AUGUST 7, 2009
A Environmental Pioneer Raises the Bar on a Green-Energy Experiment, but Can His Latest Innovations Help the Rest of Us?
By JEFFREY BALL, Wall Street Journal
A quarter-century ago, in the wake of America's first energy crisis, a young scientist named Amory Lovins came to the Rocky Mountains and built himself a radical house based on a radical idea. The country could save both energy and money, he believed, by combining common sense and unconventional technology.
Mr. Lovins did achieve substantial energy savings, and many of his innovations, from better insulation to multiple-pane windows to more-efficient refrigerators, eventually became familiar fixtures in American homes.
But on the second part of Mr. Lovins's ambition -- saving money -- the calculus has been more complicated. The advances that allowed him to create a roomy home with a tiny carbon footprint came with a hefty upfront cost.
Now, Mr. Lovins has completed a renovation that he hopes will demonstrate how much more energy-efficient houses can become. But the project also serves as a reminder of the still-enormous gulf between what is technologically possible and what society is able or willing to pay for.
The 4,000-square-foot structure Mr. Lovins and his then-wife completed in 1984 looked part-cave and part-spaceship. Its 16-inch-thick stone walls kept the interior temperature fairly constant. A book-lined interior was dimly lighted with electricity from solar panels on the roof. The greenhouse that formed the central living room let in light, and it stored heat in a small jungle of plants, from guavas to coffee to bananas.
The house, which Mr. Lovins dubbed the "Banana Farm," used one-tenth the energy of a typical U.S. house of its size. Lower utility bills quickly offset the higher construction costs, saving money on heating and cooling within a year.
Since then, Mr. Lovins has become perhaps the world's most famous apostle of energy efficiency. The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy and environmental think tank that has consulted with companies including Wal-Mart Stores and Ford Motor.
Energy efficiency expert Amory Lovin is putting the finishing touches on a state-of-the-art green home that produces more energy than it consumes. Jeffrey Ball reports from Aspen, Colorado.
Having seen many features the Banana Farm helped pioneer trickle down to the consumer market, the 61-year-old Mr. Lovins hopes his latest efficiency moves eventually will find widespread acceptance as well.
Most studies suggest energy efficiency is the cheapest way to start meaningfully limiting pollution by curbing growth in fossil-fuel use -- far cheaper than generating more wind or solar power.
A report last month by McKinsey & Co. concluded that the U.S. could cut its energy use 23% below the projected U.S. demand level in 2020 by boosting efficiency, and save $1.2 trillion in energy costs. But that would require immediately making expensive investments in new equipment. Other countries have subsidized and mandated those steps, and the U.S. is beginning to follow suit. But a recession is a tough time to make big changes.
Mr. Lovins is "pushing the envelope of what's possible," but "that's probably a step too far for what's practical," says Scott Nyquist, head of the global energy practice at McKinsey, which has worked with Mr. Lovins on research projects.
Mr. Nyquist is renovating his own 1930s-era house in Houston, in part to test what energy-efficiency goals are feasible and affordable. He decided that some features championed by Mr. Lovins, such as light-emitting-diode lights, remain far too expensive. "I'm being disciplined," Mr. Nyquist says. "I'm trying a different approach than Amory is."
Banana Farm 2.0, as Mr. Lovins calls his updated digs, was renovated largely with equipment donated by individuals and companies eager to be associated with the project. Mr. Lovins says he doesn't know what the two-year renovation would have cost had he had to pay the full tab. But just a few of the major items would put the retail cost of the project well beyond $150,000.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Lovins climbed up onto his home's flat roof, an easy task because the back of the house is built into the side of a hill to take advantage of the earth's insulating power.
Laid across the roof are devices designed to capture solar energy: photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity, thermal panels that use the sun's warmth to heat water, and clear plastic tubes that funnel sunlight down into the house, where it illuminates the central hallway.
A bank of new photovoltaic panels nearly doubles the amount of solar electricity the house produces, to 9.7 kilowatts, enough for the house's needs. The panels, which were donated to Mr. Lovins, retail for about $30,000, not including installation, though tax breaks cut that price significantly.
"We are making no economic claims for Banana Farm 2.0," he says. "We deliberately brought in a bunch of cutting-edge, even bleeding-edge, stuff." Instead, he thinks that with the right government policies to spur market demand, even the most advanced green modifications could make economic sense. His role, as he sees it, is to push the limits of technology.
"Demand is the sum of a lot of negligible individual actions," he says. "When there are a lot of individuals, it isn't negligible. It adds up."
Banana Farm 2.0 isn't combustion-free. A wood-burning stove still sits near Mr. Lovins' office -- a backup heat source he hopes to abandon if the house works as planned this winter. But the new solar panels have allowed him to get rid of two devices that burned gas: a stove and a water heater.
Some of his proudest advances stem from mundane changes. He installed an electric stove made by a Swiss company that is 60% more efficient than other models he found. The savings stem partly from pots designed specifically for the stove. The pots eliminate warping that typically occurs with copper cookware, wasting heat.
He also has shaved energy use by insisting on an unconventional plumbing design. Typically, residential pipes that carry water would be ½-inch wide and turn at right angles. But that builds up friction, requiring electric pumps to work harder to propel the water. So Mr. Lovins had ¾-inch-wide pipes installed that run diagonally across ceilings and walls to minimize friction.
"If it looks pretty," he says, "it probably doesn't save energy."
For now, Banana Farm 2.0 is a showcase of what is technologically possible. Adopting some of the house's innovations on a wide scale would require huge investment and sweeping changes to governmental policy.
Still, Mr. Lovins knows that some of the most effective ways to reduce fossil-fuel use don't require groundbreaking science. As he headed out to dinner in his hybrid car on a recent evening, the Banana Farm's owner did something decidedly low-tech: He turned off the lights.
Write to Jeffrey Ball at email@example.com