Think Tank on the Efficient Energy Trail the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado Gives Energy-Saving Advice to Companies and Countries

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 1991 | Go to article overview

Think Tank on the Efficient Energy Trail the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado Gives Energy-Saving Advice to Companies and Countries


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FIFTEEN years ago, a young physicist named Amory Lovins made news when his article in Foreign Affairs quarterly outlined a "soft path" for United States energy policy. A couple of oil shocks, a Chernobyl meltdown, and a Gulf War later, his basic message - the need to emphasize efficiency and renewable resources over oil and nuclear power - is still a minority view, at least with the White House officials who put together the Bush administration's recent "National Energy Strategy."

But among many utility companies, state agencies, private businesses, overseas governments, and international organizations, the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute - headed by Mr. Lovins and his wife Hunter Lovins - is not only heeded but also much sought after. At last count, some 200 clients in 32 countries had signed up for the institute's "Competitek" program, a consulting service, which helps large energy providers and users implement cost-saving efficiency measures. At the current rate of increase, that number will double in 14 months - largely by word of mouth.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) was founded a decade ago as a mom-and-pop think tank with Amory the idea man and Hunter, a lawyer, running the shop. "I said to Amory, 'You think, I'll manage, and we'll get along fine, Hunter recalls. The idea, she says, was to have a dozen or so friends and colleagues "bouncing ideas off each other."

But the areas of interest kept expanding, and so did the staff and budget. Today, it's a million-dollar operation with a staff of 50 (30 full-time). Forty percent of RMI's funding comes from its Competitek program, with most of the rest from foundations and charitable trusts.

Most of RMI's efforts continue to be directed toward energy, but programs also focus on water, agriculture, local economic renewal, and international security. In these five areas, says Amory, "The most important thing we do is make connections that haven't been made before.... That's our guiding principle."

The recent war in the Gulf, for example, clearly illustrated the connection between energy supplies and national security. So, too, does the relationship between farm and water policy and the health of rural economies.

"We're run off our feet trying to keep up with the demand for information," he adds. "And we're having to pick our slots carefully because there's only 36 hours in the day." Over the years, the RMI staff has produced more than a dozen books, plus scores of reports and articles. The Lovinses and their colleagues have been invited to talk to hundreds of widely diverse audiences, ranging from the radical environmental group Earth First! to the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

The morning after he was interviewed recently at his home/office 7,200 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, Amory was off to Atlanta to talk about global warming at a conference sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

"He's really coming into his own as something of a world expert," says Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona.

While RMI deals with ideas and theories, it sells its work largely on the basis of its practicality. Among the big-name companies that have sought RMI's help in lowering their electric bills are Xerox, Apple Computer, Marriott, and Boeing. Energy program director Michael Shepherd spends much of his time showing how minimum efficiency standards for lighting and motors can save considerable energy (and money) just as they have for appliances.

RMI's economic renewal program stresses practical steps that have helped revive economically troubled towns.

'THE most important thing that happens as a result of our program is that people begin to talk with one another - often people who hadn't trusted each other before," says program director Michael Kinsley, who was a Colorado county commissioner for 10 years before joining RMI.

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