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 An Open Letter to Amory Lovins

(Co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute  and creator of negawatts.)



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Key ideas in letter.

The dominant economic system (THE MARKET) at present tends to place zero or negative value on human happiness and environmental well-being. According to this construct, if a use of energy cannot be traded or taxed it does not exist.

The concept of negawatts is a welcome attempt in that it works to ensure a wider range of energy uses are include in the political, social and economic discourse. By contrast, dialogue generated by THE MARKET is much dafter. It simply takes no account  of or discounts a large portion of our most sustainable uses of energy.

The construct of the symbol negawatts is flawed in that it evokes counterproductive responses to its element nega and watts. It is also flawed in that it contains no inherent acknowledgement that every conscious use of energy is a moral dilemma and energy patterns are in constant flux.

The communication of sustainable uses of energy is better served by the twin complementary and co-evolving concepts, bonus joules and junk joules.

Definition: Energy Efficiency =The generation of bonus joules.



New Zealand

January 2005

Dear Amory,

I first encountered your work in the early 1990s and what a blast! I cannot recall where I first read your ideas. Probably it was in one of the trade magazines in our electricity industry. Your ideas came as a real blast of fresh, sweet sanity. Understand I live on the Cook Strait, a small gap in a thousand miles of mountain ranges straddling the Roaring Forties, and I don’t use the word “blast” lightly.

You visited New Zealand at that period and will know the Economic Reforms imposed on us. I believed then and still do that they form a recipe for misery. According to this construct, if a use of energy cannot be traded or taxed it does not exist in the new “Market”. And as the media make clear, “The Market” rules! 

Actually, just to make it clear in this letter I am talking about a particular market, I will use the symbol THE MARKET to describe the Reform’s construct. Its architects and engineers told us that it is the only market system that works. They told us, “There Is No Alternative.” (Cynics nicknamed this psychopathic condition TINA.)

Your concept of negawatts as a measure of efficiency seemed, by contrast, blessedly sane. It came as a very real alternative. The idea that we can measure a gain in energy efficiency and put a value on it seemed to offer a mechanism for measuring economic growth in a common sense way. No longer need the politicians freak out as GNP “shrank” when we sat in the sun to keep warm rather than used an electric heater. 

The idea that the negawatts generated by our activities could be measured and traded at last seemed to give us a way of bringing sanity to THE MARKET. We would have a currency to counter THE MARKET gurus who placed zero or negative value on human happiness and environmental well being. 

As mentioned, I was working in the electricity industry when I encountered your ideas. This industry was re-engineered to serve THE MARKET too. Electricity was reduced from an extraordinary life-enhancing right of every citizen to a mere commodity to be traded like any other commodity. Our new managers began telling us that distributing electricity is no different to trading bread or cabbages. In my job as a meter reader visiting tens of thousands of homes I saw how electricity shaped and supported our society and the environment. There are many options to eating bread or cabbages but no option to electricity in our modern civilisation of 6 billion people. I never experienced anyone kill themselves or their family for lack of cabbages. Even the fear of the loss of access to electricity is enough to send some people over the edge.

You can see why I blessed you for your ideas.  I was aware of an irony though. Some managers in the electricity industry who were impressed by your ideas heard only the word “market” and it triggered THE MARKET response. They began to believe only THE MARKET could put a value on everything – including us employees. They figured the only way to find out our value was to sack us and see what value THE MARKET would put on our jobs. Of course, life does not work like that. Managers who know and truly care for their business have no need to resort to such practices. At Capital Power in Wellington we were not so lucky. 

 In 2004 I heard an interview with you on our National Radio Nine to Noon programme. In it you expressed astonishment that a small country such as NZ with the total population of a large US city should adopt such a fragmented competition-based system. You said the logical system for a country our small size is a vertically integrated electricity structure. This, of course, is what we used to have.

I cannot judge your role in the Electricity Reforms. I am sure you do not approve of the way individual citizens have been disenfranchised and can no longer participate in the Electricity Market in an intelligent way with their communities.

I have reflected on your astonishment. Perhaps you are unaware of the possible responses you evoke in people here when you use the symbol “market” in its current context? You mentioned in the interview, you have been consulting and advising in New Zealand for over a decade now. It may be you are an influential, even if unwitting, architect of our present system.

