Science & Tech

U.S. energy answers there for the taking, says Amory Lovins

7 min read

Lightweight cars double mileage, pay for selves

As U.S. automakers plead for a government bailout, the next great automotive revolution is already under way, as Japanese automakers plan for a generation of lightweight cars that vastly increase mileage and whose advanced materials pay for themselves through dramatically streamlined assembly and smaller engines, a leading energy expert said yesterday.

Despite the global financial meltdown and looming environmental crisis, Amory Lovins, founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, was upbeat as he delivered the third talk in the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s Future of Energy lecture series.

Lovins, an energy analyst and consultant, MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, and adviser to leaders around the world, told the roughly 500 people who packed a Science Center lecture hall that the United States uses energy so inefficiently that the savings through re-thinking and redesigning inefficient systems can make a huge dent in our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

“The prevalent and incorrect assumption is that climate protection is expensive,” Lovins said. “All our experience tells us it [saving energy] is a highly profitable enterprise. … So while politicians debate costs, smart companies are racing to save money and pocket the savings before their competitors.”

The idea that saving energy saves money has caught the attention of businesses around the world, spurring them into money-saving changes that also allow them to be good corporate citizens and environmentally sensitive as well. Major corporations such as IBM, DuPont, Dow, British Petroleum, General Electric, and United Technologies have all begun efforts to conserve energy, Lovins said.

In the automotive industry alone, Lovins characterized the gas saved from potential mileage improvements through better design and use of advanced materials as the equivalent of finding “a new Saudi Arabia under Detroit.”

Lovins, whose Rocky Mountain Institute designed and built a carbon fiber “Hypercar” — an SUV that gets 100 miles per gallon — said that today’s cars are massively inefficient. Roughly three-quarters of the energy generated by the engine is simply wasted. Of the remaining amount, most goes to move the vehicle itself. Just less than one percent of the energy generated goes to the vehicle’s main mission: moving the driver from point A to point B.

Three-quarters of fuel use is related to weight, Lovins said. By using strong, lightweight carbon fiber as a building material instead of steel, Lovins said that cars can be made dramatically lighter. A lighter vehicle will automatically use less gasoline to run, but it will also require a smaller engine for the same performance, making it lighter still. A lighter vehicle will allow further economies in a wide variety of vehicular systems, such as less robust brakes and drivetrain, all adding to further weight — and cost — savings.

Though carbon fiber is many times more expensive than steel, Lovins said, it becomes realistic as a building material when the manufacturing advantages are taken into account. Because carbon fiber can be molded into complex shapes, it would allow cars to be made from far fewer parts — just 14 for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s concept car. Color can be added directly to the material as it is being molded, eliminating the need for paint shops entirely. Car body parts can be lifted with one hand and carried by employees, eliminating the need for a whole suite of hoists and cranes and other machines. Assembly can be simplified by molding the parts so they snap together and are glued, rather than welded.

The potential savings are considerable, Lovins said. Such a plant, he said, could save two-fifths of the costs of the leanest plant running today, including 99 percent of the tooling costs. When combined with the smaller engine required, together they pay for the additional cost of the material.

Lovins said there are already signs that a shift to carbon fiber cars is under way, with one company announcing plans to build a plant to mass-produce carbon fiber autobody panels for Toyota and Nissan, indicating that “the next Japanese leapfrog already is under way.”

Lovins called the current financial crisis “a tsunami of creative destruction” that is washing over U.S. automakers. But the crisis also presents an opportunity to change the industry. Lovins said there are more than 20 new car start-up companies funded by venture capital today, making the U.S. car landscape look like it did back in the 1920s.

Similar dynamics are also at work in the airline and heavy truck industries, Lovins said. Boeing, which had its own financial crisis in 1997, has already made some of the changes Lovins is suggesting for the auto industry. In response to its crisis, Boeing re-designed its airplane, making it lighter and more energy efficient. The result is the 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to enter commercial service this year or next. Built using light, composite materials, the plane is supposed to use 20 percent less fuel than a 767 and has already become the fastest selling plane in history, with close to 900 planes ordered through July. 

WalMart has been a major force in the push for more fuel-efficient heavy trucks, Lovins said. In a move aided by analytical work by the Rocky Mountain Institute, WalMart has asked truck manufacturers for changes that will double the fuel efficiency of their truck fleet from the six miles per gallon it averaged before 2005. With the largest commercial fleet in the world, WalMart got the attention of truck manufacturers and changes are under way that Lovins said can spread far beyond the retailer, which expects to save nearly $500 million annually in fuel costs by 2020.

“We’re using their demand to drag efficient trucks into the market,” Lovins said.

The message of industry is being heeded in the U.S. government, though not necessarily by elected leaders, Lovins said. Stung by the enormous cost to move and defend fuel, the military is requiring the full cost of delivered energy be considered in analyses of new military systems. The move will likely herald a new era of fuel efficiency in the military and possibly new fuel-saving technology that will be able to cross over into the civilian arena, Lovins said.

Beyond the transportation sector, Lovins said, similar inefficiencies exist and similar savings are possible merely from redesigning things to reduce waste, spanning everything from factories to homes to refrigerators. He used the example of a plant with miles of pipes for moving fluids from place to place. The pipes are usually designed to be long and narrow, with right-angle corners because, essentially, they look nice and neat. Narrow pipes and right angles, however, increase friction and require larger pumps that take up more energy. Redesigning manufacturing systems with an eye to efficiency — which the Rocky Mountain Institute has done for several companies — realizes significant savings.

Similarly, homes already exist — including his own — that are so energy-efficient that they don’t require central heating, allowing the money that would have been spent on a heater to be put into buying more efficient windows and other building materials.

Appliances are already on a march toward more and more energy efficiency, Lovins said. If homes and factories are designed as whole systems, with an eye toward energy efficiency, instead of as a conglomeration of separate parts, large efficiencies are possible in many places.

“We got into this mess by millions of not-so-good choices; we’ll have to get out of it by millions of smarter choices,” Lovins said.