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Sep 6, 2011

Ten Surprising Facts About Our Energy Landscape


Today, America relies on oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear to power our country. But, our aging infrastructure demands refurbishment to meet 21st century needs.

By Reinventing Fire, efficiency and renewables can end our addiction to fossil fuels, create the core industries of the new energy era, generate $5 trillion in new economic value, and enhance resilience and security. The best news: businesses who are ready to lead this transition can become more profitable and resilient.

Bottom line, it’s all about the numbers: $5 trillion net in savings and support a 158% bigger U.S. economy by 2050, using no energy from coal, oil or nuclear. 

Surprising, yes, but far from impossible. In fact, leading businesses are already moving in this direction. Here are Rocky Mountain Institute’s “Top 10” surprising facts as we navigate the transition to the new energy era.

Reinventing Fire Infographic 2011

Today’s energy landscape

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.  

The energy landscape of 2050

6) Efficiency efforts plus switching from oil and coal and one-third less natural gas to renewable energy would save a net $5.0 trillion.

7) A $2.0 trillion investment to make cars, trucks and planes more efficient, and more effectively used would save $5.8 trillion.

8) Buildings' energy use can be 40–60% more efficient in 2050 than today—despite 70% more floorspace.

9) U.S. industry can produce about 84% more output with 9–13% less energy—without mandates or breakthroughs in innovation.

10) We can capture and integrate the renewable energy needed to meet 80% or more of our electricity needs by 2050. 

So whether you care most about profits and jobs, or national security, or environmental stewardship, climate, and health, Reinventing Fire makes sense and makes money.

Rather than investing in the status quo, America’s business leaders have a prime opportunity to make smart choices and create the core industries of the new energy era while competing for a $5 trillion net prize. Reinventing Fire helps point the way.

Who’s with us?

We want your voice in this conversation. Tell us what you think by commenting below or taking part in our weekly poll.

Subscribe now to get the latest research and analysis from Reinventing Fire and discover how other leaders are Reinventing Fire in their own organizations.

Finally, share Reinventing Fire with a friend. Those of you who refer 5-10 friends will be entered to win one of five copies of "Reinventing Fire" signed by Amory Lovins.

 Reinventing Fire Cover Image

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Join the Discussion

Showing 1-10 of 20 comments

September 7, 2011

Excellent information - love the graphic. Point # 2 is confusing though. It refers to America consuming more than China and the US. What is this supposed to say?

Thanks for the great work on this! I'm looking forward to the book. I thoroughly enjoyed Winning the Oil Endgame!

September 7, 2011

Cant wait for the new book to come out! I agree with Brandon, the second point is worded somewhat strange, Im not exactly sure what you are trying to say there.

September 7, 2011

Brandon and Eric, thank you for the comments. I'm a consultant in RMI's electricity practice. Point #2 was trying to convey the massive energy use of the U.S. building stock by drawing a comparison among total energy use of different countries. If you consider the U.S. building stock as its own country (an admittedly strange concept) and compare the energy use of the U.S. building stock with the total energy use of other countries, then the U.S. building stock would still use more energy than every country except China and the U.S. Does that clarify it?

September 7, 2011

On the "Reinventing Fire"
Dear Mr. Lovins,

I love the head line, Reinventing Fire. Please consider the full wedge of CO2e that NON-Combustion, thermal conversion Biochar systems could deliver your program.

Hunter spoke on Biochar at the 2010 US Biochar conference at ISU ;

A dream I've had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
"Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
"Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.
( These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones, have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.)

Black Swan of Biochar

Short a nano material PV / thermoelectrical / ultracapasitating Black swan,
What we can do now with "off the shelf" technology, what I proposed at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, to the EPA chiefs of North America.
The most cited soil scientist in the world, Dr. Rattan Lal at OSU, was impressed with this talk, commending me on conceptualizing & articulating the concept.

