Leverage Points for a Better World

RMI's office in Snowmass, close to Aspen—the former estate of John Denver.

RMI’s office in Snowmass, close to Aspen: the former estate of John Denver.

I moved to Snowmass, Colorado two weeks ago to work directly with Amory Lovins, cofounder, Chairman and Chief-Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). RMI is a think-and-do-tank that aims to drive a world verdant, safe, and secure by developing  solutions in collaboration with for-profit enterprise in the areas of more comfortable and  efficient buildings; more productive and reliable industrial processes; and safer, better transportation systems.

A tool we aim to exercise at RMI is “Institutional Acupuncture”—sticking metaphorical needles into carefully chosen points in complex organizations and relationships to get the business logic flowing properly in the channels and directions it already naturally flows.

What does “Institutional Acupuncture” mean in practice? What blockages do we try to eliminate today? In the last two weeks I have spent much of my time asking questions and listening to my new colleagues. Below is a list of topics that represent we engage in today.

#1. New utility business models

The availability of ever-cheaper distributed generation technologies—such as the solar panels on your roof—begs the question: “Do I require a utility-contract for my power? Is it not cheaper, more reliable, and cleaner to privately power my home?”

This query is addressed in two publications by eLab: a program to unite decision makers and thought leaders to identify, test, and spread practical innovations to key barriers slowing the transformation of the U.S. electricity system. The first analysis, “Grid Optional“, is written for private citizens. The publication shows by which year investing in solar-and-batteries and defecting from the grid is cheaper than maintaining an agreement with a utility.   

The second analysis from eLab provides utilities with future scenarios. The publication is appropriately titled “New Business Models for the Distribution Edge”. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy recently wrote an article about the death of utilities as we know them today, as did Amory on RMI’s blog.

 #2. Lowering the costs of solar PV

Lowering the cost of electricity from solar panels below the cost of electricity from other sources is a major driver for a high penetration of renewable energy. Although the cost of a solar panel is now five times cheaper than in 2000 , installation costs of a solar panel system are twice as high in the U.S. as in Germany or Australia. In collaboration with NREL, RMI’s Dan Seif and Jesse Morris have published a report to show how these soft costs—installation labor, financing and marketing costs for instance—can be lowered, introduced in this article.

When you  consider installing solar panels—or have done so already—it is valuable to understand the benefits and costs other than electricity savings from your system, qualified in this article by Lena Hansen and Virginia Lacy. 

#3. Reducing energy consumption in (groups of) buildings

RMI saved 30% of energy consumption in the Empire State Building by replacing 6,154 windows onsite on the 5th floor. This  is one of RMI’s most celebrated stories, and a good example of the value from deep energy retrofits beyond cost savings. Our physical environment is a critical place to invest in: buildings use three-fourths of U.S. electricity. If America’s 120 million buildings were a country, it would rank third in absolute energy use, only eclipsed by the energy consumption of China and the entire United States.

The Retrofit Challenge, part of RMI’s buildings sector, aims to implement deep energy efficiency solutions across a large volume of buildings. To reduce the costs of energy modeling of each individual building, we define building archetypes:  groups of buildings with similar energy use. AT&T is our first client in the Retrofit Challenge.

#4. Helping China get off oil, coal and natural gas profitably by 2050

After Reinventing Fire was published in 2011 a collaboration with the Chinese NDRC was initiated to translate the quantitative analysis of Reinventing Fire for the Chinese context. In collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and China’s Energy Research Institute, the implementation of the strategies and policies outlined in Reinventing Fire is one of our key priorities. Since China is now the world’s largest market for private cars and has the highest volume of electricity generated from coal, our work with the NDRC is a key leverage point in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

#5. Uniting U.S. and Chinese automakers to lightweight and electrify vehicles. 

Project Get Ready was a big RMI initiative to push the adoption of electric vehicles by helping local U.S. communities learn from best practices outside America and install charging stations. Combined with RMI’s earlier work on light weighting—which led to the Hypercar design, the design philosophy on which BMW’s i3 is based—RMI is organizing a forum to bring American and Chinese automakers together.

Which other leverage points can we solve?

The list above does not exhaust RMI’s work. We started an initiative for sustainable islands with the Carbon War Room on Richard Branson’s Necker Island last month; we are planning an initiative to work with manufacturers to create more energy-efficient products.

Which leverage points do you see to work with business to get to a world in which people feel productive, happy, and safe, powered without the need of burning historic bank accounts of fossil-fuel cash?

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The idea of Institutional Acupuncture is closely related to systems change. A beautiful example revealing the complexities of systems change in a natural ecosystem is the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park. Watch it—you will be amazed and delighted.

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One thought on “Leverage Points for a Better World

  1. I love the term Institutional Acupuncture. You hear an incentive in it, a stir to action. I am also deeply moved by the film “How wolves change rivers”: the universe is One and Undivided. We are all interconnected and born of the same elements, whether human beings, animals, rivers, trees & plants. All that is created belongs intrinsically to the same source. Thank you Titiaan for sharing this blog with me!

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