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Reinventing Fire: A New Vision

By Amory B. Lovins

Since 1982, Rocky Mountain Institute has been hatching gamechanging innovations to help make the world richer, fairer, cooler, and safer.

Among other things, RMI has made important contributions toward achieving tripled-efficiency cars, trucks, and airplanes; laid many conceptual and practical foundations for electric and water efficiency, widespread renewable energy, and community economic development; devised profitable approaches to solving climate change, oil dependence, global insecurity, nuclear nonproliferation, and critical-infrastructure vulnerability; and forged (with Paul Hawken) a natural version of capitalism. We feel that all this work has prepared us well for what comes now.

RMI’s Next Big Thing will bring together all of our 27 years of innovation and engage the world in our most ambitious and important work yet. Put simply, this effort is aimed at changing the way most people have been getting and using energy since the Industrial Revolution.

With this project, we want to set in motion a movement to end the increasingly dangerous practice of digging up fossil fuels formed hundreds of millions of years ago from primeval swamp goo, then wastefully burning these fuels to form carbon dioxide that recreates those swamps’ tropical climate.

We will extend from oil to all fossil fuels our experience in envisioning and catalyzing energy systems that, in our Trustee Ray C. Anderson’s words, take nothing, waste nothing, and do no harm. We mean to speed the transformation from pervasive waste to elegant frugality, from causing scarcity by inattention to creating abundance by design, from liquidating energy capital to living better on energy income.

In short, we are Reinventing Fire™: driving the business-led transition from oil, coal, and ultimately gas to efficiency and renewables. This fire in our belly will engage all of RMI’s 88 staff, our global network of colleagues and supporters, and new advisors and partners from the private and public sectors.

Reinventing Fire aims to change minds and clarify choices by showing what exists, what works, what makes sense and makes money, what can change the world.

Some may say this vision of moving past the centuries-old fossil-fuel era is implausible, too bold, too far.

The same skepticism existed back in 1976, when national energy policy wasn’t working, and I jumped in headfirst with a “soft path” vision reframing the energy problem around efficiency, end use, and least cost. This new logic was ultimately accepted and validated.

Thanks to widespread innovation and the work of countless allies, U.S. energy use in 2000 was just 3 percent above the 1976 soft path graph in Foreign Affairs— even 1 percent below it per dollar of GDP. Still, progress is not coming fast enough, and energy remains a serious challenge for the U.S. and the world.

With Reinventing Fire, RMI hopes to engage our most credible and influential skeptics. By understanding the strongest counter-arguments, barriers, and doubts, RMI will shape its message and design its implementation plan to enlist the most powerful kinds of partners in speeding the transition away from fossil fuels.

Reinventing Fire encompasses diverse activities, all aimed at eliminating fossil-fuel use and shifting toward radical energy efficiency and abundant renewable energy. RMI seems uniquely qualified for this challenge.

In 2004, when others thought it foolish to imagine more than small reductions in oil imports, RMI laid out a detailed plan to displace oil altogether at an average cost of just $15 per barrel, then worked with select institutions to get that transition underway.

Today, with the help of powerful and scary climate-change findings and the global financial crash, the U.S. may finally be starting to kick its oil habit. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that “many industry observers,” including Exxon-Mobil, agree U.S. gasoline demand has peaked and is headed down indefinitely.

Deutsche Bank says world oil use will peak by 2016, then decline; OECD oil use has already trended down for the past 15 quarters. Still, oil remains important and politically potent. Economic woes at home and conflicts abroad remind us that the end of the oil age cannot come fast enough.

Through our Reinventing Fire initiative, RMI aims to help put oil solidly on track to become, over the next few decades, no longer a strategic commodity—much as (Jim Woolsey reminds us) refrigeration did to salt. We’ve been predicting for two decades that oil would become uncompetitive even at low prices before it became unavailable even at high prices; now it’s time to make that trend unarguably irreversible.

