In myriad ways, through multiple projects, Rocky Mountain Institute unearths avenues leading to a clean-energy future.
WRITTEN BY Kiley Jacques | Photographed By Mark Osler

With offices in Colorado, New York, and Washington, D.C., Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) works in two capacities. It is a combined research and consulting institution whose mission is to drive the efficient and restorative use of energy-related resources worldwide. The brainchild of Amory Lovins, RMI demonstrates alternatives to traditional building practices and transportation infrastructure. Of his creation Lovins says: “At RMI we’re practitioners, not theorists; we do solutions, not problems; we do transformation, not incrementalism.”


Lovins, an experimental physicist and 1993 MacArthur Fellow, is widely considered to be a leading innovator of super-efficient buildings, factories, and vehicles. As RMI’s chief scientist, he works on the “large-picture dimension” and studies ways of transitioning the planet away from a fossil fuel–based energy system to a clean-energy system. “We believe there is a way to do that that doesn’t compromise economic prosperity,” says managing director Iain Campbell. “It is generally far cheaper to use less energy than to deploy clean renewable energy and all the associated infrastructure.”


Founded in 1982—and winner of the 2015 Greenbuild Leadership Award—RMI works to solve global issues as a small nonprofit. Part world leaders, part “on-the-ground practitioners,” the people behind RMI look for “pathways for the market to follow,” according to Campbell. RMI’s publication, Reinventing Fire, describes those pathways as what is needed to replace the fossil fuel–based energy system with renewable sources by 2050 without compromising economic growth. Why 2050? “It had to be far enough out that innovation and creativity wouldn’t get stifled,” answers Campbell. Even then, however, he doesn’t predict a zero-carbon energy future…yet.


“The whole premise of Reinventing Fire,” explains Campbell, “is that the energy system that was developed over a century ago [enabled] industrialization and growth…it has served humanity. There are so many things we are able to do because we have this underlying energy system. Looking back, we can say it has done a lot of good. But we have discovered, over the last few decades, that the sources of energy we are using are causing serious damage to the climate and potentially to humanity if we continue on the path of business as usual.” RMI is a major forerunner in the movement to reroute that path.

Opening: A reflection off of the windows at the entrance to the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. Above: Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder and chief scientist Amory B. Lovins, a self-described “recovering scientist” and “born-again Bornean,” has had a lifelong affinity for orangutans. The photograph in Lovins’ office is a gift from Seattle-based photographer Daniel Suckow. An accomplished photography enthusiast himself, Lovins has photographs of the natural world on the walls throughout the RMI offices in Basalt, Colorado—many by his wife, Judy Hill Lovins.

There is, however, concern that moving away from a system that has resulted in such prosperity will impair future gains. Such concerns are most prevalent among leaders of developing countries; they see the current model as one that leads to economic security. What will it mean for them if it changes altogether? Reinventing Fire explains how those ideals are achievable through different means—the burning of fossil fuels is not the only road to financial stability.


Today, according to Campbell, people rarely look beyond three years in terms of investment and the energy profile of their building. “Are people making decisions based upon the 50-year life cycle of the asset? Probably not.” He believes all resources need to be equally valued—the idea being that transitioning to renewable sources will result in a drop in demand because efficiency will be foremost. “There needs to be an equalization and revaluation of all resources so that market forces can steer us most economically toward the future clean-energy system,” explains Campbell.


RMI has what it terms “a practice area,” where they work to solve problems and demonstrate solutions to help “catalyze activity within the market.” They seek mechanisms for stimulating demand and cost-efficient delivery. Then, they explore methods for making new systems viable and available. Their work is about adoptability and applicability on a large scale, with a focus on buildings, transportation, and electricity—the major components that need addressing to reach the overarching goal of a clean-energy future.


