Amory Lovins' Burning Quest to 'Reinvent Fire'

Amory Lovins has a new book out today. That's worthy of a news story in itself, since many of his previous works -- books and papers going back to the 1970s -- have spurred radical new thinking in energy, transportation, and building systems. And not just thinking: an impressive list of companies and governments around the world can trace some of their more innovative products, processes, and business models to the thinking of Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute, of which he is co-founder, chairman and chief scientist.

Lovins' new book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, pulls from the last 30 years of Lovins' and RMI's work. In it, he and his team offer a plan for running a 158 percent-bigger U.S. economy in 2050 with no oil, coal, or nuclear energy.

I recently talked with Lovins about the book, its implications for companies, and what it will take to make its vision a reality.

Joel Makower: Amory, let's start with the title. Tell me about where the idea of "reinventing fire" came from?

Amory Lovins: Well, fire made us human, fossil fuels made us modern and we now need a new fire that makes us secure, safe and durable. The old fire of fossil fuels has served us very well and created our wealth and enriched the lives of billions. It also has costs to our economy, health, environment and security that are starting to erode the prosperity and security it created, so it's time for a new fire. Because this is the biggest infrastructure change perhaps in the history of our species, we wanted to give it a suitably expansive title.

JM: And what did you find?

AL: Reinventing Fire shows how to run a very prosperous 2050 U.S. economy -- 2.6 times today's -- with no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy, one-third less natural gas and a $5 trillion lower net-present-value cost than business as usual. We also found the transition requires no new inventions and no Act of Congress and can be led by business for profit.

JM: Many of us, and especially you, have been talking about some of these things for a long, long time. How is Reinventing Fire different from past efforts to push renewables and efficiency?

AL: I think in three main respects and several minor ones. The first two come from a remark attributed to General Eisenhower: "If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it." That is, the reason you couldn't solve it wasn't that it wasn't small enough to be bite-sized, but rather the values were drawn so narrowly that it didn't encompass enough options, degrees of freedom and synergies to make it solvable.

So, in that spirit, we integrated all four energy-using sectors – transportation, buildings, industry and electricity – and having spent the last three or four decades deeply immersed in practical work in all four of those, we were in an unusually good position to do that integration. So we found, as you'd expect, for example, that it is much easier to solve the automotive and electricity problems together than separately.

Secondly, we integrated four kinds of innovation, not just the usual two – technology and policy – but also design -- that is, how technologies are combined -- and strategy -- that is, a new competitive strategies and new business models, which turn out to be even richer in innovation than technology and policy. And the four together are much more than the sum of their parts, especially in creating deeply disruptive business opportunities.

A third point of departure is that this work is trans-ideological. It doesn't matter whether you care most about profits, jobs and competitive advantage or about national security, or about health and environmental stewardship. We ought to do the same things anyway for whatever reasons. So, if we focus on outcomes not motives, and do the things we agree ought to be done from whatever perspective, then the stuff we don't agree about tends to become superfluous.