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RMI’s Reinventing Fire Cuts Carbon by 82% While Saving $5 Trillion

RP Siegel | Friday November 25th, 2011 | 2 Comments

In a major event at National Geographic headquarters last month, Rocky Mountain Institute’s founder and chief scientist, Amory Lovins, unveiled the pathway to a new energy era that would lead to energy independence, get us entirely off of oil, coal and nuclear energy, reduce natural gas consumption by a third, all while saving $5 trillion, creating economic growth and jobs. All of this is described in RMI’s latest book Reinventing Fire, which, according to Lovins, involved 75% of the staff in its creation.

Introducing the book, Lovins said, “Humans are inventing a new fire–not dug from below but flowing from above, not scarce but bountiful, not local but everywhere. This new fire is not transient but permanent…and grown in ways that sustain and endure. Each of you owns a piece of that $5-trillion prize.”

Even more impressive, said Lovins, in an interview on NPR’s Science Friday that this can be done by private industry, at a profit, thereby circumventing the stalemate in Congress.

“…we took seriously some advice attributed to General Eisenhower, that if a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it until the bigger system boundary includes more options, energies, degrees of freedom, whose absence made it insoluble when you had too small a view of the problem.”

The book explains why the exploitation of fossil fuels, upon which our entire modern civilization is based, may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but was clearly not the best of all possible approaches, for a number of reasons.

We are all familiar by now with the fact that the supply is finite and will eventually be exhausted, and the fact that burning the stuff is destroying the planet. Less obvious is the fact that the source of such enormous power being so geographically concentrated inevitably leads to political and economic problems. What we thought was our $2 billion per day oil habit, is more like a $6 billion per day habit, says Lovins, master of the sharp pencil, due to “the macro economic costs of oil dependence, the microeconomic costs of oil-price volatility, and the military costs of forces whose primary mission is intervention in the Persian Gulf.”

RMI’s plan has our energy usage, which was 93 quads in 2010 (80% from fossil fuels), shrinking to 71 quads, while the economy grows by 158%, despite the fact that official projections (assuming business as usual)  show consumption growing to a dangerous 117 quads. This would occur while eliminating the use of oil, coal and nuclear power, which would therefore reduce carbon emissions by 82-86% below 2000 levels, while saving $5 trillion in the process.

How can we convince business to follow this path? Besides economic growth and profitability, there is also reduced risk, which will also appeal to business leaders. By investing in renewables, as opposed to oil, or even natural gas, you have eliminated the risk of future price increases, which could be considerable.

Jobs, despite outcries from conservatives looking at narrow slices of the picture, will also benefit from the 12% per year real return to industry. Already, more Americans work in efficiency and renewables than in the entire coal industry. And in countries like Germany, “which has staked its energy future on an efficiency-and-renewables transition,” there is already fuller employment than there was before the great recession. Germany has, in essence, invested in “its own engineers, manufacturers, and installers rather than buying natural gas from Russia, and that investment shift is already paying off.”

RMI’s prescription throws considerable weight behind a “new economy” vision that they have been developing for decades, building on the case established in “Winning the Oil Endgame.” The baton has since been picked up by other notables including Al Gore and Jeremy Rifkin.

But while the other two visionaries have lobbied hard for government support as essential for the new economy to take hold, RMI claims that business can, if necessary, do it on its own. Forward looking companies should take heed, if they haven’t already, and get out in front of the coming wave.

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Victor Provenzano

    RMI’s plan relies on natural gas as a so-called “bridge fuel.” This part of the plan needs to be altered if, as one might assume, any of this future supply of natural gas is to come from fracking, for it is no longer simply an issue of (a) an array of toxins entering our water supply, (b) earthquakes being caused at an alarming rate in previously “non-seismic” zones, or (c) radon gas—-the second most significant cause of lung cancer—-escaping from underground into the foundations of our homes or into the air. It is now known from two recent major studies, one done at Cornell, that natural gas from fracking has a carbon footprint that is 1.2 times as big as that of coal when one takes into account both the escape of methane into the air during the fracking process and the later burning of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” (or, alternatively, its use in a natural gas fuel cell). If RMI’s plan relies on this new ecologically calamitous supply of natural gas (garnered from fracking), then it requires a very signficant revision before it can be considered credible. Victor Provenzano

    • Bobolink52

      RMI’s plan would reduce natural gas use by one-third. Not sure where the natrual gas story will end, though clearly fracking is not a viable option. Given the value of what isunder the rock, my bet is that safer ways to access it will be developed, even if they are slightly more expensive. I’m also not sure if it is realistic to get off of oil, coal, nuclear and natural gas in this time frame while still meeting our basic needs, so it might be a question of choosing your poison for a while.