Are you familiar with TED? It's the forum where leading thinkers hop on stage and offer their ideas and opinions, ranging from world-changing inventions to fascinating takes on human psychology to the more lighthearted though still inspiring forays into art and entertainment. The videos range from several minutes to twenty, a new one is released daily, and they very rarely fall short of riveting.
The other night I endured a nearly half-hour long presentation by Amory Lovins, a long-time fixture in the energy world best known for the Hypercar, a super-light, super-strong concept vehicle that could revolutionize personal transportation. Lovins is, in fact, all about revolution—he's been proven to be about 20 years ahead of his time at predicting critical trends.
The talk looked out over the next 50 years, extrapolating energy demand patterns and recommending a necessary path transitioning us to clean and renewable fuels.
It was, I lament to say, utterly and completely boring.
Well, not to me. I hung on every word, notebook in hand, scrawling ideas that got asterisks, underlines and circlings for not well defined reasons. But at its conclusion, I couldn't help thinking my friends, family and neighbors would consider this a chore to absorb. The topic is as weighty and noble as rejuvenating the American economy, securing a future where energy isn't a reason to go to war, and reversing the very likely effects of global warming—and yet, a snoozer.
Lovins is essentially a superhero of the theoretical realm, here unveiling nothing less than a roadmap to saving the world—but lacking the mobilizing force of a General Eisenhower, a Jack Welch, or best of all, Vince, the ShamWow guy. Lucid and straightforward as his arguments were, if viewers click away during minute one, the whole premise falls on deaf ears.
So with that in mind, let me distill this prophet's visions, for the short attention-spanned among us.
We need to move from a coal and oil-powered economy (each representing two-fifth of our supply) to one powered by today's renewables—solar, wind, hydro and biomass.
New Jersey is half powered by nuclear, a technology that has its place, but could be short-sighted to pursue further in our coastal region. The rest is split between coal and natural gas, with just a sliver from renewables (though we're number two in the nation in solar installations to California).
Additionally, we need to use way, way less energy. But that doesn't need to mean making lifestyle concessions.
Take mobile transportation, for instance. We propel three-thousand pound autos, when we really only aim to move our two-hundred pound selves. Ultralight materials will change this, making our cars far lighter, thus requiring much small battery packs. Same mobility, greater efficiency, greater affordability (with no sacrifice in safety, either—nano-composites can absorb 12 times the impact that steel can).
The same applies to our national building stock. Efficient design can drastically change the energy profile of homes, office buildings and factories, further reducing our dependence on fossil fuel power sources.
Then there's the whole electricity delivery system—the grid. Lovins describes how losses upstream (at the power plant, then transmission stations, then across the wires) multiply to significant inefficiencies by the time it reaches your outlet. The appliance itself, too, will require great improvements.
The majority of the discussion is about saving energy, or "negawatts". In fact, over the next 50 years, investing in such efficiency drivers will save our economy $5 trillion in 2012 dollars. That leaves out the astronomical cost of handling the worst projections of climate change.
Locally, where we have one of the longest commutes in the nation and extremely high densities of people, cars and industry, the ramifications of high energy prices and global warming effects could be devestating. We'd be well-served to heed his warning, by following his roadmap strictly.
Lovins is an ideal messenger when preaching to the already converted. But what would do wonders would be to take his message, and dress it up in a new messenger—a mascot, even. Every movement has an army of marketers behind it, pitchmen that can deliver with flair. Considering the great import of this proposal, even the ShamWow guy won't cut it.