Soft energy path

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The soft energy path is an energy use and development strategy delineated and promoted by some energy experts and activists, such as Amory Lovins and Tom Bender. Energy conservation is its cardinal premise.

As physicist/consultant/lobbyist Amory Lovins describes it, the "hard energy path" (with which the soft path contrasts) involves inefficient liquid-fuel automotive transport, as well as giant, centralized electricity-generating facilities, often burning fossil fuels (e.g., coal or petroleum) or harnessing a nuclear fission reaction. (See radioactive waste.) The hard path is not simply a matter of energy sources, though, because it is greatly augmented and complicated by wastage and loss of electricity and other common, directly usable forms of energy.

The "soft energy path" wholly preferred by its advocates involves efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on co-generation and "soft technologies" (a.k.a., alternative technology) such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.

Advocates have believed that the "hard" path would eventually fail us in critical ways, letting people in the industrialized and developing world down with a hard thud.

There has been a renewed interest in the soft energy path due to the recent popularization of "peak oil" theories.

However, a criticism levelled at decentralized energy production approaches is that, generally, the large, centralized methods produce energy much more efficiently than small, distributed plants. The energy decentralists counter that this is a generalization, new developments are in the works, and even today there are sometimes exceptions (see the discussion in the renewable energy article). In Lovins' analysis, large-scale electricity production facilities have an important place, but it is a place that they were already filling by the mid-1970s. At that time, Lovins felt that more centralized, large-scale "conventional" energy production facilities would not generally be needed.

Lovins argued that besides environmental benefits, global political stresses might be reduced by Western nations committing to the soft energy path.

Facts have validated some of Lovins' assertions. While U.S. federal commitments in the energy field have varied and no ongoing, official resolve to adhere to the soft energy path has been made at the national level, in the Winter 1998 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, Amory Lovins pointed out that choices made by industry and citizens had resulted in national energy use just slightly lower than the projection he had made for the soft energy path in 1976. In this sense, the success of the soft energy path exceeded expectation.

At the same time, proponents of renewable energy sources have been frustrated by the fact that the overall fraction of energy derivation supplied by renewables has declined slightly in a number of nations (though grown slightly in others) if, say, the years 1985 and 1994 are compared. The renewable-energy situation might be interpreted as one of stagnation as regards this aspect of the soft energy path, though some proponents put much hope in the commercial emergence of hydrogen fuel cells, which appear to have possibilities as an efficient energy-storage method. As well, the utilization of both wind and solar power is generally predicted to grow significantly. Further, the European Commission of 1997 predicted a significant growth in all of the main sources of renewable electricity generation except hyro-electric, by 2010 (see renewable energy development).

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