Bellow the opening & closing text. A Report on my talk at CEC, and complete text & links are here:

The Establishment of Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability

The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. The unintended consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing wisdom. Wise land management, afforestation and the thermal conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon. Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;
Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles.
The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation;

The Bio-Refining Technologies to Harvest Carbon.
The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running all around us, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion reactors are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding nutrient dense foods and Biofuels, Paying Premiums of pollution abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

Since we have filled the air,
filling the seas to full,
soil is the only beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

September 7, 2011

I agree with previous poster that #2 is akwardly worded.

September 7, 2011

In general, I think you are doing great work.

I am concerned about the focus on air, car and truck efficiency instead of switching many of these miles to rail.

I am also concerned about the high percentage you show for non-cropland biofuel in your proposed 2050 energy mix. I'm a small farmer, and our current industrial ag system is horribly energy (and water, and land) inefficient. It will be impossible to improve our energy situation using a system that requires ten calories of energy to produce one. You can call it non-cropland, but we will have to switch to a perennial-based agriculture, and that non-cropland can indeed produce food for humans when it is grass. I view the current efforts in Washington State to subsidize camelina production to make aviatin fuel as a sick joke and a waste of our limited capital resources.

As to the comment on biochar. I've experimented extensively with biochar on my farm. it is organic matter (carbon) no more, no less. It may have a role in detoxification of soil, but over the long run, the solution to that is to stop putting the toxins on the land. Our situation will require effort and ingenuity over a prolonged period to get out of. Faith in technological silver bullets is in many ways responsible for our current mess. It is highly unlikely that one will appear to rescue us.

September 7, 2011

Hi! I would like to see links to more detailed discussions of the points made. For example, #6 claims a net savings of $6T for replacing coal and oil (and "1/3 less natural gas"?) to renewables, but I would like to know over what times scale, with what schedule of investment, and under what assumptions. Thank you for your work!

September 7, 2011

Yes, I agree with the others that Point #2 is confusing- seems like someone made an editing mistake (though I understand Eric's explanation below). Aside from that, kudos to the team for a great graphic that (otherwise) clearly displays a lot of information. It's fantastic that RMI is leading the way for businesses to make this shift, Lord knows the government isn't doing it! Hopefully once enough of the population shifts their thinking toward resource and energy efficiency, we'll reach a critical mass when all these fantastic ideas become the new norm.

September 8, 2011


You bring up a good point regarding the potential of rail as an efficient alternative transportation mode. I am a consultant with RMI and I coauthored the transportation chapter of Reinventing Fire. Item #7 above mentions the two key components to achieving a fossil-fuel-free U.S. transportation system. The first is design: making the cars, trucks, and planes that underpin that system more efficient. The second component involves using those vehicles more effectively, including utilization of alternative modes of travel when feasible. Rail played a key role in this portion of our analysis, primarily as a means of efficiently displacing freight miles normally serviced by trucks and planes.

September 8, 2011


Thank you for your comment regarding the use of non-cropland biofuels. I am a consultant with RMI and I worked on the biofuels analysis from which Reinventing Fire's conclusions are drawn. What we mean by "non-cropland" is not only using land that would otherwise be unsuitable for food production, but also using residues and waste from existing processes as biofuel feedstock. For example, inedible residues from agriculture, forestry, and processing mills, along with municipal waste, could provide nearly all the liquid fuel demand in the U.S. in 2050. Crops like camelina and switchgrass would also provide a substantial quantity of biomass and would be grown on land normally unsuitable for edible crops.

The current U.S. agricultural system, as you mention, burns 10 calories of fossil fuel energy per calorie of food produced, a twenty-fold increase in the fossil fuel intensity of our food over the course of the last sixty years. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html) Prairie-imitating perennial agriculture could be one important component of transitioning our food system off fossil fuels for crops like rice and wheat, in turn potentially eliminating tillage, fertilizer, and herbicide. Regardless of whether the U.S. food system transitions to more organic techniques, however, residue from crop processing would be available for biofuel production, and would still offer an attractive means of converting waste into usable fuel. Any remaining demand could be filled by "dedicated energy crops" like camelina and switchgrass that could still be grown on land unsuitable for even perennialized edible grass crops so there is no adverse food vs. fuel competition.

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