Amory, the ideas that you and the others at the Rocky Mountain Institute promote have really impressed and excited me. They have made a big impact on my life, for better and worse. Over the years I have had many reasons to reflect deeply on them. Indeed I have probably lived them more than most on this planet. And as I have thought more deeply of your work I have become aware of the possibility that it may lack awareness of the power of symbols. In addition, it may promote an unwise faith in the ability of “market-derived solutions”. 

In particular I have reflected on the concept of negawatts

In 2000 I joined Negawatt Resources Ltd, a small firm specialising in energy efficient products and services –including education programmes. Yes, you personally gave Grant Dunford permission to name the firm negawatts and, yes, it is dedicated to improving community health and wealth by promoting effective uses of energy in a very wide range of its forms, as you would wish. 

During the next two years I had hundreds of conversations with customers and clients in which I had to spell the word negawatt out. “No, not m for Mary, its n as in Nigel”. Thoughtful people hear it as Megawatts. This is the only way they can make sense of the symbol as a description of a positive use of energy.  Customer after customer was clearly perplexed that we called a positive use of electricity negative? “Surely you are talking about saving Megawatts. Isn’t Energy Efficiency supposed to be good?”

In New Zealand we have a real problem. People are very confused about what Energy Efficiency is. They associate it with deprivation, self-sacrifice and risky activities. They do not associate it with wealth and health. It is easy to understand the confusion: THE MARKET, especially the Bulk-electricity and fossil fuels sector, invests considerable sums in generating this confusion. Energy Efficiency cuts into the profits and dividends of the principal shareholders of the sector. Confusion = Higher short-term dividends for a few.

And as you know our Government is committed to THE MARKET model. It also addicted to the large revenue streams from taxes and dividends. Its un-stated policy is to maximise electricity sales and consumption – much of which gets invested in measures to further increase electricity demand. It uses its agencies such as the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) as spin machines. These encourage small consumers to deprive themselves of electricity at times of distribution crisis such as when hydro lake levels are low. As soon as the immediate threats to their profits from the electricity demand-supply imbalance are over, it’s back to the normal mindless promotion of sales. Hence people associate Energy Efficiency with crisis and deprivation, with threats of Black/Brown Outs.

In this context the symbol negawatts reinforces the widespread association of Energy Efficiency with negative experiences.

Then there is the use of the symbol watts. Here was Negawatt Resources Ltd trying to sell quality solar systems and insulation. It was attempting to liberate people of their dependence on the electricity socket and Bulk-generated electricity for their sources of energy and point them to the huge solar potential. However most people associate the symbol watt with electricity –an association reinforced on every electric appliance or in each bill for grid-sourced electricity. 

People do not tend to associate other sources and uses of energy such as food, drinks, physical exercise and the sun with watts. These are more commonly measured in terms of joules. Check out any diet sheet or food or beverage label.  So the more Negawatt Resources Ltd worked to raise awareness of the potential uses of wind, the sun, glazing and insulation the more it suppressed it. Every evocation of the symbol negawatt simply triggered the familiar “watt” response in people, a response intensively cultivated by the image engineers of the Bulk-electricity generators and their associates.

I believe if you think something is good, you call it good. I explored a range of symbols that might express your vision. I figured the symbol must have links to Economics. It needs to have positive resonations with our children. It needs to develop in them a strong sense of sound energy use before they encounter the derelict concepts pervading our university business schools. I chose bonus because it is widely associated with well-being. A bonus is positive economic concept. This is the symbol I came up with:

Definition: A bonus joule is a measure or unit of energy efficiency, of energy used well. The word bonus is derived from the Latin word bon meaning good. It is a unit of energy used with long-term, low-risk considerations in mind. In other words, it is a measure of energy used so as to sustain valuable energy forms and essential balances and that works as an investment in our children’s future.  
An equivalent but less helpful measure of a bonus joule is a negawatt.

EECA has a very negative definition of Energy Efficiency: “Using less energy”. Contrast this with my definition of Energy Efficiency: “The generation of bonus joules.
Bonus joules can be converted to bonus watts for some accounting and trading situations.

There is a larger flaw in the concept of negawatts. It first occurred to me when I became aware the possibility exists, for instance, for a company to say it plans to use grid-sourced electricity when it has no intention of doing so. This may make it eligible for negawatts payments where such provisions exist. The culture of negawatts with its faith in THE MARKET increases the risk of such abuse.

