Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reinventing Fire, A Review

Reinventing Fire, A Review

The most pressing issues of all, these days, for the US and for the world, are climate change, the economy, and energy.  These are three so closely interrelated issues that it is hard to separate them, but it is clear that energy is the most crucial variable.  Burning fossil fuels produces growing levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere; exploitation of fossil fuels creates serious environmental risks; and dependence on oil and coal makes our economy extremely vulnerable.

Unless we solve the energy problem, climate change will be anticlimactic.  Yes, climate change is a consequence of burning carbon fuels but long before we see the major effects of climate change the scarcity and cost of declining reserves of fossil fuels will pretty much settle the future of our industrial civilization.  The world’s economy is based on energy, more specifically, cheap energy.  Energy is not only a cost of doing business; it is the life-blood of our economy.  Reinventing Fire, by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (, a recent Chelsea Green publication, spells this out and offers an alternative future for both the economy and the environment.

Fire is, of course energy, or vice-versa.  It is clear that we must transform, that is, reinvent, our energy economy.  Make no mistake, this is a huge undertaking: A Mission Impossible scenario if ever there was one.  The choice is not if but when and how.  It’s not a matter of choice but of necessity.

Reinventing Fire is, first and foremost, about conserving energy.  The US has nearly twice the per capita consumption of energy as many other developed countries and about a quarter of the total.  Overall, the US is now the second largest consumer of energy and the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases.  We have passed the honor of first place to China.  The US still uses roughly seven times as much energy per person as China.  Since China burns a lot of carbon to produce products for our markets, perhaps we need to make some accounting adjustments in the footprint ledger.

The US is clearly deeply dependent on other countries for fuel, food and goods.  Yet we have neither a comprehensive national plan nor clear policy regarding our energy future beyond business as usual.  Reinventing Fire gives us such a strategy.  It is a plan that could dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign and scarce energy resources, dramatically reduce greenhouse gases, provide us with the energy for economic growth and achieve this through private enterprise, not government spending.

An Integral Model

A lot of what you will find in Reinventing Fire is not new.  What is new is that it represents a comprehensive and integral plan for transforming our energy economy.  It also insists “Start now!”  It is a time-bound plan of forty years. 

Let me make it clear that we have an energy economy.  Our economy is not based on gold or dollars or production but upon energy.  Even the GDP can be directly correlated to energy consumption:  It takes increasing energy consumption to drive a growing economy.  As the GDP rises, so does the cost of a barrel of oil.  Energy cost is thus a negative feedback.

In a matter of just over a decade the cost of oil rose from roughly $20 or less per barrel to near $150 and has settled to around $100, five times what it was.  The rising cost of energy has affected anything that depends on energy, which is just about everything, especially food.  While speculation has an impact on the cost of energy it is still a classic supply-demand issue.  The global demand is rising.  Peak oil is about not only reaching the half-empty level but about the shift to even more expensive sources of oil.  Rising cost makes that economically feasible.  Tapping these remaining oil resources also involves rising environmental risk.

How do we take control of our energy future?  Reinventing Fire proposes, first and foremost, to dramatically increase efficiencies in the zones that use the most energy:  Transportation, buildings and energy production.  Second, it proposes to radically transform our power industry by replacing oil, coal and even nuclear power plants with renewable energy systems: a whole new power generation industry and infrastructure.

A key to the vision is an “integral” approach.  What do we mean by “integral?”  It means that the plan is not piecemeal.  We have been conditioned into a Cartesian world view:  we like to break problems down into manageable pieces.  We forget that the pieces were part of a larger, interdependent, system.  If we are to undertake a comprehensive plan of energy, and economic, redevelopment--and we must--we have to put the pieces back together in a coherent manner.  The Reinventing Fire proposal is mindful that each of the four energy sectors is intimately connected and profoundly dependent on each of the others. 

Perhaps we should pause to think about what it takes to make an integral, systems, approach to problem solving.  One of the best models for integral thinking came from Bucky Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome.  Fuller was a genius who thought a lot about the process of thinking.  He left two big books about his way of thinking that he called synergetics.  In brief, the way synergetic logic works is by building a mental model with at least four elements arranged as a three-dimensional figure, a tetrahedron, each element linked to each of the others.  There can be more parts but this is a good, manageable start.  By forming such a mental model we achieve both a sense of wholeness and interconnection and a higher level of functionality defined as synergy.  Such models seem to come to life.  Reinventing Fire does this:  it gives life to a complex system.  And it does that with four basic sectors like Fuller suggested.

