Last month, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and the Carbon War Room convened what amounted to a state of union for the battle to slow climate change. The two entities quietly merged in December 2014.
Always inspiring, both RMI’s founder Amory Lovins and CEO Jules Kortenhorst did not disappoint.
They began by summarizing a recent accomplishment which Lovins characterized as having “reframed the energy problem” and “catalyzed the transformation of the mobility, buildings and electricity sectors.”
As he described it, his organization is now working at the national level with the U.S., China and Germany to demonstrate the economic viability of renewables and energy efficiency. “We can barely imagine what progress we’re going to make in the coming years,” Lovins said.
The technology needed is already available, he insisted. The question is how to deploy it rapidly. But this is not a new problem. Consider car ownership in the early 20th century: The percentage of Americans who owned a car ballooned from 8 percent to 80 percent in only 10 years, Lovins explained — saying such rapid adoption is now possible with renewables.
The car loan, a major financial innovation at its time, helped make quick auto adoption possible. And it didn’t hurt that the price of the Model T dropped 62 percent over 10 years. Similarly, solar photovoltaics prices fell 75 percent in five years and instruments to make the technology affordable for homeowners proliferate.
Known for its groundbreaking scenarios published in books such as “Winning the Oil Endgame” and “Reinventing Fire,” RMI is about to release four new scenarios to cap global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious target established at COP21 in Paris. It won’t be easy, he said. It is feasible, “but only if all the levers are pulled.”
RMI has been working in China, pulling a number of levers there, based on its Reinventing Fire approach. According to Lovins, the Institute helped the Chinese to improve carbon productivity by a factor of 12, while increasing energy production seven-fold — all while saving $3.5 trillion.
Using this approach globally, he said, will get us to the 2-degree Celsius level, when saving $18 trillion.
Then, “if you reinvest some of that into natural systems carbon removal – biological removal through more informed ways to do forestry, farming, grazing, and so on along with ecological restoration of rainforests and so on. That could probably get you to a 1.5-degree level at a cost still trillions of dollars less than business as usual.”
But, of course, attendees were curious how the 2016 U.S. election could affect renewable energy development and the fight against climate change.
“Other countries will see it as an opportunity to move into the space if we vacate it,” Lovins said of the U.S. “It’s happening anyway. For example, as India chooses to go [all electric vehicle] by 2030, that will allow them to do what Denmark did in wind.” In other words, it will enable the Indian motor vehicle industry to play a large role in the global market as Denmark has done with its wind energy company, Vestas.
RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst suggested that the post-election, anti-climate change rhetoric has reinforced the resolve of the other countries party to the Paris agreement.
Lovins was also dubious about President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to reinvigorate America’s coal industry: “You can defibrillate a corpse, but it won’t rise and walk. The economics are not there. Even coal executives acknowledge it. These are competitive global markets.”
Going back to the earlier theme, he added: “China is now leading in seven different categories of renewable technology. They have installed more solar in the past year than the U.S. has in the past 59 years. Their strength lies in planned activities as well as a very dynamic and growing private sector.”
As for Trump’s appointments, Lovins seemed less pessimistic than most. He pointed out that Rick Perry presided over the free market policies that made Texas the national leader in wind power. “He understands,” Lovins insisted, “that wind can beat gas.”
As for electric utility regulation, “The market will no longer be tops-down; it will be trans-active, like the Internet,” Lovins predicted. “Companies and consumers will collaborate. It will be an interplay of different actors.” This is still misunderstood today. “You can get all the energy you need from renewables.” He then quoted Clay Stranger in comparing the grid to a symphony orchestra: “No instrument plays all the time, but there is always music.”
Germany got 49 percent of its energy from wind and sun last year. People worry about reliability, but “the last time they had a power failure there was 35 years ago,” Lovins explained.
He then described four types of innovation, all of which are needed to address this problem: technology, design, policy and business strategy.
In closing, the two gave a long-term vision.
“We dream of a world in 15 to 20 years where electrons are ubiquitous, abundant and cheap, and mobility is a service. It will be a completely different energy world. Demand will be both efficient and smart.
“Half the problem is knowing where to invest. Our Rwanda team developed a strategy to bring electricity to the 78 percent of the population that doesn’t have it yet, starting with a clean sheet. The work in Africa was funded by Carbon War Room founder, Richard Branson, along with Virgin Unite and the Rockefeller Foundation.
“It’s now starting to scale up. We’re looking for non-linear scale up. The main constraint is not how fast can you scale up. It is: How fast can you get the incumbents out of the way? Peak oil demand could hit in the next five years. More than 140 countries need help decarbonizing their economies after committing in Paris. How can this be scaled up quickly across different locales?”
That is the big question.
Image credit: Doc Searls: Flickr Creative Commons