How real is Reinventing Fire?

May 8, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Above is a twenty-seven minute TED talk given by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute: A 50 Year Plan for Energy. In the video Mr Lovins lays out an ambitious and detailed plan to get America completely away from using oil, coal, and nuclear. Zero use of oil, coal and nuclear by 2050. This is not about whether he is right or wrong.

A quick browse of the comments both on the TED website and on You Tube will give you an idea of how contentious the ideas presented are, and how polarizing Mr Lovins is. His talk raises many questions, and while I elucidate some of my concerns, my objective in posting this talk is to spur debate over what are the ideas that have value, and which ideas need more expansion and development, all within the context of systems thinking.

My biggest disagreement with Mr Lovins is his continued espousal that switching to alternative energy sources and fuels is free.

We humans are inventing a new fire, not dug from below, but driven from above. Not scarce but bountiful. Not local but everywhere. Not transient but permanent. Not costly but free.

If you understand systems thinking, the falsity and danger of this statement is obvious. I am not arguing against the need to transition away from the dominance of fossil fuels as a prime energy and fuel source, nor am I arguing against the intention of his position or proposals. But, Mr Lovins fails to address the massive amounts of natural resources (i.e. steel, rare earth minerals, land, etc.) needed to build new energy infrastructure, or the impacts that will come from exploiting alternative energy. He does mention that much of the energy infrastructure will need to be rebuilt by 2050, so understanding the full scale and impact of the choices is important.

Harnessing any energy for human consumption creates consequences. After more than a century of using fossil fuels we understand the ramifications  that come from burning fossil fuels. Do we have a full understanding of the effects of industrial scale wind, solar, tidal power, etc  both from a natural resource reach, or from the direct impacts on the environment from alternative energy? Have there been enough studies on the effects of not just slowing the wind, but also mixing cold and warm air? Or stopping sunlight from being absorbed by the earth’s surface and reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere in the form of heat? Will there be localized temperature and hydrological impacts? What about the potential human and environmental consequences of nanotechnology used in solar panels, and the creation of e-waste? Asking these questions early in the development and implementation cycle could help mitigate some impacts.

Did anyone consider when the first big oil discoveries were made 150 years ago what the impacts to the environment would be of using oil as a fuel source?

Replacing the energy and power density of fossil fuels with intermittent and less energy and power dense sources like wind and solar means building a lot more infrastructure, and all infrastructure has a lifespan. When terms like renewable and sustainable are used they must take into account the infrastructure. The wind will always blow and the sun will always shine, but wind turbines and solar panels do not last forever. We need to talk about this, and deal with it.

The other point I want to bring up about Mr Lovins presentation is his lack of acknowledgment of the importance of fossil fuels as a feedstock for petrochemicals, and other needed materials like steel. Near the beginning of the presentation he suggests  building cars from carbon fibre would help in reducing the weight of cars thereby enhancing fuel efficiency, and he argues, if combined with a change to electric power vehicles, we would free ourselves from our addiction to oil. Why does he not acknowledge that carbon fibre is made using petrochemicals? Or why he does not address the amount of steel used to make a wind turbine?

Mr Lovins ideas and plan are well worth discussing, but that discussion needs to be real, and honest, and take into account all potential benefits and trade offs that come from using fossil fuels, and from switching to alternative energy. Attacking or disregarding the plan because of disagreements over facts and numbers will miss the bigger potential of pulling out valuable ideas that can make a difference.

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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5 Responses to How real is Reinventing Fire?

  1. Mike Saunders says:

    Great post Matt – I would’ve said: “Wow, did this guy just free-base an ounce of crack after drinking a handle of gin?”. Your approach is much more productive though, but I fear if his ilk get too much ink (or bytes, I guess), we Zeks wil be freezing in the dark and sweating in the heat of the swamps in which most of us must earn our keep.

