Amory Lovins: Reinventing Human Enterprise for Sustainability

Whether your company is looking for a huge competitive advantage, a more responsible way to do business, or both, the Lovins approach may be the answer. If you only read one article on sustainability, make it this one.

Note: a slightly condensed version of this article appears in Shel Horowitz’s book Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, along with a lot of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.

Amory Lovins is a sweeping visionary in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, and Buckminster Fuller—but his focus is on how humans can fit better into this earth of ours. He lives in the Colorado Rockies, where it often goes well below zero Fahrenheit on winter nights. His house has no furnace (or air conditioner, for that matter)–and it stays so warm inside that he actually grows bananas. He uses about $5 per month in electricity for his home needs (not counting his home office).

Lovins, who has been preaching the gospel of radical energy reform for over 25 years, built his luxurious 4,000 square-foot home/office in 1983, to demonstrate that a truly energy-efficient house is no more expensive to build than the traditional energy hog–and far cheaper and healthier to run.

The payback for energy efficiency designs in Lovins’ sprawling superinsulated home was just 10 months. 95% of the lighting and virtually all the heating and cooling is provided by the sun, working in harmony with an ecosystem of plants, water storage devices, even the radiant heat of the workers in his office. Since renewable energy technology has improved enormously in the 18 years since his house was built, Lovins says he could do even better if he were building his house today.

Lovins, author of the classic Soft Energy Paths and co-author with his former wife Hunter Lovins and eco-capitalist Paul Hawken of Natural Capitalism (among many other books), is the co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, in Old Snowmass, Colorado (near Aspen). RMI’s staff of about 50 consults to businesses and government agencies large and small, helping them completely rethink energy and resource use.

This article is based on a visit to RMI in August 2001, and on a speech Lovins gave to the E.F. Schumacher Society ( in Amherst, Massachusetts, October 27, 2001. It has been fact-checked by Lovins and an RMI staff member.

Noting that energy efficiency since 1975 is already meeting 40% of U.S. power needs, Lovins claims a well-designed office building can save 80-90% of a traditional office building’s energy consumption.

Conventional building logic, says Lovins, says you insulate only enough to pay back the savings in heating costs. But Lovins points out that if you insulate so well that you don’t need a furnace or air conditioner, the payback is far greater, “because you also save their capital cost– which conventional engineering design calculations, oddly, don’t count.

“Big savings can cost less than small savings,” Lovins says–IF designers learn to think about the overall system, and how different pieces can work together to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. The trick is to look for technologies that provide multiple benefits, rather than merely solving one problem. For instance, there’s an arch in Lovins’s home that serves 12 different functions:

  • Structure (holds up the middle of the building)
  • Acoustic control
  • Thermal mass for space heating
  • Radiant heat radiator
  • Thermal mass for water preheating
  • Hot-air collector
  • Hot-water collector (absorber and support)
  • Daylight diffuser
  • Support for passive cooling vents
  • Support for hot-air downcomer ducts to air-to-air heat exchanger
  • Shade to limit solar entry in summer and prevent overheating of rear interior
  • Area separator and viewline definer (architectural function)He consulted on a 1,656 square foot tract house in Davis, California, where temperatures can reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit, which does not need any heat or air conditioning. This was a prototype under the auspices of Pacific Gas and Electric, designed by Davis Energy Group. If the methods used in the house were introduced on a mass scale, construction cost would be $1800 cheaper, and maintenance costs would be cut by $1600 per year. While it’s easier to achieve these dramatic savings in new construction such as this house, even on a retrofit, the improvements can be self-funded out of the savings they generate.

    Lovins rethought conventional pumping systems for an industrial project. “By switching from [conventional] small pipes and big pumps to big pipes and small pumps, you save more.” The wider pipes cut way down on friction, and they are laid out in the shortest and straightest lines. Eliminating the usual bends and turns not only reduces friction but dramatically cuts wear at the joints. “Short, straight pipes are more efficient than long crooked pipes, easier to insulate, smaller, lighter, quieter, and provide easy maintenance access and longer life.” It’s those multiple benefits again! And this system is cutting energy costs by 92%, not to mention significant construction cost savings and a more pleasant, better functioning operation.

    Lovins has also looked long and hard at transportation. He and his associates have developed amazing car designs, under the service mark “Hypercar SM.”

    Again, it’s a whole systems approach. By changing everything from the construction materials to power source to the aerodynamics to the possible uses of a parked car, Lovins’s team designed an SUV that not only can hold a whole family (or two people and their kayaks), but weighs 52% less than a Lexus SUV, can go 55 miles per hour on the energy the Lexus uses just for air conditioning, achieves the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon (except that it runs on hydrogen fuel cells–330 miles on 7-1/2 pounds of hydrogen), offers greater safety than a heavy steel SUV (even if it hits one), is undamaged by a 6-mph collision, emits only water, and is well made enough to be able to offer a 200,000 mile warranty!

    When parked, the Hypercar vehicle “could be designed to become a power plant on wheels”; plug it into the electrical grid and watch your meter spin backwards, eliminating any need for nuclear or coal plants.