Much as cold warriors cast about for a new enemy after the Soviet Union collapsed, many feel that coal is now the irreplaceable fossil fuel. Electricity is essential to modern life, they say, too expensive to store, and far too asset-intensive to change even over a generation. We suspect they suffer from a dearth of practical imagination, as illustrated by this list of what approximate equivalent percentage of U.S. coal-fired electricity could be saved by:

  • Using electricity only as efficiently (per GDP) as the top ten states averaged four years ago: ~60 percent (ert.rmi.org/cgu/index.htm);
  • Systematically using electricity with cost-effective efficiency: 100–150 percent, at a lower cost than just buying the coal;

We mean to speed the transformation from pervasive waste to elegant frugality, from causing scarcity by inattention to creating abundance by design, from liquidating energy capital to living better on energy income.

  • Adding windpower in available windy sites: over 400 percent, at or below wholesale power prices;
  • Building just the windpower now stuck in the interconnection queue: 50 percent;
  • Properly exploiting profitable industrial cogeneration: 40 percent (plus more in buildings); and
  • Running coal plants less and existing but partly idle combined-cycle gas plants more: 35 percent immediately, at an extra cost much less than displacing coal with new nuclear plants. In practice, a combination from this far from exhaustive menu can create a practical transition beyond coal, with cleaner air, right-side-up landscapes, more jobs, greater energy security, and lower electric bills.

Our experience convinces us that the world is short not of oil but of innovation, not of gas but of gumption, not of coal but of courage. RMI’s latest energy goal is our boldest yet, but our team and our toolkit are also more capable. Back in ’76, allies were few and far between.

Today, as chief scientist I’m blessed with an unusually experienced and imaginative team, plus outside collaborators across all facets of society.

Stephen Doig and Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson have joined RMI’s leadership team to help focus our work and sharpen our impact.

Our “middle bench” has gained strength with many practitioners who are now experts in their own right and have a collective tenure measured in decades. And there are plenty of rising stars: RMI is attracting more high-caliber recent graduates than ever before.

It’s not just our team that has changed. The world has never been more receptive to our ideas. Though an immense amount of hard works remains, we see strong empirical evidence that it’s now feasible, and there’s a strong business case, to get the United States and the world completely off fossil fuels.

Tapping, in particular, the two biggest motherlodes of energy, efficiency and the sun—a free, reliable, well-engineered fusion reactor appropriately sited 93 million miles away—can replace the flames and, over decades, douse the embers of coal, oil, and ultimately natural gas.

Energy Efficiency

Wringing far more work from our energy by substituting brains and technology yields the best services with the least cost, harm, risk, and hassle. Efficient use is generally the largest, least expensive, most benign, most quickly deployable, least visible, least understood, and most neglected opportunity in the whole economy.

Efficiency can save half of U.S. oil and gas at about a fifth of their current price, and probably three-fourths of U.S. electricity at about an eighth of its price. RMI is speeding the expansion of this vast “efficiency resource” by showing how whole-system design integration can often make very large (sometimes even tenfold) energy savings cost less than small or no savings.

This way to turn diminishing returns into expanding returns is the focus of our parallel 10xE (Factor Ten Engineering) effort, which supports Reinventing Fire’s efficiency analyses.

Besides inefficient end-use devices, conversion from the primary fuels we dig up or the natural energy we capture to the delivered energy we convert into services like hot showers and cold beer loses an astounding amount of energy.

Waste heat in the electricity system is the biggest single U.S. energy use, accounting for 28 percent of primary energy consumption and nearly half its growth: our power plants discard as waste heat more energy than Japan uses. We should either use that wasted energy (as Europe profitably does) or design it out (most renewables make no waste heat and require no cooling water).

As we embark on speeding the transition to the efficient use of renewable energy, we can be cautiously encouraged by history.

Over the past few decades, the U.S. and many other countries have shown that the supposedly iron link between energy growth and economic growth can be not just reduced but reversed. In 2006, America’s absolute use of total energy, oil, gas, and coal even went down, because energy intensity fell more (3.32 percent) than the economy grew (2.78 percent).

Today America enjoys more than doubled GDP, but consumes one-half less energy and oil, two-thirds less water and directly used natural gas, and 18 percent less electricity to make a dollar of GDP than in 1975.

