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Lovins: U.S. can wean self off oil

The Associated Press

Amory Lovins drives a hybrid vehicle that gets 64 miles per gallon; he lives in a solar-powered house that is so energy-efficient he’s able to grow bananas in an indoor jungle high in the Colorado Rockies.

Yet the 54-year-old renewable energy evangelist, who emerged as one of the most influential energy thinkers three decades ago during the last oil crisis, is no anti-establishment foe of the free market.

The United States can end its dependence on foreign oil and make money along the way, he argued at a recent environmental conference in San Rafael, Calif., with the salesman-like flair of a Fortune 500 chief preaching to a hall of shareholders.

Crude prices have hit record highs this year as haggard U.S. soldiers daily meet death in the country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves, casualties in an expensive war Lovins would argue it’s folly to fight if — as some Bush administration critics charge — it’s really all about fossil fuel.

“The United States can get completely off oil and revitalize its economy led by business for profit,” says Lovins, who runs the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass. “Saving and substituting for oil costs less than buying oil. Getting completely off oil makes sense and makes money.”

A new book by Lovins and his think-tank colleagues, “Winning the Oil Endgame,” offers a technology-driven blueprint to wean the country off petroleum within a few decades: first, double the fuel efficiency of cars, trucks and airplanes; then replace gasoline with alternative fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen.

The transition to a post-petroleum future will generate jobs, create new industries, reduce greenhouse gases and improve national security, he says.

For now, automakers and energy firms need to adopt new business strategies, and lawmakers need to craft policies that promote this oil-free future. By Lovins’ estimates, it will require an investment of $180 billion over 10 years.

That’s less than the U.S. involvement in Iraq will end up costing, and Lovins says it will save $70 billion a year by 2025.

“Right now, the world supply-demand balance for oil is so terribly tight that any little thing just throws the market into a tizzy,” Lovins said in a recent interview. “We’re not going to drill our way out of this one.”

Many experts agree that the country’s oil dependency is unsustainable and encourages economic volatility, global warming and geopolitical instability. Automakers are already developing more fuel-efficient vehicles that run on hybrid-electric engines, clean diesel, biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells.

But Lovins says the auto industry won’t move fast enough without the guiding hand of federal authorities. To fuel a quicker transition to alternative fuels, Lovins says the government should spend more on research into fuel-efficient technology, advanced materials and alternative fuels.

To pay for such programs, Lovins proposes fees on gas-guzzling vehicles and rebates for fuel-efficient vehicles. In addition, low-income Americans would be assisted financially to buy or lease efficient vehicles.

Lovins’ message doesn’t sit well with the auto industry.

It’s consumers, not think tanks, who determine whether more energy-efficient technologies will succeed commercially, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“Consumers are in the driver’s seat,” she said. “Many consumers don’t want to sacrifice performance, passenger room, cargo space, safety and even towing ability for greater fuel efficiency.”

Other obstacles also block the road to an oil-free future — hydrogen- and biofuel-powered vehicles are years away from becoming mainstream.

Lovins acknowledges the challenges, but is convinced that good sense — along with environmental sustainability — are on his side.

He’s certainly never been content to follow convention. Born in Washington, D.C., he studied physics at Harvard and Oxford universities, but dropped out of both to pursue his interest in energy policy.

“I realized that energy was at the root of many security, development and environment problems,” says Lovins, who gained national attention in 1976 with his Foreign Affairs essay, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken.”

While most analysts were focused on how to secure more oil — what he calls the “hard energy path” — Lovins argued for the “soft energy path” of boosting fuel efficiency and developing alternative fuels.

Lovins has since written more than two dozen books, founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 and advised governments and industries worldwide.

While other environmentalists argue about political approaches, Lovins crunches the numbers needed to win over business executives and policy-makers in Washington.

His plan in brief:

Oil consumption can be reduced by half by doubling fuel efficiency, mainly through ultralight vehicles with advanced materials such as carbon fiber that improve both safety and performance.

“We no longer have to choose between making cars light and safe,” he says.

Meanwhile, the nation must transition to alternative fuels. Ethanol from corn is now sold in some Midwestern states but hasn’t proven economical elsewhere. Lovins advocates making ethanol from plant waste, such as corn stalks, switchgrass and poplar trees.