Energy Savings of Rocky Mountain Institute vs. Driving There
- =v= Somebody told me that they'd read of an assessment of the
energy impact of Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute in
Snowmass, Colorado. This is a very, very energy-efficient
building, but it's out in the middle of nowhere. The upshot
of the assessment was that it would save more energy overall
to locate RMI's offices to a moderately-energy-efficient
building in downtown Boulder, where people wouldn't have to
drive to it (or drive so far).
=v= I can't find this online, though. The closest I've found
is an complaint about how everyone has to drive so far to get
to the place, by James Howard Kunstler in his recent essay,
=v= Does this ring a bell with anyone? I'd really like to find
such an assessment, if it really exists.
P.S.: Apparently Kunstler and Lovins are currently having a
heated exchange in Salon.com, but I can't read it because I
don't have a subscription. I tried to use their "Day Pass"
(which involved looking at, of all things, a car ad), but it
didn't work. I'd love to see what they have to say to each
- On Sat, 4 Jun 2005, Jym Dyer wrote:
> P.S.: Apparently Kunstler and Lovins are currently having aAsk and ye shall receive. Jim Kunstler graciously provided the following
> heated exchange in Salon.com, but I can't read it because I
> don't have a subscription. I tried to use their "Day Pass"
> (which involved looking at, of all things, a car ad), but it
> didn't work. I'd love to see what they have to say to each
> other ...
for our entertainment.
Salon - Lovins / Kunstler exchange
May 26, 2005 | In his recent interview with Salon, "After the Oil Is Gone"
author James Howard Kunstler, doomsayer of the oil age, disses alternative
energy guru Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, for promoting
the institute's ultralight Hypercar as a panacea for the coming oil crunch.
After reading the interview, Lovins e-mailed Salon his response. We then gave
both energy experts another chance to zap one another. The following exchange
begins with Kunstler's comments from the interview.
James Howard Kunstler: I regard Lovins' Hypercar venture as a stupid
distraction, if for no other reason that it tends to promote the idea that we can
continue being a car-dependent society. Clearly we can't, no matter how good
the gas mileage is. I'm not against efficient cars. I'm against the idea that
somebody in Amory's position would focus on cars at the expense of something
else like promoting walkable communities. The New Urbanist movement, for
example, was campaigning for a much more intelligent response to suburbia at
around the same time. And the solutions that they were promoting made a lot more
sense than underwriting the continuation of the suburban fiasco. I think that
this was perhaps an unintended consequence of Lovins' venture. It shows the
limits of our imagination.
Amory Lovins: James Howard Kunstler criticizes me for supposedly suggesting
superefficient cars at the expense of walkable neighborhoods. If he'll kindly
look at my 1999 book "Natural Capitalism," he'll find that Chapter 2,
"Hypercars and Neighborhoods," emphasizes the importance of both, and strongly
supports New Urbanism. It suggests practical and profitable ways to build very
efficient cars and not need to drive them much, so we can have communities
worth living in and traveling to. I can't imagine why this approach should be
deemed objectionable -- unless, of course, he simply didn't ascertain my actual
His claim that there is no practical alternative to current oil dependence,
other than dramatic changes in settlement patterns and lifestyles, is also
extensively rebutted in our peer-reviewed, independent study "Winning the Oil
Endgame." If Mr. Kunstler thinks our study is wrong, he would do a public
service by explaining how. Meanwhile, serious students of this subject may be
forgiven for preferring our well-documented analysis to his qualitative
Kunstler: Amory Lovins claims his study, "Winning the Oil Endgame," was
"peer-reviewed." This may mean little more than that his ideas were endorsed by
friends and associates. I think that Mr. Lovins' intentions are good, but I
stick by my assertion that his work on the Hypercar has been a waste of time
and intellectual capital and has only led the public to believe that we can
continue a car-dependent way of life. In Mr. Lovins chapter "Hypercars and
Neighborhoods," he devotes 24 pages to the technical discussion of designing
Hypercars and slightly less than two pages on the discussion of neighborhoods --
none of the latter including any technical discussions of civic (i.e., human
habitat) design. I think this demonstrates pretty clearly that he is not
paying attention to the right things.
I also stand by my assertion that we will not be able to run the Interstate
Highway System, Disney World, the New Jersey suburbs, or any of the other
furnishings and accessories of the American dream on any known alternatives to
petroleum and its byproducts. For substantive argument, I recommend Chapter 4
("Beyond Oil") in my book, "The Long Emergency." Finally, I find it ironic
that the "green" headquarters of Mr. Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute is
located in the back country of Colorado, in a place that his 40-plus employees all
have to drive to. It is, in effect, a hyper-suburban corporate campus
masquerading as an environmentally sensitive and ecologically meaningful
Lovins: Three more shots from the hip, three misses.
1. Under RMI's policy of rigorous peer review, "Winning the Oil Endgame" was
sent in draft, in whole or in part, for comment by 139 experts, chiefly in
industry. A partial list is on Page 278, and other informants are acknowledged
on Pages 279-280. The thoroughness and diversity of this review process, and
the transparency of RMI's posting the book and all its technical backup free
at www.oilendgame.com, have contributed, since its September 2004 release,
to the absence of any substantive critique of its analytic content or logic --
as distinct from Mr. Kunstler's mere refutation by emphatic dismissal.