I will pause to emphasise the fact that at least the concept of negawatts works to ensure a wider range of energy uses are included in the political, social and economic dialogues. By contrast, our dominant economic discourse is much dafter. It simply takes no account or discounts a large portion of our most sustainable uses of energy.

I used to read articles saying the idea of negawatts is nonsense. For a long time my response was a rather defensive one. I tended to dismiss the writers’ arguments as just more attempts to dump on any effort to integrate Energy Efficiency practice as a positive force into current accounting systems. Here is sample of the milder criticism I came across searching on the net for the meaning of negawatts:

“Now, some global energy companies are also pushing another insanity designed to separate the public from its money.  

It's called "negawatts." 

They are promising to set-up auctions in which people can auction-off their unused energy by selling the electricity they would have used in their factories if they shut down production or close the factory. 

This means that a company who owns an aluminium smelter, for example, could shut down production, selling the electricity they would have used in their smelter for a tidy profit. 

The energy guru's are absolutely determined to keep jacking-up energy prices through deregulation, and now, there is the "negawatt" scam to convince people that deregulation will somehow put money back in their pockets. 

But the only ones getting rich are the energy generating companies, their Wall Street and City of London financial controllers and the politicians they keep on tap in their back pockets.”

Howard's End: Waiting For Rain In Brazil
Maree Howard on Scoop Tuesday, 14 August 2001, 8:51 am 

Even as I was reflecting on such criticism, Enron, a subject of the article, was collapsing. A few hundred meters from where I was working at Negawatt Resources Ltd the conglomeration that was Arthur Andersen and Co’s Enron clone here in New Zealand was in deep trouble. TransAlta-OnEnergy, the largest electricity and gas retailer in New Zealand, collapsed about this time. For a range of reasons based on my experience with its creation I had predicted as early as 1996 that the structure was unsustainable and would collapse. So I tended to take such criticisms of negawatts seriously.

Gradually I confronted my own lingering doubts and my inability to respond to these criticisms. Sometimes art can teach us a lot about ourselves so I started drawing. I developed a cartoon strip in which I set out to explore our images of energy and to search out the most sustainable images of energy.  My main tool was a cartoon symbol of bonus joules I called Bonus Joules. I associate bonus joules with relaxation, ease and openness. After some experimentation I came up with a form that expressed those qualities for me and enabled me to explore the issues.

I very soon discovered the development of sustainable images of energy couldn’t be achieved without acknowledging the fact that we live in an energy flux. What is a sustainable use of energy one day is an unsustainable use the next day. If something can be good then it can be bad. Every conscious use of energy is a moral dilemma. We cannot avoid the potential for evil. It is at our peril that we absolve ourselves of responsibility of our uses of energy to some abstract force called “The Market”. This probably seems boringly obvious and yet it is radical in the framework of our current Economics.

The cartoon soon took on a life of it’s own. Where ever Bonus Joules went there seemed to be a constant travelling companion, a complementary partner in The Journey. It is an overbearing, selfish and dominating presence. This ever-present companion I called Junk Joules.  This is the symbol I came up with:

Definition: A junk joule is a measure or unit of energy inefficiency, of energy used badly. The word junk is derived from the old English word jonk meaning old discarded ships rope. Its modern meaning is flawed, useless, unwelcome, unsafe and wasted. It is a unit of energy used with only short-term, high-risk considerations in mind. In other words, it is a measure of energy used so as to destroy valuable energy forms and essential balances and that works to reduce our children’s options. It is a speculative, unsafe use of energy.

And so emerged the concept of bonus joules and junk joules as the twin complementary and co-evolving elements required if we are to communicate sustainable uses of energy. 

It took a while for me to see the obvious staring me in the face. It is the ancient symbol of some of the largest and most sustainable civilisations in the history of modern Man. It is the yin-yang symbol. It is the great symbol of balance within change. Since that moment I have been fascinated and inspired to learn the symbol is born of the close study of the interaction between the sun and the Earth.


In this context the concept of negawatts appears fundamentally unbalanced. I have mentioned many of the reasons:

It is a momentary measure of energy efficiency. That measure is not sustainable. As mentioned, changes in the forms and patterns of energy flows mean a once efficient use of energy can become very inefficient.

