The Soft Path Holds Up: Efficient Technologies and Renewable Sources Will Bring a Cheaper, More Reliable Energy Future

By Newman, Lenore; Brooks, David B. | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Soft Path Holds Up: Efficient Technologies and Renewable Sources Will Bring a Cheaper, More Reliable Energy Future


Newman, Lenore, Brooks, David B., Alternatives Journal


ON COMPLETION of the Niagara Falls hydro project in 1905, a journalist enthused that "a source of energy as vast as the entire soft coal deposits of Pennsylvania had by some miraculous process been transferred to Canadian soil and by another miracle made not only clean but inexhaustible." (1)

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Similar pronouncements have accompanied the development of each new energy source--the off-shore oil fields tapped by the Hibernia project off the coast of Newfoundland, the tar sands that are making Fort McMurray, Alberta, a 21st century boom town, the massive hydroelectric potential of James Bay II in Quebec and of course nuclear power in Ontario. Our demand for energy has seemed insatiable.

Yet what the public wants is not a barrel of oil or joule of electricity, but the services energy provides. We need light and heat, fuel to move ourselves and our goods around, electricity to power factories and computers. Energy is just a means to many different ends.

This is the key insight behind the "soft energy path," a concept created by Amory Lovins in 1976 when sharply higher oil prices, renewed environmental concerns and growing unease about nuclear waste were prompting much rethinking of energy strategies in North America and Europe. (2) Lovins drew two opposing pictures of energy policy: a "hard path" relying on centralized, large-scale, capital-intensive technologies to meet rising demand; and a "soft path" emphasizing simpler systems, conservation through efficiency, and diverse sources of supply produced on a smaller scale.

Lovins argued that the soft path could serve our needs just as well as the hard path--indeed, even better. Conservation is not about sitting in the dark, but being more effective and less destructive with the energy we do produce. First, we should use the best available technology in our industrial processes, refrigerators, vehicles etc., so that energy consumption is as efficient as possible.

Second, we should deliver that energy in a quality appropriate to the end use. Since the production of higher quality energy, such as motor fuels and electricity, is energy intensive to begin with, its use should be minimized. As a practical illustration, this means that oil (which is a very compact form of energy) should be used for vehicles; electricity should be used only for those few uses, such as lighting and computers, that truly need it; and low-temperature heat should be used to keep our buildings warm and to heat our water.

Finally, relatively abundant and less destructive energy sources, notably natural gas and existing hydroelectric plants, should be used to provide whatever additional energy is needed during the transition from hard to soft paths. Remarkably, this three-part strategy yields an energy system that is not only technically more efficient but also cheaper than the hard path.

Hard and soft energy paths diverge in other ways as well. Soft technologies tend to create more jobs and to provide greater scope for local management. For the most part, they are less environmentally disruptive and significantly less vulnerable to system failure. During blackouts, for example, buildings with their own natural gas generators or renewable energy systems can remain lit and operating. In principle, the soft path is not only cheaper but creates a better quality of life than the hard path.

Setting out on the soft path

Back in the late 1970s, stimulated by Lovins' concepts, several of us began to investigate soft energy paths for Canada. Two future scenarios that followed a soft path were explored on a province-by-province basis. (3) A technical-fix model presumed that levels of consumption and economic growth continued unchecked; a consumer saturation model postulated that levels of consumption would slow toward a plateau.

Neither model was utopian. Both brought in conservation and renewable technologies only as they became cost-effective, and both maintained full employment.

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The Soft Path Holds Up: Efficient Technologies and Renewable Sources Will Bring a Cheaper, More Reliable Energy Future
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