The Rocky Mountain Institute is nothing if not ambitious when it comes to squeezing every iota of efficiency out of the system.

The Colorado-based consultancy founded by energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins has been plugging the economic benefits of going green for the past 25 years. In that time, it's built up an impressive roster of corporate clients who've claimed some measure of success following RMI's paths.

RMI has helped Walmart make its distribution system 38 percent more efficient in the past four years while increasing the amount of goods shipped, for example.

It's also assisted in a big green retrofit of the Empire State Building that's expected to reduce the iconic building's energy use by about 38 percent (see Green Light post).

And it's helped Texas Instruments design a more efficient chip fabrication facility, and then taken that information, with TI's permission, to China to spread the best practices to other companies.

That's according to top sustainability officers at the three company, who came to RMI's three-day "Reinventing Fire" conference in San Francisco last week to sing the praises of the think tank.

RMI has funded itself partly through spinout businesses – most recently with Bright Automotive, an electric car company created earlier this year with hopes to bring a fleet of electric-powered vans to market by 2012 (see Bright Auto Fleshes Out Manufacturing Plans).

But much of its roughly $13 million annual budget comes from consulting projects like those described above.

Now the think tank is focusing on some new areas – utilities, the trucking industry and the photovoltaic solar manufacturing chain among them.

Of the three, RMI's work on trucking has made the most progress so far – it's formed an industry partnership called the U.S. Council for Freight Efficiency (USCFE).

As its primary function, that council will vet new technologies promising to make trucks more energy efficient, said Hiroko Kawai, principal of the RMI trucking effort. Too many times, truck makers have been burned by technologies that promise much but deliver little, she said.

Beyond that, RMI contemplates pushing for policies that will make trucking more efficient, mainly by meshing it better with other modes of transportation like rail, which uses far less energy per ton of cargo moved.

Examples include cities like London and Amsterdam which have instituted distribution center where train and semi truck loads can be dropped off, then carried to inner city locations by fleets of smaller trucks and vans, she said.

That could present opportunities for electric trucks, which still suffer from relatively short ranges, as they could be charged at night when power is cheap then dispatched on shorter runs during the day, she noted.

Bright's vans could be one example of that, and another could be electric drayage trucks being developed for seaport operations, she said (see Green Light post and Balqon's Electric Truck: 90-Mile Range, Fully Loaded).

RMI's utility efficiency program is less well fleshed out, at least publicly. But it has been consulting with utilities Duke Energy and Austin Energy, said Stephen Doig, RMI's vice president of energy and resources.

In brief, RMI's working on the long list of challenges facing utilities, including integrating lots of intermittent wind and solar energy into grids built for always-on power, finding cost-effective ways of storing power, he said.

Even more conceptual is RMI's solar value chain initiative, which is based on the idea of getting companies in each part of the photovoltaic solar chain – from silicon wafer makers through solar cell and panel production to balance of systems and installation - to adopt some fairly standard best practices, said RMI energy analyst Sam Newman.

In the meantime, Lovins noted during Newman's presentation, solar panels should really be something a building owner considers only after he's taken every other possible step to make the building more efficient.

To that end, RMI has rolled out its "Green Footstep" online tool, meant to give building designers and retrofit planners a way to calculate the carbon emission and other ecological costs of a building project, as well as ways to reduce it over the building's lifetime.

Because buildings start out in a "carbon debt" because they've disturbed natural land and used materials and construction equipment that emit carbon, buildings really ought to make more energy than they use to get out of that debt, said Victor Olgyay, principal architect for RMI's built environment team.

"You can earn your way out of an ecological debt if you do this," he said. "It's hard, but it's great to do."

The Green Footstep calculator itself takes a number of well-regarded methods for calculating such things and melds them, he said. In that way, it's a bit like RMI's calculator for comparing hybrid, electric and gasoline-powered cars in terms of cost and energy efficiency (see A Calculator for Comparing Electrics, Hybrid and Regular Cars).

Lovins is a big proponent of building energy efficiency, and has said the federal government should pay bonuses to contractors based on the greenness of their construction and retrofit work (see Are The Feds Concocting Performance Bonuses for Green Companies?).