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Energy guru sees oil-free world

Amory Lovins says his plan to take the United States away from oil means investing heavily now but reaping much more in return later.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The United States has a future beyond oil, and Amory Lovins has a plan to take the country there.

Lovins, who emerged as one of the nation's most influential energy thinkers during the last oil crisis three decades ago, drives a hybrid that gets 64 miles per gallon and lives in a solar-powered house that is so energy efficient, he's able to grow bananas in an indoor jungle high in the Rocky Mountains.

Now, as crude prices hit record highs and American soldiers battle to control Iraq, he's preaching what he practices, trying to persuade America's business and government leaders that the nation can end its dependence on foreign oil, and make money along the way.

"The United States can get completely off oil and revitalize its economy led by business for profit," says Lovins, who runs the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo. "Saving and substituting for oil costs less than buying oil. Getting completely off oil makes sense and makes money."

A new book by Lovins and his think-tank colleagues, "Winning the Oil Endgame," offers a technology-driven blueprint to wean the country off petroleum within a few decades: first, double the fuel efficiency of cars, trucks and airplanes; then replace gasoline with alternative fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen.

Invest now, save later
The transition to a post-petroleum future will generate jobs, create new industries, reduce greenhouse gases and improve national security, he says. For now, automakers and energy firms need to adopt new business strategies, and lawmakers need to craft policies that promote this oil-free future. By his estimates, it will require an investment of $180 billion over ten years, that will save $70 billion a year by 2025.

"Right now, the world supply/demand balance for oil is so terribly tight that any little thing just throws the market into a tizzy," Lovins said. "We're not going to drill our way out of this one."

Many experts agree that the country's oil dependency is unsustainable and leads to economic volatility, global warming and geopolitical instability. Automakers are already developing more fuel-efficient vehicles that run on hybrid-electric engines, clean diesel, biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells.

But ultimately, consumers will determine whether these technologies succeed commercially, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

"Consumers are in the driver's seat," Bergquist said. "Many consumers don't want to sacrifice performance, passenger room, cargo space, safety and even towing ability for greater fuel efficiency."

Other obstacles also block the road to an oil-free future:  hydrogen- and biofuel-powered vehicles are years away from becoming mainstream, and without a network of fueling stations to serve them, automakers are reluctant to build such vehicles.

Some observers are even skeptical that the petroleum era is nearing its end.

"We've learned that the forecasts have been wrong for a hundred years," said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. These forecasts "miss out on the fundamental dynamics of markets and technology."

On energy path since 1970s
Lovins, 54, isn't daunted by critics and has never been content to follow convention. Born in Washington, D.C., he studied physics at Harvard and Oxford universities, but dropped out of both to pursue his interest in energy policy.

"I realized that energy was at the root of many security, development and environment problems," says Lovins, whose nine doctorates are all honorary.

He gained national attention with his 1976 Foreign Affairs essay, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken." While most analysts were focused on how to secure more oil — what he calls the "hard energy path" — Lovins argued for the "soft energy path" of boosting fuel efficiency and developing alternative fuels.

Since then, Lovins has authored more than two dozen books, founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 and advised governments and industries worldwide. While other environmentalists argue about political approaches, Lovins crunches the numbers needed to win over business executives and policy-makers in Washington.

Longtime friend and colleague Kyle Datta, now the institute's managing director, describes Lovins, a pianist and mountain photographer, as a "renaissance man" and a "genius buddha."

"He is really modest and humble and truly open to new ideas," Datta says.

Details of the vision
Lovins' plan calls for reducing oil consumption by half by doubling fuel efficiency, mainly through ultralight vehicles with advanced materials such as carbon fiber that improve both safety and performance. "We no longer have to choose between making cars light and safe," he said.

Meanwhile, the nation must transition to alternative fuels, he says. Ethanol from corn is now sold in some Midwestern states, but hasn't proven economical elsewhere. Lovins advocates making ethanol from plant waste, such as corn stalks, switchgrass and poplar trees.

Another alternative is hydrogen, often touted as the fuel of the future. Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Lovins wants to boost the efficiency of natural gas, then use the saved energy to produce the hydrogen.

To make it happen, he says the government should spend more on research into fuel efficient technology, advanced materials and alternative fuels; charge fees for inefficient vehicles while offering rebates for efficient vehicles; scrap inefficient vehicles; and help low-income Americans buy or lease efficient ones.

And if this plan is widely adopted, Lovins calculates that the country could stop importing oil by 2040 and run without oil by 2050. Long before then, fuel efficient cars and alternative fuels could become new growth industries for urban and rural America.

"We're in that period where one idea is dying and another is struggling to be born," Lovins says.