Hunter Lovins Revs Up Sustainability Summit at Infineon Raceway

Hunter Lovins Revs Up Sustainability Summit at Infineon Raceway

In her trademark 10-gallon hat, sustainability guru L. Hunter Lovins cocked her head and smiled quizzically at the audience gathered for her talk today at Infineon Raceway, the epicenter of motor sports in Northern California.

"What's a Colorado cowgirl doing at a raceway? Well, it's just a different type of horsepower," said Lovins, who led a lengthy and impressive list of speakers at the conference called Accelerating Sustainable Performance. It was the first of what Infineon leaders hope will be ongoing public dialogues about how the racing industry can help drive sustainability and innovation.

"Sustainability is about higher performance,"  Lovins said, adding that higher performance is the essence of racing.Hunter Lovins

It's why motor sports have been a test bed for the automotive industry for decades, she noted, and why the feds have tapped its power, too. The EPA turned to the racing Industry a few years ago in a twin campaign to push innovation in fuel efficiency and popularize it. IndyCar and American LeMans were the first to take up the challenge, and now NASCAR, the country's No. 1 spectator sport, is pursuing green initiatives (see my article about that here).

With such a draw, racing has the ability to push green concepts to an enormous audience. "We need the ability of a track like Infineon to get at the people who would never come to a talk I'd be giving any place else," said Lovins.

For many in the mainstream, "the green notion has always been tied to the idea of sacrifice," said Steve Page, Infineon Raceway's president and general manager. "It's the hair shirt factor. [Through racing] we can associate green with a different factor, one focused on performance."

Infineon Raceway is a leader among motor sports venues that are now aggressively adopting practices and technology to save money and shrink their environmental footprint (see that story here).

Though highly visible, such moves are the exception in motor sports, and Infineon's event seemed to me to also be a prod to the racing industry -- in addition to being a showcase of innovation that has application in everyday life. Here are just a few of them: Safer, better performing and more efficient tires, cars and engineering systems were tested on tracks. Also, Lovins noted, the way paramedics move the injured was developed by race crews.

The all-day gathering drew researchers, engineers and EV experts, university profs, reps from local governments and sponsors from the many companies involved with racing. I was there, too, and will be writing more on the topic later.

In the meantime, here's what some of the key speakers were saying:

Steve Page on eating your own cooking, but not getting drunk on your PR: "We have 300-mile-an-hour dragsters out here, these things do not run on radishes," he said over the roar of IndyCar drivers doing practice laps for an upcoming race. "Racing will go green, but it's not going to happen overnight."

Lovins on criticism that NASCAR is greenwashing:
"Oh, so what," she said, adding her oft-quoted quip: "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change."

John Melo, CEO of advanced biofuels firm Amyris:
"People want green and will pay for a product if it delivers equal or greater performance and is the same price as the competitive product."

Paul Erickson, associate professor, mechanical & aerospace engineering, at the University of California, Davis, on why going green at gunpoint may work in dictatorships but not in the U.S.: "It scares the hell out of me when you say, 'You will go green.' I want to reach for my .357-magnum," he joked. "We need to make sure we're doing this for the right reasons, that they're scientific and we have to let people choose."

Consultant Andy Dolich, former COO of the San Francisco 49ers, on green cars:
"When will we see a green car star in a movie, like Steve McQueen's Mustang [in 'Bullitt']? ... If Henry Ford were alive today, what would he say about all this?"