Charles Komanoff

 

Soft Energy Stasis

This essay was posted on the Sallan Foundation Web site, www.sallan.org, on Nov. 1, 2005. It subsequently ran in the Greensboro (NC) News & Record on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2005, as "Energy guru Lovins continues to preach wrong meassage."

Is it time for Amory Lovins to learn a new tune?

I heard Amory speak at NYU in October 2005, on a panel discussing oil and U.S. security. His talk was full of the usual bons mots ("America is the Saudi Arabia of negabarrels"), nifty gear (a carbon composite hypercar frame section) and eye-popping claims (simply by deploying existing technologies, the United States could zero out oil for transportation by 2025 at a profit, even at bygone low oil prices).

Another bravura performance by the world's best-known and most compelling energy guru. But something didn't click this time. The audience was attentive but passive. When Amory finished, there was no applause.

Perhaps it was decorum—with a governor and a former CIA director up next, the crowd might have been stunned by the gravitas of it all. But something else may have been at work: disbelief.

Three decades ago, Amory unveiled his visionary "soft energy path" in which ubiquitous efficiency and widespread "renewables" would trump coal, oil and nuclear. But in those thirty years something has gone dreadfully wrong. The U.S. uses 25% more oil, burns 75% more coal and generates 35% more greenhouse gases than it did in the mid-1970s.

And with China and India embarking on the same "development" path, the future of global energy use looks very bleak indeed. Weekly hurricanes and vanishing Arctic ice have suddenly served notice that global warming is no far-off threat but the terrifying new normal.

Yet be of good cheer, Lovins advises. "The U.S. improved its GDP-to-oil ratio by 5% a year from 1977 to 1985; we can do it again." What Amory doesn't say is that the lion's share of that gain came not from efficiency but from utilities' and factories' replacing oil with cheaper coal and natural gas—a "one-shot" with no encore and with its own severe environmental costs.

Lovins insists that what he calls "technical efficiency" can be increased many-fold without taxing energy to raise its price. High fuel prices are helpful but not "dispositive," he told me the day after he spoke at NYU, citing institutions like Dupont Corp. and Seattle City Light that slashed energy use in the 1990s even as fuel prices were falling. Sure, and every so often, a charismatic principal can turn around an impoverished school despite 35 kids per class. Meanwhile, without structural reforms like smaller classes, the hundreds of other schools languish.

Likewise, though Amory has been evangelizing "the soft path" for thirty years, his handful of glittering successes have only evoked limited emulation. Why? Because after the price shocks of the 1970s, energy became, and is still, too darn cheap.

It's a law of nature, I'd say—or at least of Economics 101: inexpensive anything will never be conserved. When water's cheap, we'll let the faucet run and the hose leak and let our washing machines and suburban lawns gobble the stuff.

Same with energy. A billion and one decisions collectively determine aggregate energy use, and almost all, from instantaneous behavior choices to 50-year investments, turn on the price of energy.

So long as energy is cheap, Amory's magnificent exceptions will remain just that. Thousands of highly-focused advocacy groups will break their hearts trying to fix the thousands of ingrained practices that add up to energy over-consumption, from tax-deductible mortgages and always-on electronics to anti-solar zoning codes and un-bikeable streets. And all the while, new ways to use energy will arise, overwhelming whatever hard-won reductions these Sisyphean efforts achieve.

But if we make fuels expensive—really expensive, as befits the climate wreckage and political violence that oil and coal cause—then everything changes.

With steep fuel taxes, best implemented in the form of steadily rising carbon taxes, the full potential of technical efficiency that Lovins rightly touts will finally be factored into those billion and one decisions.

How to equitably tax energy is a subject for another time; from a political standpoint, the secret is tax-shifting (e.g., in the U.S., phasing out sales and social security taxes as fuel taxes kick in). The mechanisms are well-understood; it's not a technical problem. What's lacking, so far, is a broad coalition committed to putting energy taxes on the political map, starting with environmentalists and "security hawks" and reaching out to the six billion other equally endangered souls clinging to our besieged planet.

We need to jump-start this coalition now. Who better to lead the charge than Lovins? Amory, are you listening? It's time to change the tune—or at least modulate into a different key.

Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist in New York City, collaborated with Amory Lovins in the 1970s and 1980s. For more, see komanoff.net.