We know we have many problems with energy today, and if the solutions were obvious we would already be solving them.  It has taken more than two centuries of the best thinking, engineering and entrepreneurship the world has known to get us where we are.  But we’ve painted ourselves into a corner.  The bottom line is that “business as usual” is simply not an option.  We have an emergency situation.  We seem to have reached a peak in petroleum production.  We have more coal than we have a tolerance for the health and environmental cost of burning it, but coal, too, is a finite resource.  Natural gas may (or may not) prove a bridge but there are limits on both reserves and how it can be adapted to replace petroleum.  Lovins doesn’t see much future for nuclear energy, not just due to highly toxic waste products but the high cost and the investment challenge, and writes it out of his vision.  Clearly, our real prospect for the future of energy, from both the environmental and economic perspective, is renewable energy.  The sun provides far more energy than we will ever need; we need a solar economy.

Bottom line, however, economic reality will drive the development of energy resources, not risk.  Business thinks primarily only in the short term.  Business caters to demand.  Common sense tells us that the vast majority of Americans, as environmentally sensitive as they may (or may not) be, above all want to see the lights stay on and the house reasonably warm during the winter.  No politician will risk his or her career with an austerity plan.  Conservation (depending on party affiliation), yes.  Policy and programs, yes.  Funding, maybe.  But it is business as usual:  Growth, consumption and the American way.  The reality is that any significant reduction in energy consumption would have a profound impact on our economy.  In the end, and not too far away, the question is whether or not we reduce the demand for energy voluntarily or bite the bullet when the pain really starts.

Reinventing Fire audaciously proposes not only a reduction in energy demand but also an expansion of the US economy.  The models suggest some five trillion dollars in energy savings as a motivation to finance the transformation of the American energy economy.  The model is about more, indeed much more, for less energy.  That should have popular appeal, but more thoughts on growth below.


Transportation in the US runs on oil, currently 71% of our oil; some 13 million barrels of it is burned every day in the US just to move people and stuff around.  Only six percent of our transportation does not rely directly on oil for fuel.  It makes sense that we make a priority of reengineering the transportation system.  That is a really big order so why bother?  Short answer:  We are going to run out of oil, and it’s going to get a lot more costly before we do.  Some economists like to say that when we run out of a resource the market will find a substitute.  The questions we need to ask, even for the optimists, are when and how?  Lovins says we have to start now.  And that is not a minute too soon.

The “how,” he says, can start with existing technology.  We need to make automobiles lighter, for example.  We need to think about how they use energy.  Most of the energy delivered to the wheels (and a lot of it is wasted before it gets turned into useful work) moves the weight of the car.  A lot of it is burned just idling and a lot is used in accelerating from one stop light to another.  Carbon fiber, being used in aircraft, could dramatically lighten automobiles.  Fuel savings would offset increased cost of materials.  Improved mass production and efficiencies should bring the cost down.  Another suggestion is to switch to electric drives.  Lots of challenges here and many of them are addressed in the book.

Long-haul trucks are fuel guzzlers but they are still vastly more efficient per ton-mile than automobiles and light trucks.  The rising cost of diesel fuel is already driving innovation.  Even an extra mile per gallon makes a huge difference to the owner of an 18-wheeler.  Commercial aviation sucks up a lot of fuel every day.  Manufacturers are working hard to produce more efficient passenger and cargo planes.  Boeing’s new 787 is already leading the way.  Light weight has given Boeing a very real competitive advantage by cutting fuel cost.  Ships are highly efficient cargo carriers, but the big ones can burn 30 tons or more bunker oil per day and use one percent of our total transportation fuel.  Again, any small gain in efficiency is a large gain in cost reduction.

Lovins’ plan would, by RMI estimates, reduce current fuel consumption by three-quarters vs. an 80% increase (get real!) by 2050 with business as usual.  There will still be fuel:  Hydrogen, natural gas and non-agricultural biofuels are in Lovins’ transportation plan.  How electricity will be used for transportation is in the energy sector.

