Reinventing Fire: How to Get America Off Oil and Coal by 2050

The Rocky Mountain Institute's new book shows how existing technologies and ideas could get America off fossil fuels by 2050.

It’s hard to call Reinventing Fire a book—it’s also a policy paper, a road map, and a manifesto. Written by the energy expert Amory Lovins and his staff at the Rocky Mountain Institute, it begins by asserting that, by 2050, Americans can live free of oil and coal. It also lays out a plan to reach that goal by relying on technologies and ideas that already exist.

In the world RMI envisions, the “new fire” of renewable energy will replace the “old fire” of coal and oil, cost less, and continue to drive economic growth. The book examines transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity, the four economic sectors it identifies as major consumers of fossil fuels. In each area, the authors ferret out energy savings in existing models and suggest revolutionary re-thinkings of how that sector does business. Although government and policy changes play a role in these plans, Lovins and his team present primarily a business case for their ideas. Everything they suggest eventually pays for itself, and all of it costs $5 trillion less than forging ahead on the country’s current path. Here are a few key takeaways from Reinventing Fire, which comes out today.

America is buying more energy than it needs to. Sustainability advocates often talk about saving energy by doing less: turning off the lights, giving up meat, living in smaller spaces. Reinventing Fire argues that it’s possible to do more, with less energy. Whether the energy is going to cars, houses, offices, or industrial processes, RMI finds ways to minimize downstream energy use. Cars could weigh less. Buildings could require less energy to heat and cool their interiors. In factories, shorter pipes with fewer twists and turns could move liquids more efficiently. In every sector, it’s possible to design the machines that eat up energy to need less of it, while accomplishing the same tasks.

There’s “no miracle required.” Opponents of renewable energy tend to temper praise of wind and solar with caveats about how the sector isn't ready to take over from fossil fuels. Reinventing Fire shows that’s not true: the plan does not “rely on breakthrough technologies or new inventions,” the authors write. Moving away from coal and oil requires “not miracles or magic but on purposeful application of what’s already proven.” (They’re not the only energy analysts who’ve come to this conclusion, either.)

Government has a role to play. The ideas presented in the book make business sense, but they won’t happen automatically. Business executives need to show leadership in this area, but so does government. In each sector, government policies can speed adoption of new ideas: building codes can make efficiency the default; “feebates” can charge customers a premium for buying inefficient cars and use that money to reward those that choose efficient vehicles, speeding the turnover to cars less hungry for gas; regulations can incentivize utilities to help customers save energy.

Abandoning coal and oil makes sense independently of climate worries. (But it will also help fix climate change) Lovins and his team hardly mention the impact their proposed changes will have on the country’s carbon emissions, and Reinventing Fire stresses that there are plenty of good reasons other than climate change to adopt this strategy. International policy could focus on areas other than oil security. Blackouts could cease to exist. The air would be cleaner. That $5 trillion could be invested in something other than gas.

But taken together, the plans laid out in the book draw down carbon dioxide by slightly more than 80 percent between 2000 and 2050. Conveniently, that’s just beyond the emissions target set in 1992 by the international community. Although there are plenty of other reasons to push for RMI's ideas, that's a pretty good one.

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