Last Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of attending the holiday party and opening celebration for the Boulder office of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
For those who may not be familiar, RMI was founded by Dr. Amory Lovins, one of the few people in the energy arena who truly deserves the label “legend” and “guru”. At the party, Amory treated us to an extemporaneous 20 minute talk focused on RMI’s latest research project, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, entitled “Winning the Oil Endgame”.
In a nutshell, “Winning” outlines a multi-decade strategy to wean the U.S. off of oil entirely — clearly, a laudable goal. The main elements of the “Winning” story are reasonably simple. The U.S. can cut its oil consumption by half through increased efficiency, and supply the other half with alternative fuels (biofuels, natural gas, ultimately hydrogen). The second part of the story is very interesting to examine in its own right, but it is the first part of this story that intrigued me: cutting oil consumption in half. Is this really possible?
Through compelling statistics, analysis and logic, Amory convincingly argued that, yes, such reductions in oil consumption are really possible. He noted the enormous energy penalty imposed by our vehicles’ weight: only about 5% of a car’s loaded weight is associated with the human cargo, and only about 12% of fuel burned to move the car’s loaded weight is transferred to the wheels, meaning that less than 1% of automotive energy consumption is truly useful in transporting the human being. Yes, that’s right, less than 1% of the energy content of all oil consumption produces the result that is desired. This is the best that a mature auto industry can do, even with untold billions of dollars of R&D investment over the past hundred years?
Therefore, the big lever on auto efficiency is to reduce the weight of cars. Of course, a behavioral switch away from SUV’s to lighter cars would be an easy start. But RMI doesn’t assume this as a requirement for their analysis. Rather, RMI claims that the technologies to cut any car’s weight (without downsizing) in 1/2 or more are available today. Of these technologies, the most important is the use of incredibly light yet incredibly strong composites in lieu of steel. Low-weight auto designs incorporating composites, if done in an integrated manner, can also reduce auto manufacturing costs dramatically. Detroit ought to be paying attention. I’m guessing the Japanese are.
This nugget is just one of dozens (hundreds?) of really interesting and provocative observations in “Winning”. Obviously, anything past a few years looking ahead in the energy and transportation sectors involves some major speculations. In the uncertain and volatile future that faces us, maybe not all of the projections and possibilities offered in “Winning” will ultimately be borne out, but I strongly suspect that many are very legitimate. The sponsorship of USDOD, combined with forewards written by George Schulz (ex-Sec’y of State under Reagan) and Sir Mark Moody-Stuart (ex-Chairman of Royal Dutch/Shell), give credence to the contents of “Winning”. It is not the work of a naive utopian, but rather deserves serious consideration by sober policy-makers, businesspeople, and citizens. Get the book.