The Reinvention of Fire

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By Elaine Bowers

A look at history shows us that our energy sources have never remained static, with renewables such as wind and solar widespread several times in the past millennia, only to be displaced by a glut of cheap fuel.  

Some sources become obsolete as their time has passed; others are taken over by their competitors as we are seeing with oil and coal. 

 The U.S. stopped the direct use of coal and oil for transportation and buildings in the 1920s and 1960s, respectively.  

And to go further back in history, consider whaling, the 5th biggest U.S industry of the mid 19th century which was snuffed out when coal oil, kerosene, became a cheaper source than whale oil to light American homes.  

Thankfully, the remnant whale population was saved by technological innovators and profit-maximizing capitalists.  Within another few decades kerosene was to be replaced by Edison’s 1879 electric light.  And so it goes.

The burning of the rotted remains of primeval swamps, a.k.a. fossil fuels, has indeed been the enabler of our modern civilization, enriching and extending the lives of billions while at the same time putting asthma in our children’s lungs and mercury in their lunchbox tuna, shattering economies, driving many of the world’s rivalries, corruptions and wars and quickly changing the composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Fortunately, technological progress has quietly been making fossil fuels obsolete and the likes of Amory Lovins and Rocky Mountain Institute are showing us the way, changing the story from energy and fear to energy and hope.

 The old fire was dug from below, was scarce, local and transient.  The new fire flows from above, is bountiful, is everywhere and permanent.   

The reinvented fire combines two elements: using energy very efficiently and getting energy from diverse, renewable sources.  

These elements combined with modulating our demand through new technologies such as smart controls and IT-enabled services and optimizing our supply from an ever-expanding array of fuel options will help ensure this transition.  

How these elements are applied to transportation, building, industrial and electrical sectors of our economy, transforming our energy future with ambitious but realistic goals for 2050, are as follows. 

• Transportation:  Shift to ultralight but utlrastrong autobodies made of advanced materials such as carbon-fiber composites, electric powertrains and alternative propulsions and fuels, and use vehicles more productively by reducing needs to commute to work, innovative pricing, alternative commuting, smart growth and system-wide transportation efficiency improvements 

• Building:  Apply well-known techniques such as smart windows, enhanced evaporative cooling, radical insulation, phase-changing materials and energy efficient LEDs, rotors, heat pumps and appliances

• Industrial: Implement cost-effective, energy efficiency and waste heat technologies utilizing radical breakthroughs in materials and integrative designs 

• Electrical:  Produce at least 80 percent of U.S. electricity from renewable resources by 2050 while improving security, reliability, resilience and public health.

Despite general indifference, gridlocked national policy, 26 years of stagnant efficiency standards for autos and 48 states rewarding utilities for selling more electricity and natural gas, our journey towards using energy in better, cheaper ways has begun.  

This journey will not be easy but it can be easier and safer than not making it. 

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Submitted by Eileen Bowers