Lovins Hopes Energy Plans to Come to Pass with Clinton

Article excerpt

By Jon R. Luoma

N.Y. Times News Service

OLD SNOWMASS, Colo. _ From the vantage point of what he calls "the jungle" in his house in the Rocky Mountains, the future of energy conservation has never looked brighter to Amory Lovins.

Lovins, a physicist trained at Harvard and Oxford, first burst onto the national energy-policy scene with a 1976 article in foreign affairs in which he proposed an energy future for the United States based on a "soft path" of energy efficiency, solar and wind power. He termed the use of conventional fuels the hard path. Ever since, he has been widely seen as the nation's, and perhaps the world's, leading gadfly and guru on alternative energy.

The jungle is actually a soaring, light-flooded tropical garden atrium in Lovins' solar-heated, superinsulated, high-tech house, where lights switch on and off, somewhat eerily, as people come and go, or brighten and dim with the rising and setting of the sun. The atrium jungle is complete with banana and mango trees, a trickling waterfall sonically tuned for tranquility by a Japanese expert, and, on the low bough of a bougainvillea, a three-foot, hostile-looking green iguana at which Lovins coos affectionately. A second, smaller one likes to ride on Lovins' shoulder.

Today, he suggests, thanks to the environmental warmth emanating from the Clinton administration, ideas that he has been promoting for nearly two decades might at last have a chance to blossom. His key notion: that an array of technological innovations, from high-efficiency light bulbs and refrigerators to heat-trapping windows and computer-controlled motors, could, if employed nationwide, save such staggering amounts of energy that the need for more coal mines or oil wells, and the attendant pollution, or the need to use troops to protect foreign oil supplies, would be obviated.

Some administration officials have suggested that Lovins' ideas are already influencing plans for new energy policies. More circumspectly, Marla Romash, communications director for Vice President Al Gore, acknowledges that "Amory Lovins is a continuing source of good ideas."

In fact, although his ideas were once roundly denounced by establishment scientists and executives, they have in recent years begun to cut a swath across a wide field. Lovins now serves as a consultant to the Pacific Gas Electric Co., a large California utility; General Motors, and the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry research organization that once so spurned him, he claims, that he was refused admittance to its headquarters.

Indeed, although Lovins still has critics, the criticism more often takes the form of grudging respect.

"My professional instincts are offended by his tendency to exaggerate and his single-track approach," said Dr. Chauncey Starr, president emeritus of the electric power institute. "But that doesn't take away from the fact that he's become an important contributor."

Starr said he doesn't recall shutting Lovins out of the building, although he was then the institute's president, but acknowledges that "the relationship was cool at the time."

Others are considerably more effusive.

"I think it's fair to say he truly has played the role of a prophet," said John S. Hoffman, who is responsible for energy efficiency programs at the Environmental Protection Agency. "A lot of what's happened in this field simply wouldn't have happened without him. At this point, everyone looks to Amory to get new ideas."

The 1976 Foreign Affairs article provoked a far different response. Published when Lovins was 29, his proposal _ that it would be feasible and economically sound to turn away from fossil fuels and nuclear power _ incensed the energy industry. In subsequent hearings, its scientists and executives pummeled a Senate committee with nearly 3,000 pages of ferocious testimony about his idea's demerits. …