  2. someone says:

    We need solutions, not critical babble. He is giving a very broad overview- obviously all of the new technologies have their costs. Some very major savings can come from nothing new, just applying basic engineering and physics and replacing/ updating older designs. The idea that an old car that is already built is possibly more efficient overall-cost-wise than throwing that out and building something new is not a new thought. How to make it work is the problem. Some solutions are life style/political. If we reduced the acceleration allowed by any vehicle, there would be huge efficiency gains with NO new tech. But who will do that?? Give some potential answers to the thorny problems, then you will be worth listening to as well….

    • Thank you for the comment. Always appreciated. My effort is not to provide “critical babble”, but critical thinking is important. I applaud Mr Lovins for putting put a comprehensive plan. I disagree with his continued pitch that switching to things like wind and solar are free. How make these ideas work is the essence of my inquiry. I hope that if you can take some time to read my blog you’ll find that I am trying to propose ideas of how we get to solutions. How do we get to solutions unless we have a good understanding of our values, what is important to us, and our needs and desires. I don’t have answers. Hopefully that doesn’t stop you for reading because I don’t because what I do hope to offer is thoughtful questions, inquiry, and divergent and creative thinking. I hope to inspire ideas around leadership, and how we move away from being polarized to finding consensus.

  3. Clare says:

    Thank you for this discussion, I appreciate the encouragement of critical thinking.
    I find the argument that because we need to pay for new infrastructure, solar and wind are not free is an “Alice in Wonderland-esque” rabbit hole of never ending debate around expenses and what-ifs associated to whichever type of energy or resource is being considered. Regardless of whether we use coal, oil, sun, wind or tides, technology and infrastructure will require constant/ consistent upgrading, using further resources and cash. Amory is not arguing that we will not require the use fossil fuels or carbon-base resources, but rather that their use as energy/ fuel source should and can be phased out. Indeed, carbon -fibers and steel construction should be considered an appropriate and sustainable use for carbon in contrast to burning these precious resources for energy. Burning carbon is a highly inefficient and wasteful use of the resource, whereas manufacturing into strong, recyclable products would be a more appropriate use.

    I agree that Amory is delivering broad ideas that require further, deeper consideration but at the same time, arguing that expenses of renewables are a reason to not move forward is a red-herring: at least the resource itself is widely accessible and free to retrieve right in your own backyard. Conversion has its costs but so does oil drilling, transportation, refining, spills….down the rabbit hole we go…

    • Thanks for the comment Clare. I disagree that I argued that expenses was not a reason to move forward, only that people have to stop saying that alternatives are free and benign, something Lovins does. That is my major disagreement with him. We absolutely have to find better more efficient ways of doing thing, and I applaud RMI for pushing ideas on this.

      One thing I would suggest, the way we currently burn carbon is inefficient, but it is not by accident that we use oil and fossil fuels. They are used because they are energy dense, power dense, they are easy to use, store, deliver, they are scalable and constant. These attributes have allowed us to build the world we have, for better and worse. The biggest challenge with the current alternative energy sources is having the attributes that oil and fossil files have to feed the system. We can’t continue to use fossil fuels the way we do, and getting any other system to scale is a massive project. Getting away from seeing things only as good or bad, will help us to make compromises to get us to a cleaner future. Consider to that, bio-fuels aside, the major alternative energy systems are electricity based, and 95% of the transportation system runs on oil. Without better, cleaner battery systems to allow us to electrify the transportation system we need to move way faster on fuel efficiency standards. Battery technology has some big challenges, first in terms of dealing with limits of physics, and secondly that modern batteries use some nasty things like lithium and rare earth metals which have some major environmental problems.

      There is some great work on battery technology being done at places like MIT and by a company funded by Bill Gates. Once there is better technology the challenge will be getting it to scale in a reasonable time.

      So hopefully, it’s not about going down the rabbit hole, but presenting an honest, realistic, and pragmatic picture and plan that leads to transformative change.

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