Written by Kasey Kissick, Social Venture Network, @SVNetwork
“Would you rather die of oil well fires, climate change, nuclear holocaust, or all of the above?” asked a wry Amory Lovins, an internationally acclaimed physicist and co-founder, Chief Scientist and Chairman Emeritis of the Rocky Mountain Institute. At the 2014 SVN Spring Conference, Amory gave his take on the current state of renewable energy in a session titled Reinventing Fire. Prompting both surprise and laughter amongst the crowd with his opening line, he then proceeded to offer the audience another option: “What about none of the above?” What if we could stop using fossil fuels and do away with all the dangers they pose to both humans and the earth? While 90% of America’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels, Amory is confident that we can successfully transition to renewables, we can do it today, and it’s economically sound. According to Amory, switching from coal, oil, and gas to renewables like wind and solar power would save the US $5 trillion. How’s that possible? He broke the argument down into two pieces: oil and electricity.
75% of the world’s oil goes to transportation – cars, trucks, buses, ships and planes. The biggest oil sink by far is the automobile industry. Amory methodically walked us through a number of innovations in automobile manufacturing, from design to materials to production processes. He proclaimed the need to “take obesity out of cars,” explaining that most of the energy required to move a car is due to its weight. The introduction of light carbon-fiber materials has made a big difference. The reduction of car parts in the most efficient models to a total of 14 is also a big improvement compared to a normal steel SUV which would use up to 20 times more parts. He hailed the development of electric autos as “game-changing” and likened their invention to the shift from typewriters to computers—highlighting leading manufacturers and models available on the market like Prius, Tesla,Volkswagon and BMW.
Electricity & Efficiency
Just as the bulk of oil fuels transportation, 75% of electricity goes to buildings. In the case of electricity, Amory explained that the biggest problem is waste. Efficiency technologies are actually advancing faster than we can apply them. If we were to implement modern energy-saving technologies across the world, we could quadruple efficiency in buildings and double it in industry. The key is disruptive building design. Amory gave us a glimpse into his ultra efficient home in Snowmass, Colorado, which uses an integrative design that virtually eliminates the need for heating even during the coldest winters. He explained that simply rearranging pumps and motors, insulating walls, swapping out windows, and choosing energy efficient LED light bulbs – a process called retrofitting – can save up to 60% of energy costs. And designing brand new buildings with efficiency in mind can save even more.
Amory closed the session by discussing global trends in renewable energy use. Long story short, costs to produce renewables are plummeting and demand to use renewables is rising. He said that by next year, the electricity generated by solar and wind power will exceed that of nuclear power. He also noted China’s rapidly increasing renewable production; in 2012, China generated more wind than nuclear power, and in 2013, the country produced more solar power than the US for the first time. He mentioned the trend toward decentralized energy sources like home solar panels, and he noted that today, a handful of European countries already get up to half of their power from renewable sources. In Amory’s mind, it’s clear that we’ve already reinvented fire. And it’s a fire that’s permanent, plentiful, and inexpensive. The real challenge is and will continue to be working with government and industry to implement these changes. Fortunately, with a ‘carrot’ of trillions of saved dollars, Amory is optimistic people will transition to renewable energy sooner rather than later.