Could we really “reinvent fire”?

  • SumoMe

Amory Lovins, cofounder, chairman and chief scientist of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute, spoke at Monday’s Northwest Energy Angels Leadership Luncheon to discuss’s Reinventing Fire Initiative. Designed to provide an inspiring and credible vision of, and practical business-led pathways to, a U.S. economy free of oil and coal by 2050, and of natural gas thereafter. “Reinventing Fire” synthesizes and links innovations in technology, design, policy and business strategies across four sectors — transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity.

I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say while being simultaneously skeptical. That 2050 date falls firmly in the “too little, too late” category for me. I found myself examining every chart in the presentation to see when the fossil fuel lines started dropping. There appeared to be some real progress by 2020. Ironically, the next day the New York Times, among others, previewed a report due out in May that says natural gas isn’t as clean as we thought. I wondered what RMI’s charts would look like ifthey recalculated to take this new analysis into account. That really needs to be done.

But what mattered most to me was the message of hope.

Lovins painted a picture of automotive fitness, which he claimed could cheaply triple efficiency and unlock electric propulsion. That would be huge since most of U.S. oil consumption is automotive. He also talked about evening out road usage to deal with the fact cars emit more bad things idling like we all do in traffic jams.

His second area dealt with saving electricity and making it differently. “21st century technology and speed,” he commented, “are colliding with 20th century infrastructure.” But not everything depends on infrastructure. Energy-saving building retrofits can make a huge difference. I believe he said last year’s retrofit of the Empire State Building would reduce its energy bills by more than 30%.

Echoing that was McKinstry’s David Allen who later joined Lovins on a panel Q&A and added that retrofitting “is a jobs creator. We’ve missed five years of opportunity to put a lot of people sidelined on construction to work on retrofitting.”

Meanwhile, how the world produces electricity is changing. Central stations are withering while solar and wind are growing and, Lovins stated, China is leading. He said one of the criticisms of micro power sources are that they’re not reliably 24/7 like coal and nuclear. But, he said, coal and nuclear aren’t 24/7 either. Lovins said we can handle wind and solar variables the same way we already deal with coal and nuclear variabilities. That’s clearly something that will be possible but isn’t yet possible as evidenced by Wed.’s The Seattle Times story about the battle over shutting down  Washington’s wind generators because our Spring deluge has given us an  overabundance of hydro power.

Apparently, the Reinventing Fire Initiative explores four US electricity futures. Lovins said using distributed renewables would manage all risks and maximize entrepreneurial choice and innovation. Although his charts pass a bit too quickly for me to be sure, but it appeared that this path also reduced emissions fastest.

He closed with my second favorite quote of the day (I already tweeted my favorite): “Our energy future is not fate, but choice.”

I’d choose the future that manages all risks and maximizes entrepreneurial choice and innovation. How about you?

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