Among their current projects, Campbell spotlights the Commercial Energy+ initiative, which aims to reduce energy use by 20 percent across more than a billion square feet of commercial building space, thereby saving 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Their work with Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative—a public-private partnership that promotes energy efficiency among commercial and institutional buildings—demonstrates those efforts. A related project, targeted for a yet-to-be-identified city in China, is also getting underway. Both systems will be built following an entirely new approach to commercial building energy retrofits.

Cement floors are a big part of the environmental control.


Iain Campbell is a managing director at Rocky Mountain Institute, where he leads the Buildings practice.

“We have been working to develop a program for rapid scaling of energy retrofits in commercial buildings,” explains Campbell. “I think we do a really good job in the energy efficiency of new buildings, and I think there is an element of that which is driven by codes and standards.” He notes how energy retrofits of existing commercial buildings significantly lag behind new construction—capital constraints are usually given as the reason for that. (The threshold for return on investment is typically not much more than three years.) He is quick, however, to credit the USGBC’s LEED certification with helping to drive down the cost of green building, which increases scalability. “The cost has come down to be almost a negligible increase over and above building to code,” he says, adding that building green is not only environmentally responsible, but also fiscally responsible because of the impact on the building’s future value.


Campbell sees deep energy retrofits typically integrated into major renovation projects or as he puts it: “as part of a capital refresh or repositioning of a building.” He feels the supply side of the market has yet to come up with a good solution for a stand-alone energy retrofit that is meaningful and persists over time. “We believe a big part of that is due to the retrofit process, which has been designed to deliver single building retrofits that are custom by nature.”


RMI has identified 452 possible energy-conserving measures that can be deployed in a large commercial building. What is important is to determine how a building’s characteristics match up with those possibilities. If energy retrofits are to be scalable in any significant way, Campbell and his team believe they need to be industrialized, what they call “mass customization.” He explains it as an approach that takes “specific high-value energy-conserving measures that are relevant to many buildings and [pre-engineered]…for a portfolio of buildings.” In other words, it identifies which measures are applicable for the majority, if not all, of the buildings at hand. Campbell notes that this mass customization model has been used in many industries with huge success because it is cost efficient.


They have identified four core measures: LED lighting, HVAC optimization, variable speed motor retrofits, and a real-time measurement platform that ensures consistency and sustainability of measures deployed over time. This bundle of measures—intended for buildings of over 250,000 square feet—results in an average 23 percent energy savings (without replacing major pieces of capital equipment). The Chicago retrofit is the model for the application of this bundle.


In the end, RMI plans to provide “a package of configurable, ready-to-deploy efficiency measures and technologies that will make buildings immediately smarter, more energy efficient, and more interactive with the electricity grid,” according to Campbell. Beyond energy savings, they are structuring the model to take advantage of utility incentives, the 179D tax credit, and local financing programs such as PACE. “The concept is: Wherever this model is deployed, it is able to leverage the financial enablers that are already in place in that local environment, whether that’s tax [or] utilities incentives, or financing mechanisms.” Clearly, the idea is in line with finding cross-spectrum applicability and enhanced scalability.


RMI manager Cara Carmichael discusses an equally impressive project: the Innovation Center. Located in Basalt, Colorado, and completed in December 2015, it is a 15,610-sq-ft office building and state-of-the-art convening center, as well as RMI’s new headquarters. “To advance our mission and propel the industry, RMI developed the Innovation Center to demonstrate how deep green buildings are designed, contracted, constructed, and occupied,” explains Carmichael. Having received the Passive House certification and anticipating LEED Platinum certification, they are also pursuing Living Building Challenge certification. “It’s going to be the most efficient building in the coldest climate zone in the United States,” she says.


In their effort to produce a net-zero-energy building, they employed the Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) contracting method, to which Carmichael attributes their success. “It was great because it really aligned our team around the goals and the vision.” She believes that to achieve such aggressive efficiency, an integrated approach is vital. “It essentially put our money where our mouth is in terms of integration and teamwork.”


