How the Rocky Mountain Institute Works

By: Debra Ronca  | 
The Rocky Mountain Institute set up headquarters in Snowmass, Colorado.
Brian Miller/Ovoworks/Getty Images

At some point during the past few years, the idea of "going green" ceased being a trend and became a standard for living. So what differentiates the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) from any other green organization?

RMI's mission isn't simply sustainable living. Its focus is to combine prosperous living with green living -- to make the world healthier on an environmental level and on a financial level. RMI achieves these goals through consulting with businesses, organizations and individuals on developing more productive and efficient ways of working and living. Simply put, RMI is a think tank, or an institution organized for intensive research and solving of problems [source: American Heritage Dictionary].


RMI employs a unique business model called natural capitalism. Natural capital encompasses the planet, its ecological systems and energy sources -- resources that support life as well as hold economic value. Historically, typical business models didn't take healthy environmental practices into account. The reason is that it's never really been profitable for companies to utilize newer, more environmentally sound technologies and practices. The core belief of natural capitalism is that by implementing earth-friendly technologies, efficiency gains will benefit the bottom line, not only through reduced energy consumption, but also in competitive advantage and possible government subsidies [source: RMI].

What started out as a small but committed group of individuals in 1982 is now a multifaceted consulting organization. How did RMI begin? Who is its founder? And what has this organization accomplished over the years? Read the next page to start learning.



History of the Rocky Mountain Institute

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, became interested in energy conservation during the gas crisis of the 1970s, after completing his studies in physics at Harvard and Oxford. In his twenties, he wrote an article that, rather than attempt to provide a solution for acquiring more gas and oil, questioned why the United States needed so much gas and oil in the first place and why it could not be more efficient with its resources [source: Nuclear Control Institute]. This article, at first read primarily in the scholarly community, attracted a lot of attention. Initially, many in the industry scorned his ideas. Then, as the energy crisis worsened, people -- including former President Jimmy Carter -- began to recognize the value of energy efficiency. From about 1971 to 1981, Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, his wife at the time, began consulting with various corporations and governments.

Eventually settling in Snowmass, Colorado, the two began a small nonprofit organization -- the Rocky Mountain Institute -- with some friends and colleagues. RMI's initial goal was to push issues, research and solutions to the forefront of the energy conservation movement. In 25 years, RMI's goals haven't really changed. Lovins' concept of "soft energy paths" -- using less energy by using it more productively -- continues to flourish, nearly 30 years after its introduction. RMI's staff continues to grow, collecting people from different business and economic backgrounds to round out its vision. Its current CEO is Michael Potts, who brings experience from the world of high technology. Lovins remains the chief visionary [source: RMI].


RMI has nine core principles as its guideposts:

  • Advanced resource productivity -- Using resources more productively and efficiently actually creates wealth by saving energy costs. It also increases productivity and economic activity.
  • Systems thinking -- By designing and optimizing entire systems rather than building one piece of a system at a time, it's possible to reveal interconnections, problems and solutions.
  • Positive action -- a respectful approach to other people's ideas. RMI supports what it is for, rather than fight what it is against.
  • Market-oriented solutions -- RMI believes in working with the market rather than in opposition to it, promoting best practices whenever possible.
  • End-use/least-cost approach -- By paying attention to demand, RMI can provide better and cheaper solutions for supply.
  • Biological insight -- RMI mimics nature and attempts to operate in a "closed loop" with little or no waste.
  • Corporate transformation -- Adopting sustainable and efficient practices can bring companies competitive advantage and increased financial success.
  • The pursuit of interconnections -- Understanding the connectedness of every system leads to more complete solutions.
  • Natural capitalism -- RMI's goal is for businesses to adopt a new style of thinking -- learning to profit and gain advantage by adopting environmentally-friendly business practices.

RMI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This means it is a charitable organization but not an action organization. It is restricted from any political campaign activity or attempted influence on legislation [source: Internal Revenue Service]. RMI also accepts donations in various forms, including through its National Solutions Council Membership, which brings together friends of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Next, we'll take a closer look at RMI's consulting services.


Rocky Mountain Institute Consulting Services

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) separates its consulting services into three groups. These groups work with governments, private citizens, entire communities, corporations and more to help them combine environmental responsibility with competitive advantage.

The Built Environment Team works to transform the building industry. It collaborates with designers, engineers and architects to integrate energy conservation and resource efficiency into their projects. The Built Environment Team's "whole system" approach analyzes the impact of every component on the entire building, ensuring the structure is not only environmentally sustainable but also aesthetically pleasing with reduced operating costs. The Built Environment Team also offers workshops, analysis, speaking engagements and green building specifications [source: RMI Built Environment Team]. It has worked with such clients as Morgan Creek, University of Denver, Starbucks and Adobe [source: RMI Built Environment Team].