2. Those who read Chapter 2 of "Natural Capitalism," "Reinventing the
Wheels: Hypercars and Neighborhoods," will find that it equally emphasizes and
carefully integrates these two topics, though the car section's technical content
makes it longer (17 pages vs. nine pages for settlement patterns and
policies to reduce driving). Green real-estate development, a field RMI pioneered,
is more fully described in Chapter 5, and there's an outstanding example of
integrated urban planning in Chapter 14. Mr. Kunstler reinforces the impression
that he hasn't read the arguments he's criticizing, let alone RMI's
industry-standard text "Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate" and
its accompanying CD of 200 case studies.
3. Calling RMI's main campus (at 7,100 feet in Old Snowmass, Colo.) "a
hyper-suburban corporate campus masquerading as ... environmentally sensitive"
seemed too bizarre to merit reply when David Owen, in the New Yorker (Oct. 2,
2004), said we'd promoted sprawl by not building in a city. But before this
notion gains more currency by Mr. Kunstler's further embroidery, some facts
should be noted.
RMI's main building is among the world's most energy-efficient, saving 99
percent of space- and water-heating energy, 90 percent of household electricity
(the rest is solar-generated), and 50 percent of water, all with a 10-month
payback in 1984. It has received more than 70,000 visitors and produced 28
indoor banana crops with no conventional heating system, down to -47 outdoors.
Other RMI buildings also use solar micropower, exceptionally energy- and
water-efficient appliances and fixtures, daylighting, superwindows and other
RMI's organization-wide practices also include: On-site housing nearby (with
high-speed wireless Internet) and bike parking for roughly half the staff
and their families, with carpooling and free or discounted bus passes for the
rest and a hybrid company car available to all employees; virtual and
distributed offices (with similar car-displacing policies) linked by a high-speed
virtual private network and Internet videoconferencing, which we also use
worldwide to displace much travel; flextime, work-at-home, inclusive staff
coordination, and community-building; buying 94 percent of electricity as
certified-green, plus 100 percent solar-powered hosting of several Web sites; associate
membership of the Chicago Climate Exchange, where we offset our small net
carbon dioxide emissions, and of Climate Neutral Network; and comprehensive
Though RMI's practices doubtless can be further improved (suggestions are
welcome), and are being continuously improved, I hope Mr. Kunstler will find
these achievements consistent with the goals he espouses. It has never been
true that all our staff must drive to work: Thanks to our nearby staff housing,
many staff walk, bike or (in season) ski to work, or telecommute from home,
and we encourage the rest to use our valley's outstanding bus system. One
recent employee who lives up the hill wanted to hang-glide to work, though he
couldn't flap hard enough to get back up. My own commute is about 10 yards
across the banana jungle.
Facts are more mundane than fantasies, but a better basis for conclusions.
- =v= Thank you for posting the exchange to this discussion!
I'm an admirer of both of these guys. My environmental
activism dates back to the anti-nuke movement, where Lovins
was perhaps the best source for information. So I had high
hopes for his "hypercar" ideas in the early 1990s, but then
I got disillusioned with them.
| Lovins: ... If he'll kindly look at my 1999 book "Natural
| Capitalism," he'll find that Chapter 2, "Hypercars and
| Neighborhoods," emphasizes the importance of both, and
| strongly supports New Urbanism.
=v= I remember this as well, but unfortunately outside the
book, the RMI has not been energetic with this support.
Perhaps it's because New Urbanists have the topic covered
and the RMI is working on its own niche. Perhaps it's
because anything car-related gets over-hyped as The New
Next Great Thing, Whatever It Is (even on this list).
| ... RMI's industry-standard text "Green Development:
| Integrating Ecology and Real Estate" and its accompanying
| CD of 200 case studies.
=v= I would like to see this. It probably deserves more
attention than the hypercars.
| ... seemed too bizarre to merit reply when David Owen, in
| the New Yorker (Oct. 2, 2004), said we'd promoted sprawl
| by not building in a city.
=v= Uh oh. I looked this up, and I'd say Owen brought up
substantial points that deserve more consideration than
"seemed too bizarre." More below.
| RMI's main building is ... [facts and figures]. It has
| received more than 70,000 visitors and ... [more figures].
=v= Double uh oh. In amongst all the good-news numbers is
70,000 visitors, and my first thought is, how many of them
had to drive there? The vast majority, I suspect.
| [Description of facilities and features, including hybrid
| cars, bus passes, telecommunting, and carbon-trading.] It
| has never been true that all our staff must drive to work:
| Thanks to our nearby staff housing, many staff walk, bike
| or (in season) ski to work, or telecommute from home, and we
| encourage the rest to use our valley's outstanding bus system.
=v= Here Lovins is uncharacteristically vague and begs some of
the questions. How much is "many?" How many are using the bus?
How many are driving the company's hype-brid car? Is any bus
system really outstanding?
=v= Here's what Owen wrote about the RMI building:
|| With just four thousand square feet of interior space, it can
|| hold only six of R.M.I.'s eighteen full-time employees; the
|| rest of them work in a larger building a mile away. Because
|| the two buildings are in a thinly populated area, they
|| force most employees to drive many miles -- including trips
|| between the two buildings -- and they necessitate extra
|| fuel consumption by delivery trucks, snowplows, and other
|| vehicles. If R.M.I.'s employees worked on a single floor
|| of a big building in Manhattan (or in downtown Denver) and
|| lived in apartments nearby, many of them would be able
|| to give up their cars, and the thousands of visitors who
|| drive to Snowmass each year to learn about environmentally
|| responsible construction could travel by public transit
None of this seems bizarre to me, nor should it to Lovins.
As someone who has admired Lovins' very thorough work over the
years, I have to say I'm a little shocked that he'd dismiss
this and gloss over these hard questions.