As a starting point, they explored (and redefined) how occupants experience and engage with their own thermal comfort. The building includes an expanded range of “set points” in terms of temperature (64 to 82 degrees). Carmichael names six factors that affect an individual’s thermal comfort: what one wears, what one does, humidity, temperature, air velocity, and mean radiant temperature—the surface temperature of a space, which has the ability to impact an individual’s comfort level as much as, if not more than, air temperature. “We’ve really made sure that every surface in this building is aligning with our set points.”

Approximately 50 percent of the building on the south side is windows and 23 percent on the northside. This creates ambient lighting to minimize how much electrically-supplied light is needed.

The design plan called for a massive, thermally tight building envelope, which results in very little air infiltration, thereby significantly reducing energy use. In addition to hyperinsulated windows, building features include: SIP structural panels, natural ventilation, the capacity for night-flushing in warm months (there is no mechanical cooling system), and a small distributed heating system that uses the same amount of energy as 1.2 homes. “Through all these passive measures we were able to completely eliminate any kind of cooling equipment,” notes Carmichael.


In fact, passive efficiency was the primary focus. “It’s a critical part of our thermal-comfort strategy.” Several measures were employed to that end: In addition to the super-insulated envelope and air tightness, they maximized the building’s orientation to take advantage of southern exposure and applied an exterior sun-shade system to control heat gain in the summer and during the “shoulder seasons.” They also used fixed shading on the south side, a newer system not yet widely used. A narrow floor plate—60 feet from north to south—has daylight autonomy and bilateral elimination.


With natural light coming in from the north and south, the need for electric lighting is minimal. Further features include controlled glare through interior light shelves and the blind system, exposed concrete in key south side areas to help retain heat, an 84-kw solar array on the roof, and a 34-h battery system, which helps reduce demand on the grid. Eventually, a bidirectional vehicle charging system will enable them to pull energy from cars to charge batteries in the building.


The center is the result of a from-scratch design, and intended to be replicable in the industry. The integration of passive efficiency and active energy generation of renewables was a core theme during the project—one that Carmichael describes as “very forward-thinking.”



The shades on the outside of the building automatically lower when the inside temperature hits 77ºF. The shades are able to completely block out the sun, but can also articulate to let in varying amounts of light.

The Business Renewables Center (BRC), another of RMI’s ultra-progressive projects, is principal Lily Donge’s area of expertise. She describes its function as “a scaling up of corporations using their capital to create new renewable energy in the marketplace.” In short, BRC streamlines and accelerates corporate procurement of wind and utility-scale solar energy. Corporations like Bloomberg, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft, among others, are behind the effort.


Major progress has been seen already. In 2013, corporations were buying half a gigawatt of renewable energy power. In 2014, that number increased to 1 gigawatt, and by 2015—the year BRC was born—their efforts resulted in an increased 3.4 gigawatts of corporate-purchased clean-energy power. (BRC clients are responsible for more than 80 percent of those transactions.) To put those numbers into perspective, Donge explains that a 4 GW increase every year (among companies alone) would result in 60 gigawatts by 2030—that is a 70 percent increase in wind power in the United States.


BRC’s work includes the compilation of case studies intended for study. “We create a marketplace in which it is safe to learn…so people are not always selling and buying and feeling like it is a risky market—it is a platform where companies and developers can talk about their obstacles, and then improve the marketplace,” says Donge. Beyond supporting the clean-energy market, there are also profits to be made, which, of course, is part of why the idea has gained such traction.


With every undertaking RMI focuses on what can be done here, now, and in a big way. That drive is critical for a fossil fuel–free future that includes a sustainable supply of clean energy. Their work is essential in determining which turns to take on a new path to progress. In the words of the man at the helm, Lovins says: “Integrative design is further accelerating what’s possible—both new and retrofit offices can now be over twice as efficient as they were five years ago, using the same technologies but combining and applying them in smarter ways…. I can scarcely imagine what wonderful things we’ll all do together in the years ahead.”