Built Environment

The Empire State Building gets a half-billion dollar makeover:  new windows, new lighting, new heating and cooling systems, with expected savings of at least one-third of the previous energy bill.  That is a lot of money saved every day.  There are 120 million other buildings in the US, mostly hemorrhaging red heat in the financial reports.  These buildings consume 42% of the nation’s primary energy, 72% of its electricity, about half of which is used by residential buildings.  The same energy savings being realized for the Empire State Building, even with a 70% growth in floor space by 2050, would still result in nearly 20% less energy consumed than present.  That is a savings of hundreds of billions of dollars annually. 

Buildings are being constructed with greater efficiencies but nowhere near what they could be.  There are already materials and technologies that could vastly improve the greenness of buildings but they are not always fully used, due in part to cost, in part because of design, in part because of social inertia.  Building owners can demand better efficiencies.  Architects know how to design more efficient designs.  The problem is greater cost.  The return on investment is real, however. 


A short description of industry might be:  base material in + lots and lots of heat and pressure = cold products out.  There are a lot of machines in between and they all use energy.  Energy is a very real cost of doing business.  Rising costs go to the customer and can impact market share.  Energy savings go to the bottom line.  Energy efficiency is a competitive advantage.  Ask Boeing. 

Industry uses about a third of our total energy.  About 80 percent of that energy is divided roughly equally into process heat and machine drives.  Sixty percent of that energy is direct use of fossil fuels, about half of which is natural gas.  Business as usual will slightly increase the total fossil fuels, mostly oil and coal, but Reinventing Fire prescribes an increasing reliance on biomass.  The remaining third of industrial energy is electricity and that is a story in itself.  The most significant fact about industrial energy is the huge loss of heat used in producing it.  Some two-thirds of the fuel energy goes up the stack, so to speak.  Another ten percent is lost in power transmission.  By far the most efficient use of energy is process heat.  The area that suggests the greatest gains is the use of electricity:  generation, transmission and more efficient electric motors.

It should be noted that oil and coal are not only fuel sources in industry but feedstock.  Depletion of these resources means not only higher resource cost but rapidly diminishing supplies of raw materials from which everyday products are manufactured; for example plastics.


Roughly 40% of US energy is used to produce electricity.  About half of our electricity comes from coal-fired plants and one-fifth each from gas-fired boilers and nuclear plants.  The goal of Reinventing Fire is simply to replace 70% of our electrical generation capacity with clean and renewable resources over the next 40 years.  Natural gas stays in the picture, although the book takes note that it may not be as sure a thing as proposed over the long run (some experts put the natural gas bridge at only 25 years, Forbes at fifteen years.).  By 2050 coal, oil and nuclear are virtually absent from our energy portfolio.  That may be whether we plan it or not.  Most of the greenhouse gases caused by burning carbon are gone, too, says RMI.

Does this look ambitious?  It certainly is.  However, the real question is:  Do we have a choice?  No.  Short of some very unlikely political or economic utopian turn of events, we have to get motivated to make changes ahead of the necessity to do so. 

Reinventing Fire offers four scenarios for our energy future:  Maintain, Migrate, Renew and Transform.  Maintain is business as usual:  coal, gas and nuclear with bits of renewables.  Migrate would be driven by legislation on greenhouse gases and incentives that would move the power industry towards things such as carbon sequestering and likely more nuclear generators.  Renew would aggressively pursue renewable energy generation such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, ocean currents and such.  Transform would take Renew to an even higher level.

The 80/20 rule says that you can achieve about 80% of a result with 20% of the effort.  Beyond that the return on investment gets skimpier by the percentage point.  It’s on the hockey-stick curve.  Renew--increasing energy efficiencies and building renewable energy and infrastructure--is the 80% level, so to speak.  Transformation is about that last 20%.  The key to transformation is localization:  small is better.  For example, much of our electrical energy is lost in transmission, so the shorter the line of towers the better.  That means local power systems. 

Localization allows us to pay close attention to and better manage the community’s resources.  Change is far more manageable on the smaller scale of a local economy.  It will take a lot of incentives to get there but the plan itself is elegant and appealing.  Business isn’t going to choose the most elegant model.  It will choose the most profitable one.  Necessity could change that equation.  So, too, could a shift in public values.


