Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson

By:Josh Agenbroad and Helen Skiba Issue:Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

I Want the U.S. Entirely Off Of Fossil Fuels in 40 Years

Robert Hutchinson

At the final Biennial of the Americas Roundtable discussion on Energy and Climate Change, Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson played the role of the well versed, informed, and composed moderator---leading the participants to articulate their innovative but practical initiatives for creating prosperity through the efficient and sustainable utilization of energy. As a program director at The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an independent, entrepreneurial think-and-do tank focused on the efficient and restorative use of resources, Hutchinson evaluates innovative, state-of-the-art solutions to energy and climate change issues every day. As Hutchinson puts it, “What I do in my day job is work on a set of designs, plans, and innovations to try to get the U.S. entirely off of fossil fuel in the next 40 years.”

When we told Hutchinson that we were writing for ICOSA, a magazine focused on collaboration, it was like preaching to the choir. When we asked about collaboration between scientists and engineers, economists, businesses, and policymakers working on energy and climate change issues, he knew exactly what we were getting at. “That’s a perpetual challenge right? Because if you’re immersed enough in the world of public policy — enough to be good at it — it’s hard to have the bandwidth to be immersed enough in the world of technology and technical economic tradeoffs to be good at that; both those things are fast moving areas, so you’re not going to do it,” Hutchinson said.

Consequently, RMI places great value on effective collaboration through integrated design, a process model whereby they use teams from all different expertise to pull together an integrated solution to a given set of problems. Hutchinson says that these teams actually create the biggest possible playing field so that the problem being solved doesn’t get automatically constrained by the boundaries put around it.

Hutchinson shared a specific example of integrated design with respect to the 12.6% of U.S. energy consumption used for heating and cooling buildings. “In designing a house, a lot of times the team consists of an architect and an engineer, and they worry about how much cooling the house needs. But the architect doesn’t do the calculations, so the engineer takes the input from the architect about what type of wall he wants, which is whatever he normally does, then calculates how much cooling he needs. But, in many, cases if you make the wall in a different, more efficient way — that, by the way, looks the same — you don’t need so much cooling.” His example demonstrated the benefits of integrated design and how a lack of collaboration can lead to inefficiency and overlooked savings.

“Commoditized” is the word Hutchinson uses to refer to the non-collaborative specialization of design tasks around energy design and build. He was excited about the potential for collaboration during the Biennial and said, “Because many design solutions and approaches have become commoditized I am hopeful about hemispheric collaboration. The U.S. is one of the places where things tend to get systematized first and then people stop thinking about how to make it better; they just start trying to do the same thing for less. I’m not interested in doing the same thing for less. I’m interested in trying to do more for more, but getting more out of it; it’s a ratio, not an absolute.”

Talking to Hutchinson, we got a sense of the novel attitude and environment at RMI, of which integrated design is but one of many contributing aspects. In keeping with this approach, Hutchinson gave an interesting answer to the final question, which we thought was fairly straightforward and even incidental. We asked him what was on his bookshelf and who he currently found interesting and influential. He chuckled and said, “I’m going to give you a disappointing answer to that question. I’m most interested in being at the edge, at the state of the art, so I do my best to stay ahead of the books. Yeah, I read stuff, but I don’t read stuff in my own field. I read other stuff.”

We then asked if that helped him “think outside the box” and he said resoundingly, “Yes. I don’t find it terribly useful to read about my own field…I will confess, of course, when I was much younger, to reading a few Amory Lovins things, among others, and I liked a lot of those. E.F. Schumacher and those guys are terrific. But nowadays I don’t read about this stuff anymore; I just do it.”

To learn more about Robert Hutchinson and the innovative design approach or to access two major publications, Winning the Oil Endgame and Natural Capitalism visit