    Here are some bullet points about Hypercar vehicles, taken from the website (web addresses are listed at the end of the article):

    Breakthrough Design & Technology

  • Unique, aerospace-inspired, lightweight and aerodynamic vehicle design
  • Fuel-cell powered hybrid-electric drive system
  • Run flat, low profile, low rolling resistance tires
  • Regenerative, active damping suspension
  • Brake- and steer-by-wire systems with side-stick vehicle control
  • Advanced, superior-comfort climate control system
  • Fault-tolerant 42-volt power supply & distribution
  • Powerful onboard information network
  • Scalable, modular manufacturing processes
  • Proprietary advanced composite manufacturing processes
  • No paint shop required (permanent color molded in)
  • Few body parts with self-aligning bonded jointsUncompromised Performance
  • Comfortably seats five adults and their gear
  • 99 mpg-equivalent (EPA 84 hwy, 115 city) using gaseous hydrogen fuel –yes, it’s actually more
    efficient on the stop-and-go, short-distance drives that make up so
    large a percentage of typical automobile use.
  • Emits only clean water
  • Accelerates 0–62 mph in 8.3 seconds
  • Can ascend a 44% grade with 1/2-ton payload
  • 330-mile range
  • Occupant safety cell undamaged in 35-mph collision with a fixed barrier
  • Meets 30-mph fixed-barrier Federal occupant safety standards in a head-on collision with a vehicle twice its weight, each going 30 mph
  • 69-cubic-foot cargo space
  • All-wheel drive with digital vehicle stability and traction control
  • Ground clearance adjustable from 5″ to 7.8″
  • Customizable, plug-in electronics and seamless software-based upgrades
  • Intuitive, easily customizable user interface
  • Integrated mobile communications with “intervention” feature for enhanced safety
  • Advanced on-board and remote diagnostics
  • Durable, rust-proof advanced-composite bodyLovins says cars like this could be in production within five years, dominate the market within a decade, and essentially wipe out today’s steel-bodied internal combustion-fired, polluting cars within 20 years. Hypercar, Inc. spun off from RMI as a separate business in 1999.

    But for Lovins, even this is not the true big picture. “We still have to look systemically at land use, alternative modes, virtual mobility, and transit; we need to drive less or run out of roads and space.” Even a super-advanced car can still get stuck in traffic, after all.

    Lovins has developed a few key principles over the years:

  • Design whole systems for multiple benefits, rather than components for single benefits
  • Redesign production to close all the loops in a system and eliminate both waste and toxicity
  • Reward service providers and customers who do more and better, with less, for longer
  • Reinvest the resulting profits in scarce natural and human capitalHe believes more and more companies will move away from providing product and toward service agreements. If you think of your company not as a carpet store, for example, but as a provider of quality flooring solutions, the new paradigm allows you to construct carpets in durable, washable, Solenium® tiles rather than rolls. When a carpet tile in a high-use area wears out, your service agent replaces that tile–with no need to move all the furniture out of the room. The worn tile can be remanufactured. There’s no roll of petroleum-based carpet clogging up the landfill for the next 10,000 years. The carpets require only 1/7 as much material–and 1/10 the capital.

    That’s exactly how Lovins’ client Interface Corporation, of Georgia, reinvented itself. Now the company supplies carpet tiles under a service lease–and since the new carpets are 4 times as durable, easy to wash, and can be removed only where they’re worn, “the company’s efficiencies, contributing over a fourth of its operating profits, have pulled it through a deep recession that many of its competitors didn’t survive, and its happy customers position it well to bounce back when the economy recovers.”

    “Figure out what questions to ask and the rest will take care of itself,” Lovins says.

    The sustainability model can have a huge impact not only in developed countries, but in areas of deep poverty too.

    Lovins described an effort by the Zero Emissions Research Initiative to “grow” houses out of bamboo, in a developing country with an acute housing shortage. The houses cost only about $1700 each, can be located where they’re most needed, and can finance themselves by selling excess bamboo to “carbon brokers” for energy or other uses. And of course, if the bamboo is cut back to build the houses (rather than cut down), the plant can regenerate and maintain an ongoing income stream.

    Curitiba, Brazil was a struggling city with deep-rooted problems. But when city planners began to look at its needs as a system, they were able to shape the agenda and pull the city out of crisis. A few examples: rather than building superhighways, they increased road capacity along several parallel routes; this was both much less costly and far less destructive to the neighborhoods. Then they provided density bonuses so that the arteries best suited to large traffic volumes could support more residents. And then they reinvented mass transit, with a bus system that moves people as efficiently as a subway, but at a fraction of the cost. The fully integrated approach to changing form a dying to a thriving city is told in the book, Natural Capitalism–and can be read online.

    Using nature as a model and mentor, Lovins encourages companies to rethink their waste streams, too. In many cases, the waste of one system can be “nutrient” for another process. Closing these loops is both cleaner and more efficient. (See related article on John Todd for more on creative re-use).

    One of the great things about the Lovins approach is that it relies on the private sector to “do well by doing good,” as the Quakers say. Companies that adapt to the systemic approach will be highly profitable key players in the new economy. “Early adopters will enjoy a HUGE competitive advantage,” Lovins says.

    For more information about Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute, and similar work by others, visit these websites: Rocky Mountain Institute, Natural Capitalism discusses Lovins’ four sustainability principles) —click here for the Curitiba story, Hypercar, Pacific Gas & Electric Advanced Customer Technology Test for Maximum Efficiency (energy-efficient tract house), Zero Emissions Research Initiative (bamboo houses).


    Shel Horowitz is the author of five books, including Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World. He is the owner of

    Note: a slightly condensed version of this article appears in Shel Horowitz’s book Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, along with a lot of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.


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