The science behind the Ecoship

An interview with Amory Lovins, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, and one of the minds working on the Peace Boat Ecoship project.

Amory B. Lovins, cofounder and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, is a leading physicist in a wide range of fields, including resources, national security, economy and renewable energy. He has worked as an advisor to major firms and governments in over 65 countries for more than 40 years, published 31 books and 600 papers on a range of topics, and is an integrative designer of superefficient buildings, factories and vehicles. Dr. Lovins is also contributing to the design of Peace Boat’s forthcoming Ecoship — a vessel which will minimize environmental impact to an extent that surpasses the current best-in-practice models. He and his wife Judy Hill Lovins came onboard Peace Boat’s 93rd Global Voyage to share their respective knowledge and experience with participants through lectures and interactive workshops. During Dr. Lovins’ time onboard. Pania Lincoln, Project Coordinator of the Ecoship project, spoke to him about some of the energy-efficient technologies which will be implemented on the Ecoship, as well as his hopes for the future of the ‘energy revolution’.


How has your experience on Peace Boat been so far?

It has been a wonderful journey, a very well run operation with great people, and a fantastic experience seeing Antarctica. I have also dropped in on some of the onboard activities; they are very diverse and there is always a lot going on.

What role do you think Peace Boat could play in educating / advocating for renewable energies and energy efficiency?

This will be easier with the next version of this vessel which will be designed to be highly efficient and renewable. There is always so much room on such a complex machine for greater efficiency — probably a factor of two or more improvement, with further gains in comfort and safety. I’m looking forward to working more with the team on further refining the design which we have explored.

What brought you to the Ecoship Project?

I had previously worked on efficient ship design with the US Navy. My colleagues and I also helped our friend Bill Joy, the software pioneer, to make his 58-metre yacht an efficient vessel, showing how to save approximately 50 per cent electricity and 96 per cent of the potable water. We have also worked for the largest cruise-liner company on how to improve both their existing and new ships. From these experiences, we got many ideas, some of which focused on the way we make buildings, factories and vehicles more efficient on land. The main difference at sea is if you imagine laying a skyscraper down on its side, making it float, enabling it to move in any direction, and making it keep you safe and comfortable in any of the world’s climates, all that’s a rather big design challenge.

What innovations deployed by the Ecoship do you think will have the biggest impact on environmental sustainability?

The biggest use of energy is to move the ship. Therefore, making the hull and propulsors even more sophisticated, and using very slippery materials that also keeping marine life from growing around the hull without spreading poison into the water will have a very important effect. But the next biggest use will be running a hotel for about 1000 people. There are many good ways to use the waste heat from the engines — for example, instead of throwing away approximately half the energy, we will use almost all of it, including for making more electricity and heating and cooling.

Of course, if you were designing a building to keep you comfortable in any of the world’s climates, you would want windows that let in light without heat, you would probably recover warmth or coolness in the outgoing stale air, you would dehumidify using waste heat rather than a shaft-driven compressor, and you would insulate the outside of the hull much better so that it can more easily maintain the right temperature inside. The ship has no nervous system and no comfort sensation. Thirty-odd years ago in Tokyo I asked my host “why don’t you heat your house?” and very sensibly she replied “why should I? Is my house cold?” This emphasizes that we should deliver comfort to the human body rather than to the cubic metres of space. In our own new office high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, we have hyperchairs with heaters and cooling fans, and if the temperature in the room is anywhere between 18 and 30 degrees Celsius you will feel completely comfortable, as you can pick exactly the conditions you want in the chair. One interesting possibility for example, if the ship is in tropical areas, would be to have a radiant cooling panel above your bed which sucks heat out of the body, or to have cool water circulating under your body in the bed — it is so much more efficient to deliver comfort to the body than to the entire room or ship.

We want Ecoship to be a flagship for climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals. What do you see as the advocacy possibilities for the Ecoship, once it is built?

Every building is pedagogy, every ship is pedagogy, every place where we live, work, play and travel teaches us something about how to make the world work better. The question is whether it is teaching the lesson we want it to. Of course, a ship is like a little moving island — you must bring everything with you, and that means using resources with elegant frugality. I hope Ecoship will do that in more transparent ways, so that people can take away good ideas about how to live at home.

Will some of the energy-saving technologies which you use in your house near Aspen be implemented on Ecoship?

