We've barely scratched the surface of how energy efficiency can help the energy transition

Amory Lovins, 'the Einstein of energy efficiency,' says energy efficiency is a continuous spectrum that keeps rapidly evolving, and better design is twice as efficient as the gains from just dropping fossil fuels.

Amory Lovins has been writing and talking about energy efficiency for over 50 years but he says the need to use energy more productively and efficiently is now more acute than ever.

At the same time, the scope for saving energy is also bigger than ever.

Lovins' views have been crucial to our understanding of energy efficiency. He's advised major firms and numerous governments, authored hundreds of papers and books, and taught at several universities most recently Stanford. Time magazine named him one of the world’s most influential people.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface of how much efficiency is available,” Lovins told the SwitchedOn podcast. “It's about two to four times what I thought in the 70s, and as we learn more about it, especially what we can do with design, the potential just keeps getting bigger and cheaper.”

Whilst enormous gains have been made in energy efficiency through better operational practices and technical improvements – turning off appliances, insulating, plugging cracks and gaps, etc - Lovins says that energy efficiency is a continuous spectrum that keeps rapidly evolving.

He believes the key to better efficiency now is better design.

“What we haven't yet really tackled is how to design buildings, factories, processes, equipment, vehicles, as whole systems for multiple benefits. That's what we call integrative design,” says Lovins. “That is twice as powerful as the factor two or three efficiency gains that we can get just by switching from burning fossil fuels.”

In 1976 Lovins predicted that over the next 50 years, the US could nearly quadruple overall energy efficiency, but by 2010 in a study he called ‘Reinventing Fire,’ he found the savings were twice what he’d previously thought, but at a third of the cost.

“That's now looking conservative as we learn more about integrative design…. the current evidence shows you could about quintuple end use efficiency by about 2060, or treble it by about 2040.”

A passive solar house in the middle of Colorado

Lovins has been walking the talk on integrative design for decades. In the 1980s he built a passive solar house, and banana farm, from where he spoke to the SwitchedOn podcast.

The basalt walls of Amory Lovins passive solar house in the Rocky Mountains (Image: Rocky Mountains Institute)

“It's 2,200 metres up in the Rocky Mountains near Aspen, Colorado, where temperatures used to dip to minus 44 Celsius … and yet in the middle of the house, we've harvested so far 81 passive solar banana crops with no heating system.”

Lovins says it was cheaper to build his passive solar house, even 40 years ago, rather than a standard American home, because they saved on construction costs by not building a heating system.

“We optimised the building as a system, not the insulation as a component.”

Lovins says most engineers advise householders to install enough insulation to repay the cost of what you would save in heating over the years.

“Which sounds reasonable, but it's wrong,” says Lovins. “In this house we went to two or three times that level until we got rid of the furnace, ducts, fence pipes, barbed wires, controls, fuel supply arrangements.”

Lovins also reduced the friction created from pumping energy through the house by changing the pipes coming out of the pumps and the ducts coming out of the fans. Rather than “thin, long and crooked” he made them “fat, short and straight.”

“This saves typically 80 or 90% of the friction, but in my house 97%.”  

“If everybody did this it would save about half the world's coal fired electricity, or a fifth of all electricity, and you get your money back in about a year.”

“It's not a technology, it's a design method, and not many people have yet thought of design as a way to achieve speed and scale.”

The interior garden of Amory Lovins' passive solar house (Image: Rocky Mountains Institute)

Making energy efficiency great again

Energy efficiency has been regarded as the poor cousin of renewable technology, which is more likely to grab the headlines in stories about the energy transition.

“Energy is invisible and the energy you don't use is almost unimaginable,” says Lovins. “So even though in the US the energy savings since 1975 add up to 25 times more than the increase in renewable supply, the renewables get practically all the headlines, because you can see them there on the rooftop and the skyline.”

Thinking about energy efficiency is also hampered by a belief that we can’t get more efficient, that “we must already have wrung out all the work from our energy that's worth doing.”

The growing electrification movement is however enabling many more people to realise the importance of efficiency gains - it’s unlocking people's understanding that what makes these electrification technologies superior is their greater energy efficiency.

“We see it with electric vehicles that are two to four times more efficient than the internal combustion engine, and the heat pump that is three to four times more efficient,” Daan Walter, Principle of Strategy at RMI (the Rocky Mountain Institute), told the SwitchedOn podcast.

Walter argues that electrification is the gateway into efficiency thinking – by encouraging us to move away from just thinking about the upfront costs of appliances, it provides an opportunity to change the narrative about efficiency.

“To turn fossils into something useful, you need to turn heat into something useful, and that is an incredibly inefficient process,” says Walter. “We lose about two thirds of the energy that goes into our system before we can turn it into something useful, like moving a car or creating a litre of hot water to shower.”

He says this is the ‘design fault’ of burning fossil fuels.

“If you convert it into a dollar value, that's almost $5 trillion per year that we spend on energy that subsequently goes up in smoke, I mean, literally goes up in smoke because it's fossil fuels that you're burning. That’s 5% of global GDP.”

But Walter argues that “the arc of energy history bends towards efficiency.”  He’s confident the greater energy efficiency inherent in renewable energy will win out over fossil fuels.

“Efficiency is not a topic that sits next to technology change - efficiency sits within technology change. The successful technologies are more efficient, and more efficient technologies are successful.”

Walter says this is a trend that can be seen over the past 150 years in energy history.

“When gas boilers came into the British heating system, for example, they replaced coal, because they were about three to four times more efficient than the standard coal stove.”

“Even though gas was more expensive than coal, it didn't matter, because you use much less of it.”

“Time and again in history, we see this shift where an efficiency gain leads to a technology change, and it goes to the core I think of how important efficiency is.”

You can hear the full interview with Amory Lovins and Daan Walter on the SwitchedOn podcast here.

Amory will also be in Australia to give the key note speech at the 2024 EEC National Conference, 14-16 May, in Sydney. You can find details here.

Author
Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
May 26, 2024
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