Detroit — Amory Lovins painted a dramatically energy-efficient energy future at Antec 2019. He said the United States can phase out oil for transportation fuel by 2050.
The leader of the energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute also talked about plastics' role.
In a keynote speech at the Society of Plastics Engineers conference in Detroit, Lovins argued that renewable energy like solar and wind power, coupled with already possible design improvements in building design and more efficient duct work for power plants, mean big changes are coming for traditional energy suppliers.
Referring to renewables, Lovins said, "Unlike oil or copper, most of the just-discovered energy efficiencies cost less than current production."
He touted integrated design, where architectural features have many functions leading to energy efficiency. Some of these technologies have been around for more than a decade, he said.
"What's mainly improved is not technology, but design — the way we choose and combine technologies," Lovins said.
Lovins is the co-founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Basalt, Colo. He and his wife, Judy, live in a house in Old Snowmass, Colo., that has zero heating costs and does not rely on combustion at all. The super insulated house is heated by solar power.
Lovins comes across as a gentle professorial type. But he pulled no punches in his Antec speech, predicting "vast disruptions" to the longtime carbon-based energy sources of oil and natural gas for powering electricity and autos — and saying that electricity from renewables will power ever-lighter cars. In the United States, he said, nearly half of oil consumption goes for cars and trucks.
But as renewable energy and more fuel-efficient cars including electric vehicles keep growing in popularity, in the near future there will be too much oil being generated for what society needs, Lovins said. Investors already are getting skittish with conventional utility suppliers, as they look to get out before the peak, he said.
Lovins talked about how the plastics industry has made huge changes since 1963, when he was building an apparatus to measure depolarization scattering of n-paraffin vapors for Richard Stein at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Lovins was a 15-year-old high school student at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School when he did that. He graduated then went to Harvard.
"Now bigger change is coming," he told the Antec audience. "Your products are speeding many intertwined disruptions that will in turn transform how the world gets and uses its energy and applies its innovation." The cost to generate energy from renewable sources is falling, and Lovins said that type of electricity will come from a widely distributed format, instead of today's centralized supply model.
Lovins said cheaper carbon fiber is on the way, and that already is spreading the plastics reinforcing material more widely into automotive, making cars and trucks lighter. He said that three years ago, automotive-grade, creel-based carbon fiber sold for $7 or $8 a pound. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a process to use textile-grade acrylic fiber as a precursor to produce lower-cost carbon fiber.
"At the holy grail price target of five bucks, automakers could quickly double the total carbon fiber demand," Lovins said.
He said it all adds up to a diminished future for oil.
"The cost of getting U.S. autos completely off oil has fallen from 26 bucks per saved barrel seven years ago, to under 10 bucks today, heading for less than zero in the next few years," Lovins said. "So what is the oil companies' biggest challenge is not low price, but diminishing demand."