It’s possible — for example we use an experimental stove from Switzerland. Cooking on ships is done by electricity and not by fuel, because of safety reasons. But the way that the cooking element and controls are designed together with a special pot makes it three or four times more efficient and you can control the cooking process much better. It’s possible this may have a use onboard. Of course, all the lights will be LEDs. The ship we are now travelling on has many incandescent lights which are very inefficient at producing light — we are slowly replacing them. They produce a lot of heat which we then must remove, and they also need to be replaced regularly. We may be able to save on the number of engineers required to go up ladders and change the bulbs all the time — they could use their time instead to keep all the other equipment working and in good condition.

To what extent do you think the Paris Agreement of 2015 will have an impact on addressing climate change, taking into consideration the current political climate?

I think the agreement will work very well, and countries other than the US have made clear that they will proceed with or without President Trump. China is already out-investing the US in clean energy by more than two to one; it is the world leader in eight different kinds of renewable energy and aims to be in all of them. If the US government decides that this is not important, the US will lose a lot of market opportunity and end up having to import the same technologies from elsewhere. It is also clear that although continued US participation in the Paris Agreement would be desirable and in the interests of the entire world, it is not an essential condition for the agreement’s success. The US makes most of its energy policy at the state level not the national level; it always has. The private sector also has an extremely important role. Therefore, I think we will find that the President is not the federal government, the federal government is not all government, and government is not the only or most important actor in US energy and climate.

What are the most promising energy-saving technologies and new energy sources?

There is an extremely large list of ways to save and produce energy. It is possible to say which potentially have the biggest impact because we can look at which uses are the most important. For example, now it seems that both solar power and wind power will dominate future electricity supply. On efficiency, the list of opportunities is much longer.

My colleagues and I work in equal depth on all main energy-using sectors — that is buildings, mobility, industry and electricity — and they all interact. Therefore, you can’t simply pick out one technique and say this is the most important. For example, a company like Apple pays roughly twice as much money for a battery that will run 25 per cent longer. Such devices strongly drive battery technology. But then the battery technology gets good enough to make cost-effective electric cars, each of which has many thousands of batteries. When we make so many batteries they get cheaper, then we start to apply them in distributed solar power on the roof of your house, and that then makes the fossil fuelled power stations unnecessary. As we add more electric cars to the grid, they provide distributed storage of electricity throughout the grid whenever they are parked. You can control when to recharge the car, for example during times when the wind power is abundant. When you put all these pieces together there is causality spreading out like ripples in a pond; it turns out to be much easier to solve the car and electricity problems together than separately. And who would have thought that electric power and solar panels would start in your phone? But the way the modern energy revolution is outpacing all expectations comes from these unexpected interactions, between different parts of industry, that feed on each other. The progress in efficiency especially is so great that hardly anyone perceives it.

As I mentioned, since 1975 the US has cut its energy use per dollar GDP by about 55 per cent. However, it turns out the cumulative energy saved in that period was 31 times the increase from doubling renewable supply over the same period. Yet renewables get all the headlines, because you can see them on your roof or the skyline, and yet efficiency and energy which you don’t use cannot be seen. In Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, there is a verse that says “30 spokes connect the wheel’s rim to the hub, but it is the empty space in the middle that makes it useful. We work with what is there, but usefulness comes from what is not there”. You could say the power or megawatts that we do not use are the most useful kind, but you cannot see or touch them, they are simply not there. This paradox that the most important energy source in the world — more important than oil — is the energy we didn’t use, or that we did use much more efficiently, is at the heart of the energy mystery.

Do you see the energy revolution as being driven mainly by economic considerations or environmental ones?

It’s driven by many considerations depending on what is important to each person. For many in business it is driven largely by saving money; for many in civil society it is driven partly by saving money but as much if not more by saving the climate, air, water and land. For some it’s a source of competitive advantage between firms or between nations; for some it’s a source of healthy family life and stronger communities; for some it is a mode of Creation Care; for some it is a source of national security or fair global development. These are all valid reasons, any of which suffices, and we don’t need to argue about which is the most important. If we focus on outcomes and not motives, we can achieve results that we will all want but for different reasons, but without gridlock and conflict. Instead we will turn energy into a unifying source of social cohesion and order.


This interview was made during Peace Boat’s 93rd Voyage on January 2017, somewhere near the Patagonian Fiords.


Find out more about the Ecoship project at Peace Boat Ecoship