While directionally correct, this trend is not yet strong enough. The U.S. is still an incredibly energy-intensive society.

Denmark just grew its economy 56 percent without using more energy. Japan wrings 2–3 times more work from its energy than the U.S. does, yet has shown how to triple energy productivity again.

Reinventing Fire requires unlocking the full potential of energy efficiency.

The relative lag in electricity savings as compared to oil, gas, or water has some difficult causes we’ll need plenty of help to address: perverse regulatory incentives, higher subsidies, antiquated pricing, and unusually pervasive barriers to efficiency, such as the split incentive between landlords and tenants.

But saving electricity, the costliest form of energy, offers special leverage in saving not just money but also carbon, because saving one unit of electricity saves three units of power-plant fuel, half of which is coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel. Both in buildings, which use 70 percent of U.S. electricity, and in industry, which uses 30 percent, we have compelling case-studies, market insights, and implementation innovations to take to scale.

The Supply Side

Once we use energy in a way that saves money, supply becomes much easier, and important synergies emerge between efficient use and renewable supply. Solar energy provides all renewable and nonrenewable energy except tides, which are mainly moon-powered, and geothermal, which provides 0.2 percent of the Earth’s warmth and is fed by radioactivity).

Every 70 minutes or so, the sun supplies the Earth with enough energy to run global civilization for a year.

An average square meter of land receives each year as much energy from the sun as is in a barrel of oil, and it falls reliably, freely, and relatively evenly on rich and poor alike. The energy-intensive U.S. uses about 4,000 times less electricity than it receives solar energy; the world, about 10,000.

The world’s electricity use could in theory be provided 20 times over just by modern 20-percent-efficient solar cells on the rooftops of buildings in the 1 percent of land area that dense cities already cover.

Solar power is always in stock, never runs out (even at night when it’s shining elsewhere), is safe, and never threatens us with terrorist plots. The sun also causes wind, which could cost-effectively provide over 35 times global electricity needs, particularly at night.

Sun and wind are the fastest-growing global energy sources: windpower was the biggest addition to power generating capacity in the U.S. in 2008, and in Europe in 2007–08. Sun and wind in 2008 added, respectively, 6 and 27 of the 40 billion watts of new renewable power worldwide (excluding big hydro dams). Sun powers photosynthesis, which can produce the biofuels for efficient mobility without interfering with food and fiber production or destroying natural ecosystems.

Solar warmth already does 98 percent of our space-heating: without it, the Earth’s surface temperature would average not 15 degrees Celsius but nearly –273 degrees C.

Reinventing Fire is about putting the sun’s benign warmth to efficient use in vehicles, homes, factories, neighborhoods, planes, electricity systems, ships, appliances, trucks, and cities, with all these devices, systems, and social orders sharing power and information to create mutual value.

Putting IT to Work

The Reinventing Fire story is not just about efficiency, the sun, wind, and other renewables. In the third of a century since the soft energy path, a powerful new force has begun to reshape society: modern information technology.

Putting IT to work can speed the leap from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. In the past 15 years, the digital age has brought us software that designs practically everything and can be reshaped to design in efficiency, plus tools that let us see and understand the entire energy system, from upstream at the power plant to downstream at my computer.

It can also be effectively controlled at a distance. Thirty years ago, few utility managers thought about influencing a home’s or a factory’s power consumption. Now, many smart utility managers are doing just that, sniffing out places—swimming pools, water heaters, air conditioners, manufacturing equipment, commercial lights—where sharing information with consumers to inform smarter choices can retime use, cut costs, and curb emissions.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has found up to 188 billion watts of such “demand response” potential in the United States; we suspect there may be even more. As smart cars, buildings, and grids start exchanging electricity and information, more generating and storage capacity will be aboard vehicles that customers bought anyhow to provide mobility 4 percent of the time and are parked the other 96 percent.

Ultimately the electric capacity on wheels could far exceed the capacity now in power stations. Everything’s then linked, smart, real-time, clean, profitable, and providing exactly what’s needed when needed.

Information is also a key to the profound shift in scale now coming to the electricity industry, just as it came to telecommunications and computing.

