Book Review – Reinventing Fire

A Thousand Barrels a Second

While I disagree with Amory Lovins on many topics, the man is definitely a visionary. In his latest book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, Lovins and his coauthors make the case for retrofitting 120 million buildings, and for fundamentally changing our transportation infrastructure, the way our industries use energy, and the way electricity is produced and consumed.

Reinventing Fire is an epic piece of work. I was initially amazed that one author wrote this book, but then in the acknowledgements it is made clear that the book is the result of major efforts by a dozen or so contributors. (I will refer to Lovins as the author in this book review, but there were clearly many contributors).

Contrary to one of the testimonials on the back cover, I did not find the book to be a page-turner. It was actually a slog; more akin to reading a textbook. There is a great deal of useful information in the book, but portions of it were a bit hard to get through. I attribute some of this to the many authors; some portions were just more readable than others.

I agree with Lovins on a number of points. I agree with him that oil is critically important to modern society. I also agree that dependence upon oil is problematic for a number of reasons and therefore, I agree that a transition away from oil is necessary. Finally, I agree that natural gas will be a very important part of the U.S. energy mix — even if we manage to produce the bulk of our electricity from renewables.

Lovins has provided a road map and said “Here is how things could be.” The biggest problem I had with the book is that in many cases the pathway is based on required technological advances that may or may not happen. For the vision to be realized, Lovins also acknowledges that we will need to do things like elect more visionary leaders, and get our electric utilities to completely change the way they do business. After a while, you think “Well, this could happen, and that might happen, but all ten of these things aren’t ever going to happen and thus the overall pathway from here to there is implausible.” If you devise a scenario based on a number of low probability events, you end up with a completely unrealistic scenario. That’s what I feel Lovins and company have done here.

An example of where Lovins and I see things very differently can be found in his comments on China. He praises China’s efforts on many fronts: Improving GDP efficiency, investing in renewables, shutting down inefficient coal-fired power plants, and on their national climate policy. Reading his comments on China would lead one to believe they are the shining example for the world to follow. In fact, he said that the U.S. should “draw inspiration from China’s efforts and strive to emulate and surpass them.” He goes on to say that “Unlike the U.S., China has laid the foundation for its carbon emissions to peak before 2030…”

This is an example of selectively presenting data, which then presents a misleading picture of the situation. The picture he presented of China contrasts like night and day with the data (see Climate Change and Developing Countries). Given what Lovins wrote, one would never imagine that U.S. GDP efficiency is far greater than China’s or that China’s emissions are growing rapidly and have actually accelerated in recent years, while U.S. emissions have declined.

This was for me a common theme in the book: Present the positives, ignore the negatives, and leave a flawed picture. In Lovins’ world, energy is cleaner and cheaper, cars are lighter, more efficient, and you get all of this at a low, low price.

Lovins and I also have different views on the role of government in helping to foster the required energy transitions. I don’t want government having a heavy hand in the situation. For example, I don’t want them attempting to pick technology winners, as they have attempted to do in the past. I want them to set a long-term, consistent framework and then let ideas battle it out based on the economics of the rules in place. I have been critical of programs such as Cash for Clunkers because I viewed it as a highly inefficient usage of tax dollars. Lovins’ problem with Cash for Clunkers is that it wasn’t nearly large enough. The problem with that is that at the end of the day, taxpayers have to pay.

Lovins correctly notes that the renewable industry will employ a lot more people than the fossil fuel industry. He stated that the wind industry already employs more people than the coal industry, even though it produces a fraction of coal’s output. I have noted that this is due to the much lower energy return on energy investment (EROEI) for renewables. The implications are that it is going to take a lot more of society’s time and effort to produce the energy equivalent to today’s fossil fuel consumption.

But then Lovins states many times in the book that these renewables are all going to be cheaper than oil. In some cases that may be true, but it won’t be generally true. If it takes 5-10 times as much labor to produce the same amount of energy, that energy is going to cost more. That’s a big reason that most renewables are more expensive than fossil fuel counterparts. In Lovins’ world everything is cheaper, cleaner, and wealth is being created. What appears to be missed is that someone is paying for that wealth creation, and in many cases what happens is merely a transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Ultimately, this books scores highly for visionary ideas, but falls far short when it comes to the steps required for realizing those ideas. Nevertheless, the world needs imaginative, visionary thinking — and the book does provide that.