on November 21, 2008
Amory Lovins is a justifiably renowned physicist and environmentalist who promotes energy-use and energy-production ideas based on conservation, efficiency, use of renewable energy-sources, and generating energy near where it is actually used as opposed to huge centralized capital-intensive megaprojects like nuclear power plants. He may be best known for being co-founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute or being credited with his work on the design on an ultra-efficient automobile, the Hypercar.
Soft Energy Paths is about ideas which have become much more familiar since its publication back in 1977 -- critiques of the "hard energy path" he describes as involving inefficient liquid-fuel automotive transport and centralized electricity generating facilities, often burning fossil fuels or using nuclear fission, technologies that waste huge amounts of energy and are enormously capital-intensive, along with advocacy of "soft energy technologies " such as solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal, etc.
This book may be considered outdated (published in 1977) and some of its predictions seem quaint (he talks about oil prices rising to $30 a barrel) but, having read this book, I believe that Lovins' ideas are fundamental to a general understanding and conceptual overview of why we need to move away from capital-intensive, ultra-high-tech energy solutions toward sustainable technologies and conservation measures. These ideas have now become widely popular, but for the serious student of energy policy, this book is a good source of very detailed thinking and extensive footnotes.
The book is absolutely jam-packed with informational tidbits such as the following example quoted from page 41: "The fifth type of economy available to small systems arises from mass production. Consider...the 100-odd million cars in the U.S. In round numbers, each car probably has an average cost of less than $4,000 and a shaft power of 100 kilowatts (134 horsepower). Presumably a good engineer could build a generator and upgrade an automobile engine to a reliable, 35 percent efficient diesel at no greater total cost, yielding a mass-produced diesel generator unit costing less than $40 per kW. In contrast, the motive capacity in U.S. central power stations -- currently totaling about one-fortieth as much as in U.S. cars -- costs perhaps ten times more per kW, partly because it is not mass-produced. This is not to argue for the widespread use of diesel generators; rather, to suggest that if we could build power stations the way we build cars, they would cost at least ten times less than they do, but we can't because they're too big. In view of this scope for mass-producing small systems, it is not surprising that at least one European car maker hopes to go into the wind machine and heat pump business. Such a market can be entered incrementally, without the billions of dollars' investment required for, say, liquefying natural gas or gasifying coal. It may require a production philosophy oriented toward technical simplicity, low replacement cost, slow obsolescence, high reliability, high volume, and low markup; but these are familiar concepts in mass production. Industrial resistance would presumably melt when -- as with pollution abatement equipment -- the scope for profit was perceived."
I would like it if the book had been better edited as in places I found it hard to follow or simply had to re-read some rather complex and needless complicated sentences; however, in Lovins' defense, in this book he undertook to reduce some very highly technical ideas into terms that an ordinary person would understand. I suspect that this book would be on the reading list of anyone interested in doing journalism, academic work, or a technical over on the subject of energy policy and energy technology; but, given its 1977 publication date and not always user-friendly phrasing, is probably not going to be a source of mass popular consumption.
So if you are an energy policy nerd, like me, or plan to become an expert on the subject, this book should probably be part of your library. I found that it explained the fundamentals of a lot of ideas that are now, hopefully, beginning to become taken for granted by the general public.
Someone interested in reading this book might also want to read some of these books as well: Thom Hartmann, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight; Thomas Berry, The Dream of The Earth; and Alan Weisman, The World Without Us.