My cellphone has more processing power than the Strategic Air Command had when I was in high school. Electric utilities today are about where Ma Bell was when cellphones were invented.

We no longer need big power plants to run a big economy because smart chips and instant communication can link and coordinate many small generators whose lower costs, lead times, and financial risks have already helped win them more than a third of the global market for new power plants. Economic fundamentals, more than subsidies, explain why the world in 2008, for the first time in about a century, invested more in renewable than in fossil-fueled power generation.

Information technology has further transformed how renewables can mesh with each other and with the power grid. A prevalent myth holds that solar cells and windpower can’t do much because they don’t always work. (Neither does any other source of electricity: the various types of power plants differ only in the size, frequency, duration, predictability, and cause of their failures.)

RMI’s analysts have developed a unique simulation tool to explore how to integrate these variable renewables into utility operations, backing out coal-and gas-burning stations whenever the wind blows or the sun shines. Diversifying wind and solar power across larger areas with differing weather, we’ve shown, can make them far more reliable.

Our initial findings suggest that integrating variable renewables into the grid—just as utilities now integrate intermittent big power plants and cope with fluctuating demand—requires not new technology but new attitudes and operating procedures that can deliver better service at lower cost and make more profit with less risk.

We’re exploring where this could even require less storage and backup than utilities have already installed and paid for to manage the intermittence of their big thermal power stations. To help our utility partners understand how to do this, RMI is now synthesizing with them a practical vision of the shape, stability, economics, and transitional path of an efficient, diverse, dispersed, renewable, resilient, economical, and climate-safe electricity system.

Global Change

The U.S. is only part of the puzzle. Surprisingly, this transition is starting to emerge (not yet fast enough but rapidly accelerating) in China. Energy efficiency powered 70 percent of China’s economic growth during 1980–2001, and is now the top strategic goal for national development.

The billion watts of coal power China recently added each week is now added only every three to four weeks. In 2006, China’s distributed renewable power was seven times larger and seven times faster-growing than China’s nuclear program (also the world’s most ambitious).

China now leads the world in four renewable technologies (to become five within months), and aims to lead in all. In 2010, China looks set to beat its 2020 windpower target; available windy sites in China can cost-effectively meet all its electricity needs, with no coal, through at least 2030.

And using highly fungible lightweighting, electric-drive, battery, and other innovations now spreading worldwide to displace oil, China plans by 2020 to electrify 80 percent of its new cars and light trucks. America must choose whether to make those advanced vehicles or buy them from China.

Modern society is built from fossil fuels. They are the root source of our society’s wealth and power. But as their rising costs to our security, wallets, and habitat become ever more intolerable, we see one system dying and another struggling to be born.

The inflection point at this moment in history is both evolutionary and revolutionary. The evolving tools to reinvent fire have at last caught up with the vision that has been hatching for decades. And it’s a revolutionary moment because we can at last move beyond just conceiving answers to actually getting off oil, coal, and gas by integrating, articulating, and applying what we know. Today we need not convince the world that Reinventing Fire is necessary.

Instead, we must work together to make it happen. Hence, Reinventing Fire is a “grand synthesis” that will systematically combine decades of intellectual capital, both ours and others’, into a practical map of the road beyond fossil fuels—then help the world head down that road with deliberate speed. Integrating the latest developments that make getting off oil and coal even more attractive than we thought five years ago, Reinventing Fire weaves together a resilient, multi-layered web of connected, efficient, renewable replacements for fossil fuel, chiefly in the U.S. but in a global context.

The pieces of the most complex jigsaw puzzle in human history are falling into place. The world that we at RMI imagine, and that we strive daily to create, is starting to take shape. We need to form it even faster, because humanity, as Dana Meadows said, has “exactly enough time—starting now.”

The energy solution is the master key to what Bucky Fuller had in mind when he asked this simple question: “If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on who I am and what I do, then how would I be? What would I do?”

Reinventing Fire is who we are at RMI, and it is what we must and will now do. Please join us on this exciting journey.

Amory Lovins is the Co-founder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist of RMI.

--Published in October 2009