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The Road to the New Energy Era

By Michael Potts


We can create a world that is cleaner, smarter, and safer—and can save five trillion dollars on the way. Reinventing Fire, published by RMI less than two years ago, laid out a specific and credible roadmap to get it done by 2050.

Here’s the challenge: a starting point, end vision, and good roadmap can show generally how to get to your destination, but they don’t get you there. To complete any journey, especially a bold and ambitious one like that outlined in Reinventing Fire, requires persistence and ingenuity in the face of long efforts and unforeseen obstacles.

Any trip worth taking brings on the shock of departure, where current safety, comfort, and familiarity must be disrupted to discover something new. The roadmap cannot contain every detail and cannot predict the political climate, the varying state of the economy, and other factors, so progress comes in fits and starts and portions of the journey sometimes take more time and effort, or detour on a different route, than originally expected.

This issue of Solutions Journal is a travelogue of this journey to the new energy era. RMI is working hard to help decision-makers and practitioners steer their strategies today toward this new world. To pull this off, we have recruited talented engineers, architects, scientists, and analysts who can dive into the real facts of all four energy-using sectors—transportation, buildings, industry and electricity—and can challenge business-as-usual with compelling new opportunities that drive dramatic and durable change.

At RMI, we don’t lecture leaders and practitioners; rather, we engage with them to solve tough problems in new ways that unleash potential profits and shift toward a better world. These moves do not come in grand gestures; the real progress happens by tackling very specific issues with high-leverage, scalable solutions.

How do you save massive amounts of oil, for example? Our Reinventing Fire analysis found that the largest single lever lies in eliminating performance-degrading excess weight in vehicles. How do you eliminate this useless, oil-consumptive weight? One pivotal step: introduce stronger, lighter carbon fiber components into automobiles (page 28).

But the auto industry is huge and complex, with rigorous demands for safety, economy, cost, and customer satisfaction. Writing a white paper about the benefits of carbon fiber won’t suddenly drive these massive companies to change course. Ideas are only the first step; forging workable solutions is the real challenge, and one article in this issue tells how, with your support, RMI is making good progress.

How do you empower 10,000 communities to forge their own path to the new energy era? Help one community—Fort Collins, Colo.—prove that it’s possible to build a net-zero energy district, enlisting the most creative minds in the electricity industry to do so (page 10).

How do you save more than half the energy used by U.S. buildings? Prove beyond doubt that building owners and investors can create significant value from deep energy retrofits—not only from energy savings, but also from additional, and often much larger, “value beyond energy cost savings” (page 21).

And—gulp—how do you help China shift toward the clean energy era? Partner with the right players on both sides of the Pacific, including key energy leaders and agencies in the Chinese central government, to leverage the methodology and findings of Reinventing Fire into an entirely new roadmap for the largest energy-consuming nation in the world (page 16).

Each of these exciting efforts, like the other initiatives of RMI, represents necessary stations on our journey to the new energy era. Each is challenging and complex, involving many players, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and years of patient but determined effort. But what else could we expect? It took us a century to build today’s energy system, and we won’t arrive at the new energy era quickly or easily.

Believe me, sometimes it feels as if we will never get there. But we will get there—we must. We have too much at stake, and we must complete as much of this journey as we can, so as not to leave the hard miles—or worse, a world in desperate need of repair—for future generations.

Michael Potts is former president and CEO of RMI.

 

Image copyright RMI.

 
 
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