Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could wean the United States completely off coal and oil by 2050, grow the economy, strengthen national security, cutting fossil fuel carbon emissions over 80 percent – and in the process save $5 trillion, while providing solutions to global problems such as climate change, nuclear insecurity, energy insecurity, and energy poverty? That’s what Amory Lovins and the researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute show how to do in Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era — without need for Congressional action. It’s done by improving efficiency in four areas: transportation, buildings, electricity, and industry.
- For mobility we rely on automobiles. Make them oil free, lighter, and more efficient. Two-thirds the fuel used is related to weight. Because of engine inefficiency (and other losses), every unit of energy saved in reduced weight saves six more units of energy needed to get energy to the wheels – seven units of fuel are saved at the tank.
- Ultra-light ultra-strong composite materials can make weight savings snowball, make autos simpler and cheaper to build. Smaller, more aerodynamic autos use smaller engines. Electric vehicles become more affordable because batteries or fuel cells can be 2-3 times smaller, lighter, cheaper. The sticker price can be about at today’s level with far lower driving costs.
- Carbon fiber composite materials now being used in aerospace are tougher than titanium. They could cut auto making capital needs for forming steel parts by 80%, and save lives in vehicle use since these materials absorb 6-7 times more crash energy per pound than steel. Use of such vehicles would save oil equivalent to half the amount we import from OPEC.
- No new technology is needed. America could lead this automotive revolution, but now Germany is taking the lead with VW’s production of a 230 mpg plug in hybrid carbon fiber car scheduled for 2013. The same technology can be applied to trucks and planes.
- Other transportation savings come from cutting down road congestion and needless driving by using information technology and smart growth to enhance ride and car sharing, and making traffic free flowing.
- The predicted net present value cost savings would be $4 trillion by 2050.
- We presently waste most of the electricity that is produced – and alternate sources of electricity are becoming cheaper than conventional production. In the United States the need for electricity could start shrinking as factories and buildings become more efficient.
- Buildings, that use three-fourths of the electricity in the United States, could by 2050 save $1.4 trillion by tripling or quadrupling their energy productivity with savings that amount to four times the cost. Industry can double its electrical productivity, often making big energy savings that cost less than small or no savings.
- In the United States our ageing, dirty, insecure power system must be rebuilt anyway, at a cost of about $6 trillion over the next 40 years, for whichever system is used. Options (i.e., the present system, nuclear, clean coal, or renewables) differ greatly in risks around national security, fuel, water, finance, technology, health, and climate. Our present over-centralized grid is susceptible to cascading and blackouts from solar storms, other natural disasters, or physical or cyber attack. Blackout risk disappears, and other risks are easier to manage with distributed renewables localized into microgrids that normally interconnect but can stand alone. This technology is being piloted in Denmark and has already been applied in Cuba. In 2010 four German states were using 43-52% wind power. Europe is going largely or wholly to renewables.
- Photovoltaic and windpower costs are plummeting, and are often marketplace winners today. Renewable energy sources are 1/20 the cost on new coal-based plants.
So, to solve our energy problem, enlarge it. (The saying “If a problem can’t be solved, enlarge it” is attributed to Dwight Eisenhower). With savings already forecast + further efficiencies not yet counted + more productive use of vehicles + quintupling renewables + use of natural gas for about 10% of our energy needs, we can become independent of coal oil, and nuclear energy – and it will be less expensive.
Focusing on outcomes rather than motives can turn gridlock and conflict into a unifying solution to our national energy challenge. It is not necessary to agree on which benefit is most important. “Not only is this a once-in-a-civilization business opportunity, but one of the most profound transformations in the history of our species: a new fire not dug from below but flowing from above, not scarce but bountiful, not local but everywhere, not transient but permanent, not costly but free – and largely flameless. It can do our work without working our undoing.” (Quotes taken from a “Reinventing Fire” presentation by Amory Lovins at UC Santa Barbara in March 2012 that provides an overview of this study: iee.ucsb.edu/events/special-seminar-amory-lovins).
Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, published in 2011, presents these concepts in well-documented detail. Through a conversation begun at reinventingfire.com, Lovins hopes “we can work together to help make the world richer, fairer, cooler, and safer”.
Action programs at the Rocky Mountain Institute are largely project-based as attempts to influence federal policy have been productive. The cumulative power of local initiatives, such as we have in Claremont, should not be underestimated. We can be proud of our updated Sustainable City Plan, soon to be presented to the City Council for approval. For actual energy conservation we have the Claremont Home Energy Project (CHERP) that has more than met the initial goal of 130 homes retrofitted to be more comfortable and energy efficient – that’s one percent of the homes in Claremont, and more per capita than anywhere else in Southern California. . On January 24, at seven in the evening at Taylor Hall, we will celebrate this success. Please join the CHERP homeowners and energy efficiency leaders from throughout the State to recognize what we have accomplished – and then on to the next goal of 1300 homes.
Demystifying Sustainability is an initiative of Sustainable Claremont (sustainableclaremont.org).