“What if we could make energy do our work without working out undoing? What if we imagined fuel without fear? Could we reinvent fire?” World-renowned physicist Amory Lovins kicked off the first President’s Forum Speaker Series event of the year by posing those three questions to a standing-room-only audience in the Vandervort Room Thursday night. . “We chose that title because fire made us human, fossil fuels made us modern, but now we need a new fire that makes us safe, secure, and more durable.”
Lovins, who co-founded the innovative “think-and-do tank” Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), has worked for nearly 40 years to revolutionize the way we understand, produce, and utilize energy. The former MacArthur Fellow joined the Colleges for a public talk addressing members of the HWS community and off-campus visitors who traveled from as far away as Saratoga.
Lovins and his colleagues at RMI have worked for decades to create comprehensive blueprints for a transition to a world free from its dependence on fossil fuels. “Four-fifths of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels; they have built our civilization, but they also have rising costs that are eroding their benefits,” said Lovins, who discussed their costs on safety, spending budgets, health, the economy, and the environment.
According to Lovins, by 2050 the world could have a connected, “elegantly frugal” and radically efficient system that relied on secure and stable renewable energy. Researchers at RMI have calculated that such a system would cost $5 trillion less than current energy spending, could support a 158 percent bigger U.S. economy – and would eliminate oil, coal and nuclear energy.
“This plan needs no new inventions and no new federal taxes, subsidies, mandates or laws,” explained Lovins. “This can all be done without a coherent national energy policy – either administratively or at a state level. With such sensible policy support, this energy transition can use our most effect institutions – private enterprise – to go around our least effective institutions.”
The team at RMI worked to integrate all four energy-using sectors – transport, buildings, industry and electricity – with four kinds of innovation – technology, public policy, design and strategy – to imagine a world reliant purely on renewable energies.
Compared to today, where most of the electricity we use is wasted and less than one percent of the fuel energy in personal vehicles goes to actually moving the human occupants, the future laid out in Reinventing Fire – the book on which Lovins based his talk – is predicated on far greater end-use efficiency. Lovins himself lives in a house on a mountaintop in the Rocky Mountains that has no heating system – which he built at no additional construction costs, and where he has harvested more than 40 banana crops since the early 1980s in his indoor jungle. By 2050, he asserts, we will need to replace our current electricity system regardless of environmental constraints – and if the two future scenarios cost the same, why chose the path with higher risk – that is, the one based on fossil fuels and nuclear energy?
Lovins also discussed the ease with which we can transition our vehicles to become oil-free – from cars and trucks to buses and planes. He argued that the transition from fossil fuels will be most effective if we first increase the efficiency of our transport, buildings and industry – making the eventual switch of fuels seamless.
The transition, Lovins believes, is well underway. “Already, this is what is happening: oil is becoming uncompetitive at low prices – even before it becomes unavailable at high prices,” explained Lovins. Even the job market has created more jobs in wind and solar power than it has in steel and coal combined.
“We need to focus on the outcomes, not the motives,” said Lovins in closing. “We are inventing new fire – not mined from below, but flowing from above. Not scarce, but bountiful. Not costly, but free. We can make the world richer, freer, cooler and safer.”
One of RMI’s most recent projects was a radical retrofit of the Empire State Building, which is expected to save the owners more than $4 million annually in energy costs alone. While on the HWS campus, Lovins also visited the ENV110: Energy class taught by Professors Darrin Magee, of the Environmental Studies department, and Steven Penn, of the Physics Department, for a discussion with students on ways to find and fix inefficiencies on the HWS campus. Magee has worked as a China advisor to Mr. Lovins since 2007.
“I was thrilled to give HWS students the opportunity to meet and learn from such a cutting-edge energy thinker as Amory Lovins,” said Magee. “This is a really special opportunity.”