Reinventing Fire: Five Interesting Facts About Our Energy-Hogging Economy

For a while, we almost had it. Before America’s comprehensive climate and energy bill turned into a devastating failure in 2010, the U.S. seemed to be on the verge of having an energy plan based on a sustainable vision for the future. But today, with “climate,” “clean energy investment” and “green jobs” being dirty words to one major political power, we’ve moved further away from that goal than ever.

That’s why the Rocky Mountain Institute’s recent project, “Reinventing Fire” — a peer-reviewed, commercially-viable vision for the future of energy — should help inform the future conversation around energy. In typical RMI fashion, it provides an aggressive-but-plausible scenario for economic prosperity based on clean energy and efficiency, blending together the different disciplines from the organization.

RMI’s book on Reinventing Fire will be out soon. For now, the organization reminds us where we are today and what the future could be:

  1. The U.S. transportation sector burns 13 million barrels of oil a day (half of it imported), at a cost of $2 billion. Personal transportation is now America’s #2 consumer cost after housing, totaling $740 billion in 2009 and consuming, on average, 17.6% of household expenditures.
  2. America’s 120 million buildings consume 42% of the nation’s energy—more than any other sector. If they were a country, they would rank third after China and the U.S., in primary energy use.
  3. We spend more than $400 billion a year to heat and power buildings, even more than the government spends on Medicare.
  4. U.S. industry employs almost 131 million people and generates more than 40% of U.S. GDP, but uses roughly one-fourth of the nation’s total energy per year.
  5. 86% of U.S. electricity is generated in large, centralized power plants.

What could the energy landscape of 2050 under the Reinventing Fire scenario look like?

  1. Efficiency efforts plus switching from oil and coal and one-third less natural gas to renewable energy would save a net $5.0 trillion.
  2. A $2.0 trillion investment to make cars, trucks and planes more efficient, and more effectively used would save $5.8 trillion.
  3. Buildings’ energy use can be 40–60% more efficient in 2050 than today—despite 70% more floorspace.
  4. U.S. industry can produce about 84% more output with 9–13% less energy—without mandates or breakthroughs in innovation.
  5. We can capture and integrate the renewable energy needed to meet 80% or more of our electricity needs by 2050.

Under the plan, we could be looking at $5 trillion in net savings. If you can’t imagine that, just look at the infographic RMI put together below.

JR:  It’s all plausible, except for the hydrogen (which only plays a small role in their scenario) — see “Obama, Chu try to slash the multi-miracle hydrogen program once again.”

8 Responses to Reinventing Fire: Five Interesting Facts About Our Energy-Hogging Economy

  1. Rob Guempel says:

    Nice, short and effective communication. I agree with the diagnosis but perhaps more focus at the urban level would convince me more.

    Energy consumption in the buildings sector for example, can be approached through distributed energy. London, UK property developer Land Securities, for example, has taken strides into not only cutting emissions, energy usage, and costs through open/closed geothermal systems, but it also turns buildings into micro-utilities. (I am in no way connected to Land Securities, but its a worthy piece of evidence).

    Targeting the metropolitan area, in consideration of kWh price points, agglomeration, and bang-for-buck policy design and implementation, would be an effective approach in the mission presented by RMI.

    Thank you again for your thought provoking piece and research.

  2. dan allen says:

    Well yea…it’s all plausible IF we had an energy-knowledgable populace willing to sacrifice their ‘non-negotiable’ high-consumptive ways , …and IF we had strong, skilled, eloquent leadership from our politicians, …and IF it wasn’t so damn easy for big-energy to short-circuit any gains with clever,seductive lies, …and IF we had decades more cheap fossil energy & resources to subsidize the infrastructure changes, …and IF the industrial economy doesn’t implode on itself within the next few years, …and IF accelerating climate chaos doesn’t short circuit all of it.

    …i.e. Sounds nice, but not likely. A much safer bet (absent of increasingly unlikely help from ‘above’) is for individuals and communities to embark on their own power-down journies — incorporating lower consumption strategies, resiliency preparations, and all the stuff advocated by Greer, Astyk, Martenson, Orlov, and Heinberg…NOW!

  3. David Smith says:

    This post indicates 42% of energy use is attributed to buildings in the USA. What percentage of this is base load (heating, cooling, lighting, and air quality issues) as opposed to more discretionary uses, non-building related uses that are choices of the occupants (industrial machinery, office equipment, home electronics, etc).

  4. Steve Wheeler says:

    Good comment. Though well done, the RMI report looks like just another technology-oriented prescription that ignores some of the main underlying drivers of GHG emissions: excessive consumption, ever-increasing mobility, unsustainable global population levels, and the rising equity demand of the world’s developing nations for American-style consumption patterns. I wish RMI and others, including this otherwise excellent blog, would focus more on such factors.

  5. Pangolin says:

    tl:dr_ We’re hosed because people prefer to be idiots.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    Diagrams and lists tend to have a techno-fix flavor, but the RMI website video brought out an example of the successful retrofit of the Empire State Building, and a quote:

    “We use competition to do our outreach.”
    Amory Lovins

    The owner of the Empire State Building seems to already share your view of “individuals and communities to embark on their own power-down journies — incorporating lower consumption strategies,.. “

  7. Ernest says:

    I like RMI. But I have to admit, it is a bit on the “techno fix” side. What we need is a “political fix”. A simple test is can we even do something as basic, sensible, “low tech”, where there’s a vast need, such as retrofitting homes for energy efficiency while at the same time providing “green jobs”, or “jobs” for that matter (if “green jobs” has become a dirty word). If we can’t even do this “low hanging fruit”, or as Steven Chu would say, “fruit that is already on the ground”, I don’t know what hope is left.

    One RMI thesis I do subscribe to is “get energy efficient or die” (i.e., out competed) esp. if fuel costs will rise in the future or becomes very volatile and/or your competitors become much more efficient. No political ideology required here. Just survival instinct.

  8. @ David Smith

    Good question. Most of that 42% is consumed for space heating, space cooling, water heating, and lighting. There are many other end-uses that add up to a whole lot of energy, but don’t amount to much by themselves. This EIA table has a lot of the data you’re looking for.