The future's bright, the future's green

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 12:00am

AN EARTHQUAKE is about to rumble around the world, and its epicentre is a tiny town in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. It is there, at the 'non-profit, applied research' Rocky Mountain Insti-tute in Old Snowmass, that Amory Lovins and his band of like-minded visionaries have been quietly incubating ideas that are now set to shake the planet.

For the past two days, Lovins and his wife, L Hunter Lovins, have been in Hong Kong, sharing some of those ideas with the movers and shakers of government and industry. In the past, Lovins has been dismissed as an impractical dreamer - now the people who matter are sitting up and taking note of what he has to say.

Perhaps his brightest idea is an ultra-strong, super-light 'Hypercar' that runs on hydrogen and gets 100km/litre, seating a family while performing like a sports car, producing nothing but drinkable water for waste and able to power buildings while sitting idle. Or homes and offices that require no heating or cooling and use a fraction of the power of conventional buildings thanks to solar cells and 'superwindows'.

More than two dozen automobile manufacturers, from Detroit to Tokyo, have used him as a consultant on their future designs. 'More than US$10 billion [HK$77 billion) has been committed to this line of development by existing auto companies and new entrants to the market,' the 52-year-old says. 'And that level of effort is set to double every year-and-a-half.'

Elements of the Hypercar are already entering the market. 'There will be good designs available in five years,' he says. 'This style of car will be dominant in 10. And the old industry will be toast 20 years from now.'

Toyota and Honda are already selling hybrid electric and gasoline-powered cars. Other companies plan to have cars on the road in four years in which the combustion engine is completely supplanted by a fuel cell. The cell, generating enough electricity to power a fast-food restaurant by combining stored hydrogen with oxygen, will power small motors in each wheel.

They won't look anything like today's cars - with few metal parts, carbon fibre panels and no seams or mirrors so they slice through the air with a minimum of drag. Traditional hardware like transmission, differential, and parts of the suspension would be replaced with electronics controlled by sophisticated software.

Lovins says the average US-style 'suburban assault vehicle' gets about 50km/litre, is noisy and even with emission controls belches noxious fumes into the atmosphere. 'All the Hypercar produces is hot water - you could use it to run an espresso machine on the dashboard,' he says. 'None of the top 20 causes of breakdowns in normal cars will be a factor. It is as comfortable as a Mercedes, and as safe if you're hit by one. There will be no dents, rust or fatigue. They will have the SUV's spaciousness and ruggedness, the Volvo's safety, the Jaguar's perfection and the Lexus' comfort. People won't buy them because they don't pollute, they'll buy them because they perform.'

They will also be mini-powerplants on wheels. 'If electricity companies are smart, they will buy them and lease them to people. When they're not being driven, they can be used to generate power. You could park at work, plug your car into the building and get a rebate from the power company,' Lovins says.

So won't making cars radically better and cleaner prompt more people to use them, worsening the gridlock that clogs our cities' arteries? Sitting stationary in your super-efficient Hypercar will be of scant satisfaction as you're consumed by the red mist of road rage. It is a point he concedes, and says advances in car technology must be matched by leaps forward in mass transit capabilities. He recommends Cybertran, an elevated rail system that can be retrofitted over a two-lane road and run at a 10th of the cost of conventional light rail systems.

The Lovins are an eccentric-looking couple. He sports a Groucho Marx moustache, with balding, mad professor hair and brown pebble eyes swimming behind thick specs. She favours a voluminous black cowboy hat.

Together with another recent visitor to Hong Kong, Paul Hawken, they are authors of Natural Capitalism: Creating The Next Industrial Revolution. It is a paradigm-shifting tome which outlines new concepts to bring about a near pollution-free society without forcing people to forgo technological comforts.

The Wall Street Journal, in its centennial issue, rated Lovins among the people most likely to change the course of business in the 1990s. Car magazine considers him the 22nd most powerful person in the automobile industry. And Time magazine honoured him as one of the 'heroes of the planet'.

Lovins, a Harvard and Oxford-educated physicist, rates among his most important work the development of 'superwindows' with 'spectrally selective glazes'. He says when used in conjunction with building design to make the most of natural light, and the latest in lighting technology, these windows can slash up to 90 per cent off the electrical bill in big office buildings.

He has just come from an early-morning meeting with CLP Power bigwigs, where he has been preaching the power-saving gospel. 'I've been coming here for a quarter of a century,' he says, 'and there have been some exciting developments since I was last here two years ago. There is much more openness to green design.'

While he rates even the SAR's most advanced buildings 'very inefficient, despite what the developers may claim', he says developers are now receptive to the message that they can gain a dramatic competitive advantage by incorporating features like 'superwindows'.

He also describes as 'daft' the Scheme Of Control agreement under which the Hongkong Electric Company and CLP will spend a total of $57 billion on new facilities between now and 2004. 'It's crazy - you are effectively rewarding power stations for making more electricity and penalising them for cutting bills. It's exactly the opposite of what consumers want. It may have made sense back when Hong Kong was developing and power shortages were a concern, but not now in a mature economy.'

The focus, he says, should be on 'nega-watts' - that is, a watt that doesn't have to be produced because electricity is being used more efficiently. 'The technology exists, right now,' he says. 'The companies could slash people's bills and make bigger profits, just by doing things more efficiently.'

In the long term, he predicts the inexorable death of coal and nuclear power, as alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells come into vogue. 'Nuclear power is already obsolete,' he says. 'It is dying from an incurable attack of market forces.'

The couple count their Snowmass home as a prime example of what can be achieved. L Hunter Lovins says: 'Our home has all the mod cons, it's a lovely, luxurious home of 372 square metres, and our power bill is less than HK$40 a month. Where we live, temperatures drop to -44C and it gets pretty hot in summer. We have no heating or cooling. It's just good design that takes advantage of the sun, doesn't get the north wind broadside and is super insulated. The windows are a 'heat mirror', which means they let the light in, which turns to heat inside and then cannot get back out.

'You can apply these ideas to any building in any climate. In hot weather, you can cool more than 30sq m of office space per kilowatt, where in conventional buildings you would only get five or 10. That means the cooling system can be three to six times smaller.'

He adds: 'At the moment, developers in Hong Kong have no incentive to introduce these features, so they're not putting the managerial time into these issues. But that will change. In the US, these features are becoming the norm. Superwindows make offices quieter, and they allow natural light in without any glare. You can be sitting on the western side of the building and not feel like you're being turned on a spit.'

Studies, he says, show both students and employees perform markedly better in quiet conditions with natural light. 'People cost a lot more than energy - the ratio is about 100:1 - so a one per cent gain in productivity would add the same value to your bottom line as eliminating your entire electricity bill.'

Lovins says US businesses are starting to demand these advantages when leasing office space. 'For example, 4 Times Square in New York, a new 47-storey flagship office tower, has panels between floors that actually produce electricity through photovoltaic cells. That means they can tell tenants there is no chance of power spikes or blackouts, which is very important these days with so many computers in use.

'These new buildings are utterly silent, airflow and thermal comfort can be controlled for each worker, construction time is about six months faster than normal and they are cheaper on the same capital cost. They are better in every respect, and as that sort of design enters the market, people doing it the old way will be at a distinct disadvantage.'