Reinventing Fire: RMI's Quest to Foster a Future Free of Fossil Fuels

Reinventing Fire: RMI's Quest to Foster a Future Free of Fossil Fuels

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Muffet[email protected]/57501838/

What will it take to secure a future free of fossil fuels and transition to efficient and renewable energy that is not just economically viable, but profitable?

The Rocky Mountain Institute proposes to drive such a change. The institute brought together thought leaders this past weekend in San Francisco for the symposium "RMI2009: From Ideas to Solutions" to showcase work thus far toward that goal, explore further solutions and ignite greater public interest in the effort. That effort embodies the ambitious, new challenge the 27-year-old institute has set for itself.

"Put simply, we intend to reverse the past quarter-millennium's dominant global way in which people get and use energy," RMI Chairman and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins told an audience of about 500 during his keynote address Friday night. The event, which included a panel discussion about barriers to success and ways to break through them, was presented by and hosted by Executive Editor Joel Makower.

"We aim to end the antique and increasingly dangerous practice of digging up fossil fuels formed hundreds of millions of years ago from primeval swamp goo -- and then burning these fuels to recreate those swamps' tropical climate," Lovins said. "We expect to extend from oil to all fossil fuels our leadership in envisioning and creating energy systems that, in our Trustee Ray C. Anderson's words, 'Take nothing, waste nothing, and do no harm.' We mean to speed the transformation from pervasive waste to elegant frugality, and from liquidating energy capital to living better on energy income.

"In short, we are 'Reinventing Fire: driving the profitable transition from oil, coal, and ultimately gas to efficiency and renewables.' "

Reinventing Fire is RMI's title for the new initiative that aims to synthesize the institute's nearly 30 years of research, innovation and thought leadership on efficient and restorative use of resources into what the organization describes as a "roadmap" for eliminating use of fossil fuels. The initiative was reflected in the theme for the two-and-a-half day symposium, which concluded Saturday, and the title of Friday's event, "RMI's Quest for Solutions: Reinventing Fire."

In his address, Lovins highlighted work by the institute.

"We've figured out how to achieve tripled-efficiency cars, trucks, and airplanes," he said, "laid many of the conceptual and practical foundations for electric and water efficiency and widespread renewable energy; reinvented energy strategy, superefficient engineering design, real-estate development, security, and (with Paul Hawken) a natural version of capitalism; and devised profitable solutions to climate change, oil dependence, nuclear nonproliferation, and critical-infrastructure vulnerability..."

"Five years ago, almost nobody thought the United States could get off oil," Lovins said. "Now that's a serious goal with encouraging momentum. Can we now imagine getting off the coal that makes half our nation's electricity? Certainly."

He offered the following ideas:

  • "If America used electricity only as efficiently as the top ten states averaged four years ago, five-eighths of U.S. coal-fired electricity would become unnecessary.
  • "Using electricity fully cost-effectively would save even more, displacing all coal power and more.
  • "Windpower in available windy sites can displace all U.S. coal power at least four times over (or all Chinese electricity at least twice over); just the windpower stuck today in the interconnection queue could save half of U.S. coal power.
  • "We could save two-fifths of the coal power by properly exploiting industrial co-generation, plus a lot more in buildings.
  • "A third of coal power could be replaced immediately by running already-built but partly-idle combined-cycle gas plants more and coal plants less (at an extra cost many-fold less than displacing coal with new nuclear plants)."

"Getting off coal requires nowhere near all these steps, let alone the many other attractive options." Lovins said. "We just need to apply part of what we know."

For the ensuing panel discussion, moderator Dan Reicher followed the thread of that concept as well as the tone and the pace set by Makower at the onset of the event.

The issue at hand, Makower had said, "really has to do with scale and speed. The question is 'Is this happening fast enough? -- 'What will it take?' "

Noting that more tools and technology are now at hand than ever before to effect the change envisioned by RMI, Reicher said, "We can do this. The question is why we haven't." Reicher is the director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives for During the Clinton Administration, Reicher was the assistant secretary of the Department of Energy and focused on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Catherine Zoi, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the DOE, was the first member of the six-person panel to respond, saying she shared the sense of urgency expressed by Makower and Reicher.

The DOE, Zoi said, is organizing its work to ramp up energy efficiency, retrofits and development of new systems and technology on four planks:

  • Speed and scale.
  • High-impact innovation -- With the stimulus package, the DOE has in effect become the biggest R&D operation in the world, she said.
  • Talent -- "We have a Kennedyesque moment" to attract a strong new talent pool to the department, which now has about 100 vacancies, she said.
  • Capturing the hearts and minds of America on the issues of greater efficiency and cleaner energy.

"Clean energy has no partisan lines ... This is the new industrial revolution," said Zoi, who later added that she awaits the day when building tuneups are as easy as car tuneups."

“Solutions aren’t diffusing fast enough,” said panelist Bill Joy, partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB).  “The bottom line is CO2 is growing faster than we can stand.”

“If we have to have velocity, we have to have some success,” Paul Holland, general partner at Foundation Capital, said of the pressing need for companies to serve as models of success to attract investors. “We’ve gone too long without a lot of success ... We need a thousand more Enernocs.”

Aimee Christensen, CEO of Christensen Global Strategies, said it’s important not to underestimate the need for engaging local communities, getting their buy-in, addressing their concerns and. ideally, leveraging their influence across a greater community.

At Google, work to organize data on energy use has put the firm in direct contact with members of the community -- utility customers and the power companies that serve them.

In partnership with eight utilities, Google is working to bring smart power meters into utility customers’ homes and to encourage customers to use the firm’s free, open-protocol software, called the Google PowerMeter, to get real-time information about their electricity use online. The project weds energy technology and IT, Reicher said. “It’s going to transform the relationship between customer and utility,” he said.

A lively question-and-answer period followed the panel’s talk.

One man asked what should be done to tax plug-ins and other green vehicles. Lovins’ response was succinct. “We need to tax cars or driving, rather than fuel. Drivers should get what they pay for, but they also should pay or what they get,” Lovins said.

A woman in a small business complained of being virtually dismissed by the DOE and asked Zoi whether the agency is truly interested in innovation by small firms.

Zoi apologized on behalf the department and assured the woman of the DOE's interest in small companies. “We absolutely have a commitment to innovation — and not just by large firms,” said Zoi. She also noted the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, which support innovations by small business.

Reicher’s 14-year-old daughter Haley, who with her classmates wrote letters to the president two weeks ago about issues important to them, also asked a question. Her letter to President Barack Obama was about energy, which also was the topic of her query to the panel. “What stance is the U.S. taking on negotiating a climate agreement with the rest of the world?” she asked.

“The president is very committed to bringing our carbon under control in the U.S. and globally,” said Zoi, who fielded the question about the global climate agreement negotiations scheduled in December in Copenhagen. “There has to be a carbon agreement that is fair and equitable.”

The Reinventing Fire conference was the first that RMI, which is based in Colorado, has conducted on the West Coast. The organization was recently hired by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to help the city hit its goal of having no greenhouse gas emissions from electricity by 2030.