I need to say, first of all, that Reinventing Fire is a brilliant book.  Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute get a solid A for this effort on my scorecard.  It is a comprehensive, fact-filled and integral look at how we could build a new national energy economy starting with current technologies.  It is, however, more a vision than a plan.  It’s going to take a huge amount of work and an incredible amount of capital to achieve its objectives.  We no longer expect government to rise to the occasion.  Will business?  Are there alternatives?

Lovins concludes Reinventing Fire with an appeal to society to “throw all its weight behind efficiency and renewable, and into the shifts of design, strategy, technology, and policy that get them done.”  I find it ironic that he and his institute did not make the connection to Transition Towns (  Rocky Mountain Institute has offices in the same city that formed the first US Transition Town (TT), Boulder, Colorado.  Reinventing Fire was published the same month and by the same publisher that printed the new TT playbook, The Transition Companion.  Transition Towns is a grassroots movement.  The TT goal is to produce an Energy Descent Action Plan, a plan of action to move the community into a low carbon but high-quality lifestyle over a 20-year timeframe.  Reinventing Fire is feedstock for that plan.  We need to connect. 

Reinventing Fire is a national vision.  That is one of its strengths.  It’s not about changing the world but about taking care of the beam in our own eye first.  Lovins wants business to take on the job.  The TT movement is a local community initiative.  Obviously a movement that has as its goal the re-creation of a local economy has to embrace business interests.  The creation of a new, sustainable, self-reliant community relies on just those virtues that the local Chamber of Commerce values:  resourcefulness, hard work, and acceptance of the risk of building an enterprise--in our case, a social enterprise devoted not only to profit but to people and planet.  Make no mistake, the likeness between an energy descent action plan and a business plan is no fluke.  They are both about getting the job done.

What is perhaps most wanting in Reinventing Fire is the objective of a dramatic reduction of per-capita energy use in the US.  Yes, Reinventing Fire calls for major efforts to reduce inefficiency and that could reduce per-capita consumption in the US.  But this is an outcome, not a purpose.  We simply use far too much energy.

This point ties into the argument of sustainability.  Reinventing Fire is an economic growth model.  Government and business leaders say “Of course!”  The sustainability community frowns with doubt.  Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.  Oil and coal are not the only non-renewable resources.

There are some other missing ingredients. The Reinventing Fire plan requires us to tear down and rebuild pretty much all of the US infrastructure.  That is, except the highways and automobiles.  The plan says little about the energy inefficiency of the design of our vast, suburb-surrounded cities.  It says very little about passenger rail service.  Bicycles get a couple of short mentions.  Telecommuting gets a paragraph.  Freight, passenger and food miles need to be dramatically reduced if we are to achieve real energy savings.

Transition Towns puts a lot of emphasis on local foods.  Current agribusiness, processing and distribution burns about 7-10 calories of fossil fuels for every calorie of food produced, a lot of it processed foods that are not a healthy alternative to real food.  Reinventing Fire would replace the one-third of US agricultural land that is used for biofuel production, which is good, but that plan would require vast areas of marginal land and huge quantities of water.  It still takes energy to grow biofuel feedstock.  We need to cut the demand.

Food represents nearly one-tenth of the US GDP.  Reinventing Fire speaks well of the idea of localizing energy.  Ideally, where possible, communities could localize far more of their food.  One of the advantages of local food production is elimination of much of the transportation cost.  At the local scale it is possible to closely monitor the relationship of energy to food, not to mention the quality of nutrition provided by land under the close scrutiny of the community. 

Food is the energy source our civilization was founded on.  We take it for granted.  We need to take it far more seriously.  Local food is a source of employment.  It could produce wealth that can be invested in the more capital-intensive parts of the new energy economy.  As I discuss in other works, local food is the foundation of a community dynamic that could well drive the creation of a truly sustainable economy.  That, I believe, is where the investment capital for reinventing our local fire will come from.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend Reinventing Fire be read and discussed by local Transition Towns and other sustainability groups.  It could attract a new audience, provide food for thought, and challenge our own thinking and values.

Bill Sharp,
Transition Centre