Astonishing Energy Futures

“Markets make a good servant but a bad master, and a worse religion.” – Amory Lovins

Guest blog by Susan Sun

I didn’t think my philosophy of life had a motto until I heard those words by Amory Lovins, the 2019 keynote lecturer at the Sussex Energy Group, University of Sussex. Amory Lovins is a physicist, energy analyst, chair emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute, and author of 31 books including Natural CapitalismSmall Is Profitable, and Reinventing Fire.

To sum up his talk on Thursday 12th September on Astonishing Energy Futures: technology can save us from the climate crisis – but not in the way you might think. His bold hypothesis is that energy efficiency, far from being a dwindling and rising-cost resource, can continue to decouple wealth from energy consumption long into the future.

Even since 1975, improvements in energy efficiency – not just in products, but the way whole systems are designed – have saved an amount of primary energy consumption in the US thirty times that generated by renewable energy growth in the same time period.

US primary energy consumption since 1975, showing the difference between actual and what it would’ve been if 1975 products and infrastructure had continued as they were – that wedge is 30 times the increased energy generated by renewables’ growth! (Image credit: Amory Lovins)

While this impressive feat has put us in a much better position than we’d otherwise be in, there’s no time for complacency: the line of energy consumption is still going up, and so too are greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Amory Lovins took us through a few examples of integrative design. You can read more quantitative detail in his open-access paper (with four-minute video abstract), How big is the energy efficiency resource?.

An un-glamorous example to start with. Pipes are everywhere in factories. If you can make pipes shorter, fatter and straighter, you cut down the friction of pushing things through the pipe – then you don’t need as much energy for pumping – and what’s more, you don’t need such big pumps.

Left: long, thin, crooked pipes, needing big pumps to overcome flow friction, and what they should be on the right: shorter, fatter, straighter. (Image credit: Amory Lovins)

Accommodating these shorter, fatter, straighter pipes requires a complete re-thinking of the design process. Instead of laying out the machinery first and then fitting pipes around them, you lay out the pipes first and position machinery around them. It’s not snazzy, it’s not a fancy new widget or gizmo, it’s just a different way of thinking about things. Lovins says, “Bend minds, not pipes.”

And it leads to incredible results: flow friction reduced by 80-90%, at the same or even lower capital expenditure, or payback within a year in the case of retrofits – because you’re not paying for such big powerful pumps and motors. Replicate that in all the factories in the world and you could halve global coal-fired electricity generation!

​Apply these ideas to buildings and you get the PassivHaus concept. To vehicles, and the result is ultra-lightweight (but very safe) cars. Then match the entire energy supply system to smaller demand and today’s market prices, and according to Amory Lovins:

  • Renewable energy will become the norm, even without carbon taxes (which he favours) or subsidies (which are generally larger for non-renewables) – because renewables are getting cheaper, and the more we install, the cheaper they get
  • The Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 deg.C above pre-Industrial can be met without negative emissions technology (such as bio-energy with carbon capture) – few today dare to project such deep reductions in energy demand as integrative design would bring about
  • GDP could keep growing in the meantime, in developed and developing countries alike—(though it does not measure human happiness, and markets cannot substitute for ethics, faith, or politics).

If you’re still skeptical, that’s OK – I am too. Even if the world that results isn’t quite the utopia we hope for, it’ll still be better than the world of today.

For a longer version of this blog, please go to Susan’s website.


“Susan Sun is a PhD student in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Storage and its Applications at the University of Southampton. Her interest is in solar PV and battery systems, and for what cases second-life electric vehicle batteries can truly deliver both financial and environmental benefits.”

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