Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era

By Amory Lovins
Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2013

Review by Alina Bartley, SWE Editorial Board

Filled with graphs, statistics, and detailed ideas on product and process innovations, Reinventing Fire is by no means a quick read, but the vision that Amory Lovins paints for a low-carbon emissions future is compelling. Lovins is a physicist and former chair and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute. He has written about energy policy for more than 40 years.

The prevalent themes of integrative and iterative product design can lead to compounding savings in cost, materials, and ultimately emissions. This media review highlights concepts from each chapter and the associated segment of the United States economy that must adjust, or reinvent itself, to support the vision Lovins articulates.

Defossilizing fuels

Oil and coal dependence in the U.S. economy have costs beyond oil itself in the form of health impacts because of toxic chemical emissions, instability caused by war and international conflict, and broader concerns related to climate change. Although recent switches to natural gas, considered a cleaner energy source, have begun to decrease these impacts, steps toward a cleaner 2050 U.S. energy economy must include doing more with less, modulating demand, and optimizing supply. It should be noted that other experts contend that natural gas as a solution is considered less than ideal and controversial as well.

Transportation: fitter vehicles, smarter use

Creating super-efficient vehicles can lead to $3.8 trillion in savings resulting from decreased oil consumption. This can be achieved by changing the way we design cars, for example.

“Instead of assuming that an auto needs all the traditional parts and designing each part separately, why not think of the design as one integrated whole,” Lovins writes. “This recursive ‘design cycle’ exploits how lightness snowballs. The less weight you have, the less weight you need.”

Entire parts and systems can become obsolete with this whole-system design approach. For example, if the electric motor is moved to the wheels, the transmission, clutch, axles, or other parts are not needed. This reduces vehicle weight, thereby multiplying savings.

Initial investments will continue to see cost reductions as there are improvements in manufacturing processes, economies of scale, and technological advances.

Buildings: design for better living

Leveraging integrative design principles, making investments during renovations, and using emerging technologies in buildings can save roughly $1.9 trillion in U.S. energy costs. Often, energy savings can pay for themselves when building owners conduct the more expensive retrofits instead of routine renovations.

Although the aggregated U.S. savings opportunities are high, a major issue is incentivizing investment. These investments at the building level, whether commercial or residential, often lead to small individual savings. One solution is to start measuring energy usage with sensors and monitoring technologies to clearly show the business case for spending the dollars.

Industry: rethinking how we make things

The energy required to make products is often wasted in electricity system losses or process heat, and if saved, could lead to about $0.9 trillion in U.S. energy cost savings. For example, although the United States primarily makes iron using coal, other parts of the world leverage cheaper or more efficient feedstocks. For example, Qatar uses natural gas to produce iron using a “direct-reduced” process, and Sweden uses hydropower or hydrogen to directly reduce iron.

Power plants, which turn fuel into one-third electricity and two-thirds heat, should leverage cogeneration or combined heat and power (CHP) units to take advantage of the waste heat. As Lovins puts it, “[t]ripling U.S. CHP capacity to 240 GW would cut America’s total CO2 emissions by 12%.”

Other simple changes such as reducing compressed air leaks, insulating pipes, and maintaining steam traps and air filters can lead to significant energy savings but are often overlooked as improvements at manufacturing sites.

Electricity: repowering prosperity

Although initial capital investments in renewable energy sources can be higher than conventional sources, the fuel savings alone will offset these costs in the future. Lovins describes four scenarios for the future of electricity:

  • Maintain as is
  • Migrate to sources such as nuclear power and equip coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration
  • Use renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower
  • Continue to iterate with smaller scale initiatives such as fuel cells, rooftop solar, and cogeneration

Lovins proposes that initial investments will continue to see cost reductions as there are improvements in manufacturing processes, economies of scale, and technological advances. Solar photovoltaics (“solar PV”) are a great example of this trend. “Since the 1970s, every tenfold increase in production of crystalline silicon modules has made module production 50% cheaper.”

According to Lovins, the ideal future state is a combination of centralized and distributed renewable sources that are efficient, can flexibly respond to changes in demand, and managed through a smart grid.

Many choices, one future

One technological breakthrough that will lead to a lower carbon impact future over the next few decades is unlikely. Instead, reinventing energy usage will take careful and consistent application of proven methodologies across a variety of sectors, Lovins writes. It will mean: transforming the auto industry, developing more efficient buildings and conducting massive retrofits, embracing increased cogeneration, and continuing to reduce costs in renewables.

As Lovins rightly points out, “We get to choose just once. Choose well.”

Alina Bartley (she/her) is a director with Alvarez and Marsal, assisting clients with supply chain management solutions. She graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and from The University of Texas at Austin with an MBA. A SWE member since 2009, Bartley has enjoyed working as a leader within her local Houston Section and with collegiates at the global level. She currently serves on the editorial board.