The Energy and Resources Team (ERT) works with various industry clients to discover ways to conserve, produce, buy or sell energy. By staying at the forefront of energy industry trends, this team is able to provide valuable advice and solutions to its customers. Its services fall into three general categories:

  • Facility design/renovation -- applying innovative design techniques to buildings, lighting and other issues
  • Processes and products -- enhancing efficiency through short-term measures (such as motor replacement and thermal integration) and long-term strategic shifts (such as process, product, and organizational redesign)
  • Demand-side management -- establishing programs that leverage the advantages of energy-efficiency (for example, many power companies are beginning to realize it is more cost-efficient to show their customers how to save electricity, rather than try to sell them more of it)

The ERT works with clients like the California Public Utilities Commission, Google, and the Nevada Power Company [source: RMI].

The third consulting arm of the Rocky Mountain Institute is the Mobility and Vehicle Efficiency (MVE) team. MVE focuses on improving transportation practices -- radical reduction of carbon emissions and oil use. The transportation sector uses 70 percent of America's oil. MVE works toward vehicle efficiency rather than alternative energy sources. Amory Lovins first joined the conservation movement by asking, "How can we use less energy?" rather than, "Where can we find new energy?" That principle continues in MVE's research [source: RMI].

For example, MVE works with companies such as Alcoa and FiberForge on the development and adoption of lightweight materials for vehicles -- a lighter weight vehicle equals less mass to move, which equals better fuel efficiency. FiberForge in particular is a for-profit venture that grew out of RMI's Hypercar concept. Engineers envision the Hypercar as a vehicle with ultra-light construction, a hybrid-electric drive with consumer safety features and affordability [source: RMI]. RMI hopes that one day these 100 miles-per-gallon cars will be the norm.

Next, we'll look at some of the Rocky Mountain Institute's biggest achievements.


Rocky Mountain Institute Accomplishments

Wal-Mart's 'Eco-Mart' was designed to significantly increase worker productivity and uses energy efficient lighting, heating and recycled goods.
John Chiasson/Getty Images

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) touts a massive list of accomplishments and accolades. The following are a few examples:

Winning the Oil Endgame: In 2004, RMI published a groundbreaking study detailing how the United States can wean itself off oil, a process that would be led by the country's businesses. The study, two years and one million dollars in the making, presents a detailed plan for switching our entire transportation system to biofuels. The transition would necessitate a $180 billion investment, with savings returns in about 20 years. The savings would be huge -- "$155 billion annual gross savings, $70 billion annual net savings, a million new jobs, a million existing jobs saved, 26 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions, and a safer world," in RMI's words. The study has steadily been gaining traction since its release, attracting attention from publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Time, The Economist, The New York Times and many others [source: RMI].


The Hypercar: Although hybrid cars are all-the-rage today, 10 years ago they were still an unfamiliar concept to most people. In 1998, however, RMI began developing its hallmark concept vehicle, the Hypercar. Envisioned as a hybrid-electric car, ultra-light and ultra-aerodynamic, RMI expects the Hypercar to achieve 90 miles per gallon (144 kpg) -- with a long-term goal of 200 miles per gallon (321 kpg). What makes the Hypercar different from other energy-efficient cars on the market is that the design employs RMI's "whole system" approach. Engineers not only focused on an alternative fuel, but also on developing new materials for the car itself. These new materials would be lightweight and aerodynamic, reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency. It's possible the vehicle could even be made of recycled or recyclable materials [source: RMI].

The Hypercar is still not available today, but research continues through the spin-off company Fiberforge

Volvo Environment Prize: In 2007, Amory Lovins received the Volvo Environment Prize, one of the world's top environmental awards. The prize recognizes people who have made outstanding contributions to protecting the environment. An independent panel, with laureates from all areas of the environmental and sustainability fields, awards the prize each year [source: RMI].

Wal-Mart: In 2006, Wal-Mart looked to RMI on how to use energy efficiency to its competitive advantage. After working with RMI, Wal-Mart announced that by 2015 it would double its truck fleet's fuel efficiency. The company has modified its trucks with auxiliary power units that allow drivers to do things like run the air conditioning without having to let the engine idle. By 2020, Wal-Mart projects it will save $494 million each year on reduced fuel costs [source: RMI].

For more information on the Rocky Mountain Institute and other topics related to energy conservation and green building, read the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

When was the Rocky Mountain Institute founded?
The Rocky Mountain Institute was founded in 1982.

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  • Internal Revenue Service. "Exemption Requirements." 2008. (April 28, 2008),,id=96099,00.html
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  • Rocky Mountain Institute. "About RMI." Oct. 7, 1995. (April 25, 2008)
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