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Amory Lovins On Creating A Prosperous Economy Without Oil, Coal, Or Nuclear

In his new book, "Reinventing Fire," Lovins creates a system for powering a 21st century civilization without using 20th century methods.

Amory Lovins, the chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute and the author of influential books like Winning the Oil Endgame and Natural Capitalism, is back with a new book—and this time, he's claiming that the U.S. can do the seemingly impossible: run an economy that's 158% larger by 2050 without any coal, oil, nuclear energy, or new inventions (and one-third less natural gas).

The book, Reinventing Fire, is the most ambitious thing ever attempted by the Rocky Mountain Institute, according to Lovins. "It felt like the right time to try to construct a coherent vision of how to solve the energy problem by enlarging it," he says. "Most people try to make the problems smaller and carve it into bite-sized chunks. Then you don't have a big enough design space to have enough options, degrees of freedom, and synergies."

Instead of trying to tackle all four energy-using sectors independently—transportation, buildings, electricity, and industry—Lovins believes that we should solve their problems together. One oft-discussed example is how electric vehicles bring the power grid flexibility and storage resources that can better integrate solar and wind power.

Lovins believes that most people in business are just waiting for Washington to tell them what to do, but that's not necessarily where the answers are. Business leaders might alternatively look to state and local government, which can implement the policies needed to speed the transition to efficiency and renewables. As we have seen, military leadership can also accelerate change in the civilian sector.

"It's first about realizing that it's possible, and second, realizing that it's profitable. There are $5 trillion [in new economic value] on the table and you can get your piece of it," says Lovins. These economic opportunities will be found in more efficient vehicles, energy-saving buildings, more productive and efficient industry, and greater use of renewable energy.

The point is, says Lovins, "We've got 21st century technology and speed colliding with 20th and 19th century institutions, rules, and cultures. Huge fortunes will be made and lost." Just how that might happen is detailed in Reinventing Fire, which is on sale now.

[Images: Top, Logan Brumm Photography and Design's Flickr stream; Rest, RMI]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Chris Reich

    The roadblock is greed. Simply greed. The fossil fools are not going to surrender their subsidized money machines. Look at the recent advertising blitz from those wonderful folks doing mountain top mining, coal fracking and oil spilling, er drilling, "The deeper you go, the better it looks." 

    Really? You don't have to look too deeply at the entire fossil fuel production machine to see greed and political manipulation at work.

    World-wide, the single biggest barriers to universal prosperity are greed and corruption. 5,000 years of human civilization has found no cure for those ills. As the US becomes more greedy and corrupt, the inevitable decline curve steepens.

    The winner of the upcoming Presidential election will spend over $1 billion to get the job. Plot the amount spent on Presidential elections against US debt and you can see the real cost of a broken democracy.

    Too bad, we had a really good thing going.

    Chris Reich

  • Rod Adams

    Though Lovins makes a lot of claims in Reinventing Fire, all he is really doing is repackaging the unrealistic energy plans that he has been promoting since at least 1976, when he published his famous article in Foreign Affairs titled "The Road Not Taken."

    According to that article, the US should, by now, be using no nuclear energy (compared to a reality of 800 billion kilowatt hours per year, the equivalent of about 4 million barrels of oil per day), about one fourth as much coal as we are using today (250 million tons compared to a reality of about a billion tons per year), about one fourth as much oil and gas and about 5-10 times as much "soft technologies" as we are actually using.

    Reinventing Fire should be more appropriately titled "Repackaging the Soft Energy Path" using new words to rebrand old, failed ideas and ideology.

    One more thing - did you know that Amory Lovins freely admits that he has been working for major oil companies for more than 35 years?

  • Jim Newcomer

    Exciting stuff! Here's the catch: although all of this is technically feasible, little of it will happen in time. The pattern is that our engineers can develop the hardware, but none of us is capable, at least at this critical moment, of developing the software -  the social relationships required to do it. 

    All across our country - and most of the world, it seems - governments are mistrusted, locked up, going broke, subject to mass demonstrations against their policies. Corporations have earned a reputation for pursuing their own interests over those of people. The unemployed, the hungry, the homeless are left out of the circle of opportunity and decision-making. And the financial centers have added to the shaky structure of capitalism. That's the software we are dealing with. 

    The 1% may or may not be bad people; it's irrelevant. What they can't do is overcome the limits of complexity and the commitment of organizations that are enmeshed in the complexity of civilization to their present routines, which look safer than any alternative at any given time. Since the hope for change, if any, would have to come in that social arena, the software, the shift is not likely. The technical stuff is easy by comparison.