“Soft technologies can match any settlement pattern, their diversity reflecting our own pluralism.” The Road Not Taken
In what is often called his “breakthrough” article in Foreign Affairs in 1976, Lovins makes a plea for 'soft energy' paths--renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biofuel or geothermal that are diverse and dispersed, so that they can be “matched in scale and in geographic distribution to end-use needs.” The Road Not Taken
'Hard' energy paths—large, centralized power grids—lose losing energy and incur costs over vast transmission distances, and struggle with 'diseconomies' of scale such as unreliable large units, and “spinning reserve” capacity needs. But Lovins' pleas for soft energy paths are based on politics as much as claims for greater efficiency: “The kinds of social change needed for a hard path are apt to be much less pleasant, less plausible,less compatible with social diversity and personal freedom of choice, and less consistent with traditional values than are the social changes that could make a soft path work.” That is, even if “nuclear power were clean, safe, economic, assured of ample fuel, and socially benign per se, it would still be unattractive because of the political implications of the kind of energy economy it would lock us into.” The Road Not Taken
'Soft' paths are also more equitable, Lovins argues: “The soft path has novel and important international implications. Just as improvements in end-use efficiency can be used at home (via innovative financing and neighborhood self-help schemes) to lessen first the disproportionate burden of energy waste on the poor, so can soft technologies and reduced pressure on oil markets especially benefit the poor abroad. Soft technologies are ideally suited for rural villagers and urban poor alike, directly helping the more than two billion people who have no electric outlet nor anything to plug into it but who need ways to heat, cook, light and pump.” The Road Not Taken
While an explicit critique of the urban, martial state articulated this earlier essay is not repeated in his work today, Lovins continues to tout the economic benefits of distributed electrical resources. Relying more heavily on the language of efficiency he describes 'soft' paths as a critical factor in contempoary tech and business innovation:
“If I told you, 'Many people need computing services, so we’d better build more mainframe computer centers where you can come run your computing task,' you’d probably reply, 'We did that in the 1960’s, but now we use networked PC’s.' Or if I said, 'Many people make phone calls, so we’d better build more big telephone exchanges full of relays and copper wires,' you’d exclaim, 'Where have you been? We use distributed packet-switching.' Yet if I said, 'Many people need to run lights and motors, Wii’s, and air conditioners, so we’d better build more giant power plants,' you’d probably say, 'Of course! That’s the only way to power America.'” Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants?