Thinking outside the box on fuel

The Lovins way to leaving environmental doom behind


First of two parts Part professor, part engineer and part philosopher, Amory Lovins is perfectly suited for the role of alternative-energy guru. A Lovins presentation is a seamless tapestry of economics, physics and mechanical engineering, sprinkled with corny one-liners, startling insights and revealing quotes from famous thinkers.

Consider, for example, the following segment from his opening comments at a recent symposium in Tokyo. “I want to take the liberty, with your permission, of rearranging your mental furniture a little bit about what is possible. My teacher in the 1960s was an inventor named Edwin Land, who said: ‘People who seem to have a new idea have often just stopped having an old idea.’ “

Spoken with a quiet smile that suggests he has secrets to share, Lovins has just begun to reveal his pedigree of creative iconoclasm. Edwin Land, you may remember, invented the Polaroid Land camera, which made near-instantaneous photos possible three decades before the digital age.

Next, Lovins brings a Powerpoint image to the screen, a well-known test of creative thinking made up of nine dots aligned in three rows of three. Puzzle-solvers are asked to connect all nine dots using only four straight lines and without lifting their pencil from the paper. Most people insist five lines are needed, until they begin to draw lines beyond the boundary of the “box” created by the nine dots.

But having planted seeds of irreverence, it seems likely that Lovins has more in mind than simply testing us with this popular teaser.

“What you are supposed to do to be creative is get out of the box,” he continues. “But one day a professor who teaches this came in a little angry because one of his students had just solved this problem in three lines.” In fact, Lovins reveals, once the “box” of four lines is removed, “the students started to feel rather liberated, and they started to solve this problem with just one line.”

Keynote speaker

Lovins reveals several “outside-the-box,” one-line solutions, including one that involves origami. He then shares a final solution that illustrates his own sense of irreverence.

“The solution I like best,” he says, “came from a 9-year-old girl, who said, ‘You didn’t say it had to be a thin line, so I used a very wide line.’ ” On the screen appears a paintbrush-wide stroke blackening all the dots with a single line.

An Oxford- and Harvard-trained experimental physicist, Lovins is the author of 28 books and numerous papers. He has advised Fortune 500 companies, international organizations and governments, and is well-known for his creative and insightful problem-solving. At the end of October he was in Tokyo to give a keynote speech at “Zero Emissions 2002 — Clean Energy and Zero Emissions,” a two-day symposium held at the United Nations University in Shibuya.

Given his track record, it would be easy to imagine that Lovins is on a crusade to save us from ourselves and from environmental destruction. But if he is, he keeps it to himself. Widely respected for his pioneering work on economic solutions to environmental problems — such as profitable climate protection and creating markets for saved electricity — Lovins seems intent on saving the world simply because he loves solving puzzles. The bigger and more intractable the better.

In fact, problems don’t get much bigger than the one he is working on now — how to wean society off oil dependence. But he is brimming with optimism, a personality trait inherent among problem-solvers, no doubt. As the title of his UNU presentation — “Accelerating the Hydrogen Transition” — makes clear, Lovins is not wrestling with how we will shake our oil addiction, but with how soon. He and his colleagues already have computer models of hydrogen-energy systems for cars and buildings; the task now is to educate companies and governments to the wisdom of embracing this inevitable transition sooner rather than later.

As an energy source to replace fossil fuels, hydrogen is ideal. It can be reconstituted from natural gas and other fossil fuels — but better yet, it can be electrolyzed from water using electricity from benign, renewable sources. As Lovins told the audience at UNU while explaining his ultra-light, ultra-low drag hydrogen car, “The only emission from the fuel cell is hot water, so I want to put a coffee machine in the dashboard.”

The reasons for getting off fossil fuels are obvious. Environmentally, carbon emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, ensuring unpredictable climate changes, while the extraction, refining, transporting and use of fossil fuels causes untold damage to ecosystems worldwide. Societally, autocratic, oil-rich nations have proved spawning grounds for terrorists, while oil-dependent nations have committed themselves to warring over oil reserves. Not a comforting state of affairs.

Lovins, however, remains upbeat, noting with yet another smile that “Winston Churchill said, ‘People and nations behave wisely, once they’ve exhausted all the other alternatives.’ Well, we’ve been working our way down the list.”

Churchill, he notes, also said, “Sometimes one must do what is necessary.” Lovins has blueprints for what is necessary, he is just waiting for the rest of us to exhaust all the other alternatives.

Attention English-speakers interested in the latest environmental technologies, activities and initiatives, but who are frustrated by the language barrier.

On Dec. 7, Japanese-to-English translators, provided by the Kawasaki-based nongovernmental organization Japan for Sustainability, will accompany a tour of this year’s Eco Products Exhibition at Tokyo Big Sight. The tour, from 10 a.m. till noon, will visit booths and give English-speakers a chance to talk with exhibitors. The tour is free, but JFS asks participants to submit brief comments to be shared via newsletter with JFS members who are unable to attend the exhibition.

The tour is limited to 15 participants on a first-come first-served basis.

For more details, contact: info@japanfs.org