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ET, IT and a Combination of Both

By Kelly Vaughn

As the theme of RMI2009, and a term used to describe RMI’s new strategic direction, it is not surprising that much discussion at the three-day symposium was dedicated to exploring what exactly Reinventing Fire™ means.

While clearly it includes many important strategies, according to RMI Chairman and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins, one important aspect of Reinventing Fire is that it “addresses both the supply side and the demand side.”

Indeed we have historically addressed the supply side by burning coal and oil to meet energy demands, he explained. Now, he pointed out, it’s time to address the other end of the energy system.

Driving solutions from both ends was a recurring theme throughout RMI2009. Panelists representing organizations across the board—including Google, the Department of Energy, and Hewlett Packard, among others—agreed that as a society we need to leverage technology and focus specifically on the intersection of energy technology (ET) on the supply side and information technology on the demand side. Addressing the demand side, they said, was key to driving innovation.

Currently, a great deal of research and investment is dedicated to ET. “Look at Silicon Valley,” said Marc Porat, Chairman of Serious Materials. “There is a lot of comfort and familiarity with a focus on the supply side, so you see a lot of investment there.”

Google’s Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Dan Reicher, however, said innovation in terms of delivering information to consumers—a part of the equation that many experts believe is under-addressed—is key.

“We have the potential to change the relationship consumers have with energy,” said, Reicher. “People need access to information about their consumption and potential savings.”

Take buildings. Thirty-nine percent of total energy produced in the U.S. (the supply side) is used to operate buildings. Lighting, heating, and cooling are, for example, huge energy users over which building occupants have direct control. When Google introduced smart metering, Reicher said, they saw an immediate reduction in energy use. “Just by having the information in front of them, people’s behavior resulted in a 5 percent energy reduction,” he said.

To Google and others, the biggest bang for the buck has been offering real-time information about energy use, whether it is in individual homes, commercial buildings, or electric vehicles.

“Over the last couple years, we have seen how the consumer and the future consumer [are] moving in a different direction, and they have been an accelerating force in this convergence of ET and IT,” said Matt Kistler, Senior VP of Sustainability at Walmart. “People are waiting for the silver bullet—the right energy innovation, or the right technical fix—instead of starting with the low-tech, low-hanging-fruit-types of solutions.”

If today’s consumers were more aware of what’s possible and encouraged by what is coming, we would have enormous potential to change the direction of the new energy economy, and to build a new information economy, panelists agreed.

Reinventing Fire means keeping sight of the big energy picture, but also using information and deploying clever combinations of solutions we already have to drive change.

“The bottom line is that CO2 is going up faster than we can stand,” noted Bill Joy, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “Clearly solutions aren’t diffusing fast enough to meet the climate crisis. You have to go seek out the innovators and enable them.”

Kelly Vaughn is a public relations analyst at RMI.

--Published in October 2009

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