The "soft energy path" assumes that energy is but a means to social ends, and is not an end in itself. Soft energy paths involve efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on co-generation and "soft technologies" (i.e., alternative technology) such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.
Soft energy technologies (appropriate renewables) have five defining characteristics (Lovins, 1977). They (1) rely on renewable energy resources, (2) are diverse and designed for maximum effectiveness in particular circumstances, (3) are flexible and relatively simple to understand, (4) are matched to end-use needs in terms of scale, and (5) are matched to end-use needs in terms of quality.
Residential solar energy technologies are prime examples of soft energy technologies and rapid deployment of simple, energy conserving, residential solar energy technologies is fundamental to a soft energy strategy. Active residential solar technologies use special devices to collect and convert the sun's rays to useful energy and are located near the users they supply. Passive residential solar technologies involve the natural transfer (by radiation, convection and conduction) of solar energy without the use of mechanical devices.
Lovins argued that besides environmental benefits, global political stresses might be reduced by Western nations committing to the soft energy path. In general, soft path impacts are seen to be more "gentle, pleasant and manageable" than hard path impacts. These impacts range from the individual and household level to those affecting the very fabric of society at the national and international level (see Lovins, 1977).
At the same time, proponents of renewable energy sources complain that the fraction of energy derived from renewable sources has declined slightly in a number of nations (though grown slightly in others) if, say, the years 1985 and 1994 are compared. Still, some proponents put much hope in the commercial emergence of hydrogen fuel cells, which appear to have possibilities as an efficient energy-storage method. The utilization of both wind and solar power is generally predicted to grow significantly, and is already doing so in many regions. Further, the European Commission of 1997 predicted a significant growth in all of the main sources of renewable electricity generation except hydro-electric by 2010 (see renewable energy development).
One criticism leveled at decentralized energy technologies is that, generally, the large, centralized methods produce energy much more efficiently than small, distributed plants. The energy decentralists counter that this is a generalization, that new developments are in the works, and even today there are sometimes exceptions (see the discussion in the renewable energy article). In Lovins' analysis, large-scale electricity production facilities have an important place, but it is a place that they were already filling by the mid-1970s. At that time, Lovins felt that more centralized, large-scale "conventional" energy production facilities would not generally be needed .