Prophet of a New Order
In 1976, when BPA was aggressively promoting nuclear power projects, Ken Lay had yet to form Enron, and Paul Joskow was still years away from conceiving the blueprint of a restructured utility industry, Amory Lovins, then a 29-year old consultant physicist, published a now famous article, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” in Foreign Affairs. Drawing on Robert Frost’s poetic image, he saw two contrasting energy paths the nation might follow over the next fifty years: a hard path relying on centralized fossil fuel and nuclear power stations to increase energy supply and a soft path based on efficiency and renewable energy sources. The commitment to a long-term coal economy, he prophesied, would double atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century. Described as the “enfant terrible of the energy left,” Lovins became a prolific author and proponent of sustainable energy whose urgent recommendations were dismissed by utility and nuclear interests but eventually gained mainstream credibility. He urged an end to fossil fuel subsidies and early on advocated a severance royalty, now called a carbon tax, in order to place renewable energy – wind, solar, and biomass – on an equal footing by reflecting the costs of externalities such as pollution and climate change. A brilliant promoter of his ideas, Lovins invented the concept of the negawatt – a theoretical unit of power representing the amount of energy saved (measured in watts) as a direct result of energy conservation or increased efficiency. Over time conservation gained political traction, finding expression in state and federal law supporting demand-side resources. In a recent book, Reinventing Fire, Lovins envisages several different possible scenarios for the future of the U.S. electricity system. One of these, “Renew,” charts a future in which by 2050 centralized renewables account for 80 percent of U.S. electricity generation. “Transform,” an even more ambitious forecast, envisions a radical change in the centralized grid architecture that has existed since Edison’s time, using distributed resources – rooftop solar, fuel cells, and small-scale wind coupled with smart meters – to create interlinked microgrids that can run in conjunction with the grid or seamlessly disconnect. Lovins relies on clean energy’s economic fundamentals rather than (as he earlier did) carbon pricing. His prescription has met with countervailing views from many energy economists but gains support from renewables’ recent market penetration. He remains a voice of cautious optimism in an otherwise bleak energy worldview.
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