LOVINS: Yeah, in fact, we’re doing that right now. We’re in the middle of the fifth lighting retrofit, the first daylighting retrofit. We’ve just upgraded the windows so they insulate like 14 sheets of glass, or, in one case, 19. And the technology continues to improve faster than we use it. It’s like the low-hanging fruit keeps mushing up around the ankles, and spilling over the tops of our waders, and the innovation tree keeps pelting our head with more fruit.

GELLERMAN: What, if any, creature comforts are you missing?

LOVINS: None. We have all modern conveniences, but we use very efficient lighting, a lot of daylighting. In fact, we’re just adding some daylighting. And we have all the normal kitchen appliances. But we get our space and water heating 99 percent from solar, and we designed the house so it also keeps itself cool so we don’t need air conditioning. Although, if we did, we would need very little, even in a hot climate. A friend of mine in Bangkok built a house actually modeled on ours, and it uses a tenth of normal air conditioning energy to get better comfort at the same construction costs.

Amory Lovins says his energy efficient lifestyle is comfortable and affordable.(Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Institute)

GELLERMAN: Now, I have those spiral, fluorescent efficient bulbs in my house. My house is pretty well insulated, but I’m a mere mortal. How can I achieve a negawatt life?

LOVINS: Well, whenever you buy something that uses electricity, buy it very thoughtfully. If it’s a major appliance, go to aceee.org—American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy—and look up their list of the most energy-efficient appliances, get one of those.

For example, my refrigerator uses eight percent and my freezer 15 percent of the normal amount of electricity, and then make sure you turn off stuff you’re not using. A substantial fraction—some people think about a fifth--of the electricity drawn by a typical house is stuff that’s turned off but still keep sipping juice. Those are called vampire loads so we need to kill them off.

GELLERMAN: What do you think it will take to make conservation efficiency the bedrock of our energy future?

LOVINS: There’s a rapidly spreading trend that I think will make this a general practice and not just in a handful of states. That’s called decoupling insured savings. What it means is you decouple the utility’s profits from how much energy it sells so it’s no longer rewarded for selling more and it’s no longer penalized for selling less. And then, if they do something smart to cut your bill like helping you get more efficient, you let them keep a small part, maybe a tenth of the savings as extra profits so that your and their incentives are entirely aligned. This has a miraculous effect on utility behavior.

GELLERMAN: So, is the electric utility sending you a check?

LOVINS: The electric utility sends me a small check for the extra solar electricity I make that’s more than I require from the part of the building – the office end – that does interact with the grid. The household, I just make it, put it in a big bunch of nickel-iron batteries, and then uses it as needed. I never run out.

GELLERMAN: Now, you’re in Hawaii right now. Are you able to take your energy efficient lifestyle with you there?

LOVINS: I’m staying at a friend’s house that uses almost no energy and many people around here use solar power. You know, they’re up in the hills. It’s very interesting what happens in the most oil dependent state when people suddenly realize that it’s a lot easier and cheaper not to buy the oil in the first place.

GELLERMAN: Amory Lovins is the founder, chairman, and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute of Snowmass and Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Lovins, thank you very much.

LOVINS: My pleasure.



Rocky Mountain Institute

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy


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