A person or company may profit from generating negawatts but if they use those profits to generate very inefficient uses of energy the negawatts can be negated. The net result may be high-risk behaviour with a negative impact on our environment and the general well-being of people. An example occurs when negawatt systems encourage the incineration of farm waste rather than the less harmful process of composting it.
And talking of negating negawats, what are you going to call those watts of unhelpful energy use? Posiwatts? Surely that will make the symbol negawatts even more confusing for people?

 As an aside you may be interested in my reaction at the time when the revelations of Enron’s Californian activities became public early 2002. I received reports that Enron was paid millions of dollars a day by the state of California for generating “negawatts” by “postponing” bulk grid electricity movements they never intended to make. The resulting drain on the California State coffers and the political earthquakes that resulted when Governor Grey Davis attempted to retrieve the illicit billions of dollars has had a global impact on sustainable practice everywhere.

Please do not get me wrong, Amory. I very much support the work you do. I am sure there are many situations where the deliberate and conscientious generation of negawatts has worked to sustain us. However the gross national figures both here and in the United States suggest that we have to entertain the possibility that key symbols Environmental Educators employ are counterproductive. I am thinking of the statistics for fossil fuel use, national vehicle fleet efficiency, building design and use etc. We may be generating flawed images of the nature of energy and maladaptive responses that promote such unsustainable activities.

This is part of a wider call for a review of the major symbols we use to portray energy and Earth’s climate in particular. Symbols such as “saving energy” and “energy crises” work to undermine the Principle of the Conservation of Energy and obscure the fact that it is our use of energy, not energy that forms any problem. When we confuse energy forms such as electricity with energy we are teaching that an energy form is as plentiful as energy itself and then we wonder why people use it as a practically unlimited resource. 

No one has been able me to point me to any scientific evidence that supports our present use of symbols such as greenhouse gases, greenhouse effects, global warming, climate change etc. Science is revealing the atmosphere as a highly dynamic, multi-layered and organic system and life is dependent on the balance of trace elements in it. This is not what the greenhouse image of Earth’s surface energy system reveals in us. It is an image deeply charged with anthrocentricity and an excess of this can be fatal for a civilisation.

So you can see my reflections on negawatts form part of a wider call for a review of the dominant images energy we employ in the West. In the case of negawatts, my concern is that it fails to implicitly recognise the evolving nature of sustainable use and may well work to promote our natural tendencies to avoid confronting the impact of our activities. We hand over responsibility to THE MARKET and expect it to deliver the future. Our objective can too easily become the maximisation of short-term profits from successful trades in negawatts. 

Already the amorality, disenfranchisement, fragmentation, and secrecy (“business confidentiality”) of new Electricity MARKET have resulted in a marked loss of accountability. In this context, it is easily possible that the use of the negawatt measure of energy efficiency may ironically work to reduce rather than enhance accountability. This, of course is not your intention. 

I invite you to join the call for a review. This website contains many proposals for improved images. Some of the proposals are profoundly radical in our modern culture and yet only involve a little more care with our choice of symbols. Invariably science is enhanced by that care. I would like in all humility to ask you to reflect on and consider the possibility that the complementary, co-evolving symbols of bonus joules and junk joules more truly reflect a sustainable future than does negawatts.

Please do not be deterred by the simple and draft nature of the website. I receive no support except that of friends creating and maintaining it. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to sitting in on your lectures again the next time you visit New Zealand.

 Yours sincerely

 Dave McArthur 

Cosci.princeton.ed interpretations of the symbol negative:

  1. negative (vs. neutral) (vs. positive) -- (characterized by or displaying negation or denial or opposition or resistance; having no positive features; "a negative outlook on life"; "a colorless negative personality"; "a negative evaluation"; "a negative reaction to an advertising campaign")
    2. negative -- (reckoned in a direction opposite to that regarded as positive)
    3. negative (vs. neutral) (vs. positive), electronegative -- (having a negative electric charge; "electrons are negative")
    4. negative (vs. affirmative) -- (expressing or consisting of a negation or refusal or denial)
    5. negative -- (having the quality of something harmful or unpleasant; "ran a negative campaign"; "delinquents retarded by their negative outlook on life")
    6. negative (vs. positive), disconfirming -- (not indicating the presence of microorganisms or disease or a specific condition; "the HIV test was negative")
    7. negative -- (less than zero; "a negative number")
    8. damaging, negative -- (designed or tending to discredit, especially without positive or helpful suggestions; "negative criticism")
    9. minus, negative -- (involving disadvantage or harm; "minus (or negative) factors")


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