By Showing Consumers How to Save Energy, Amory and Hunter Lovins Put the (Solar) Heat on High-Cost Power

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Amory and Hunter Lovins think their house is beautiful. They don't care if the place looks weird to people who aren't used to grass roofs or wings that jut out at odd angles or having the glass segregated on one wall while the other three are virtually windowless. They love it because it is one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world and the base for the Rocky Mountain Institute, their controversial and influential nonprofit consulting firm. Determined to show that Americans can easily stretch their energy supply, especially during the frigid months ahead, the Lovinses open their Old Snowmass, Colo., residence to the public, and 9,000 visitors have trekked through since 1984. That's fine too. "After years of living out of a suitcase named House," says Hunter, who with Amory has lectured in 15 countries, "we needed to settle down."

The two energy consultants have an offbeat, remarkably energetic style. Sipping from a mug shaped like a nuclear cooling tower, Amory spices his talk with references to Miss Piggy. Hunter, who carries a pocketknife on her wide leather belt almost everywhere, comes to work straight from horseback riding or branding cattle or tending to their 600-lb. pig. But the Lovinses, who get $3,000 to $5,000 for a day's consultation, know how to get serious as well, which has recommended them to such corporate clients as Phillips Petroleum, Bank of America, Xerox and to nations like Haiti and Great Britain.

To illustrate their energy-saving advice, they now need only to give a house tour. With 16-inch walls, an insulating layer of meadow on the roof and double windows with a layer of argon gas sealed inside, the place loses almost no heat. The Lovinses say that most people who installed solar power because of the energy crisis still find it more efficient even in times of low oil prices. In the Lovins household solar equipment is used for drying clothes, heating their greenhouse and warming their hot tub. Even their appliances, which plug into standard outlets, save energy. The hot motor in their special fridge for example is far away from the cooling area. Such innovations keep the electric bill around $27 a month—an annual savings they estimate at $7,000.

The place wasn't cheap to build. A large office space, enclosed garden and indoor waterfall powered by beta waves jacked the initial cost up to $600,000. But the decision to do it themselves with 100 volunteers caused expensive setbacks and, they insist, the energy-saving devices added only 1 percent to the cost. "An efficient 15-watt bulb replaces a 60-watt bulb," Amory says, of one expensive specialty. "When everybody in the U.S. has stuff like that, it will end the need for about two dozen huge power plants."

Not everyone agrees. Marc Goldsmith, consultant for the Energy Research Group in Waltham, Mass., says, "To make people aware of new technology is a service. To say we can replace a power plant with these things very quickly and at low cost is misleading. When you think of buying a light bulb at 50 cents, and somebody tells you it's going to be $14 to $21 for an energy efficient bulb, it's very much an issue of cost." On the other side, Mark Christensen, professor of energy and resources at the University of California at Berkeley, says, "Their ideas make sense. They depart from conventional wisdom, but in many ways conventional wisdom is hanging by a thread these days."

Accepted rules have rarely guided the Lovinses. Amory, who was a physics prodigy in Amherst, Mass., says, "First I dropped out of Harvard, then I left Oxford. They wanted me to specialize, but I thought the world needed more people who could make connections that had not been made before." His first major article in 1976 prompted Business Weeklo call him "Nuclear Power's Public Enemy No. 1." A year later an Atlantic Richfield economist introduced the peripatetic Amory to Hunter Sheldon, assistant director of the California Conservation Project, an urban reforestation group. They began traveling together and married in 1979. Hunter, who grew up in the L.A. suburbs and holds a law degree from Loyola Marymount, had spent her summers doing ranch work in Colorado and pitched the state to her new husband. ("I would love to be a cowboy," she says.) They moved into their dream house in 1984.

The Lovinses have won a few major battles during their campaigns. They helped convince the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that the best and cheapest way to reduce acid rain was to teach consumers to use less energy. "People expect Amory to say 'Let's kiss a tree,' " says Jon Klusmire, one of 27 institute staffers. "But he talks right to their pocketbooks instead." Amory expects the future to bring "a flood of powerful new technologies. You ain't seen nothin' yet."

For people who own a less than perfect house, the Lovinses still offer hope: Besides those pricey bulbs, old standbys like caulking can drastically reduce bills, as can more recent products such as insulated window shades. But even if everyone doesn't follow their lead, the Lovinses plan to stay cozy and warm in the house they love. "We're not saying what's best for other people," says Amory. "I'm quite happy for them to live in inefficient houses and drive inefficient cars as long as they pay for it. I just don't want to subsidize their bad habits."

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