On February 16, 2012, technology news website Xconomy hosted a talk in Cambridge with renowned environmentalist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) “think-and-do tank” Amory Lovins about the Institute’s Reinventing Fire initiative. Reinventing Fire provides a roadmap for moving the U.S. economy entirely off of coal, oil and nuclear energy by 2050 while at the same time sustaining vigorous economic growth. Unlike other climate change blueprints such as the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate 2030 report, the Reinventing Fire initiative does not count on aggressive federal policy initiatives and assumes that the price of CO2 emission will remain zero. It also does not pin its hopes on a technological “silver bullet”. Rather, RMI envisions a series of self-reinforcing cycles of technological improvement in existing technologies across the automotive, building, industrial and electricity sectors that will allow efficient, green technologies to outcompete inefficient, fossil-fuel driven technologies in the market.
In his talk, Lovins focused mostly on the automotive sector. In this area, RMI identifies three self-reinforcing technological learning curves leading to the super light-weight “Revolutionary+ Auto”. The first is whole-system design, where engineers take a holistic approach to automobile design with a view to reducing weight as much as possible. Supporting this are advanced materials, such as the carbon-fiber composites currently used in the new Boeing 787, which could produce massive weight reductions by replacing steel in automobiles. As part of his talk, Lovins passed around a carbon-fiber composite “hat” that was as light as plastic and yet (according to Lovins) had withstood a full-on sledge hammer blow without a scratch. While currently quite expensive and difficult to mass-produce, Lovins sees huge potential for technological improvements in the carbon-fiber manufacturing process eventually making it competitive with other materials. Finally, once weight has been significantly reduced, all-electric powertrains will become more feasible. Current all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf have a maximum range of about 100 miles on one charge. However, because most of a vehicle’s energy use comes from its weight, a significantly lighter vehicle would be able to go farther with fewer electric batteries and smaller motors (making the vehicle even lighter) than current models.
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked about improvements in energy storage technology. Holding up his cell phone, Lovins remarked that he believed that portable electronics would drive innovation in this area, and that it would be better for the automotive industry to focus on reducing weight and drag than on developing new batteries. Lovins also downplayed the need for extensive grid storage to handle a higher mix of intermittent renewable energy sources in our electricity supply. Noting that variability in the energy supply from renewable sources is predictable, Lovins expressed confidence that with sufficient expertise a stable electricity grid could be run with a diverse mixture of 80-100% renewables even in the absence of large-scale storage.
The Reinventing Fire initiative presents a hopeful view of an economy almost completely free of fossil fuels by 2050 based on evolutionary improvements in currently existing technology. Much more information on the initiative is available in the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (available from Amazon). I am currently in the middle of reading it, and have found it to be well-written and insightful, with helpful color charts and illustrations and a writing style that is understandable for a non-engineer but not overly simplistic. The Reinventing Fire initiative grew out of the RMI’s 2004 book Winning the Oil Endgame, which is available for free in PDF form on the author’s website here. I encourage anyone with an interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency to take a look at these books, or check out Amory Lovins’ TED Talk on winning the oil endgame.