Amory Lovins’s Farewell to Fossil Fuels

In his landmark Foreign Affairs piece in 1976, probably still that august journal’s most-reprinted article, Amory Lovins describes the two energy choices then facing the nation: The “hard path” and the “soft path.” The hard path, was more of the same—rapidly expanding centralized high technologies to increase supplies of inefficiently used energy, especially electricity. The soft path combined efficient use with a shift to renewable supply matched in quantity and scale to each task. That shift in direction offered many economic, social, and geopolitical advantages. The two paths, Lovins explained, were mutually exclusive.

Since the 1970s we have made great progress toward the efficient and restorative use of energy. The U.S. now uses half the energy it would have used at 1975 levels of energy productivity (closely matching the 1976 article’s “soft path” graph). However, U.S. reliance on fossil fuels continues to threaten our national security, weaken our economy, and harm our health and environment. While the “soft path” that Lovins proposed 36 years ago is no longer far from conventional wisdom, our country’s political energy narrative—and strategy—remain stuck.

In his latest article published in the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Lovins seeks to shift the energy conversation with another fresh vision based on a large RMI team’s “grand synthesis” with strong industry support on both content and peer review. The results, published as the new business book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era and supported here, show how our most effective institutions—private enterprise, coevolving with civil society and sped by military innovation—can end-run current Congressional gridlock. RMI’s blueprint for a 2.6-fold bigger 2050 U.S. economy uses no oil, coal, or nuclear energy. It harnesses the power of the market to drive the transition from fossil fuels to modern efficiency and renewables, enabled and sped by smart policies (chiefly at state level) but driven by the business logic of $5-trillion lower cost. This fundamental shift in how we fuel and power our economy does not require consensus on motives—but only on outcomes. We can all agree that the U.S. has too much ingenuity, innovation, and courage to allow the clean-energy revolution to pass us by.

Read the article here, or download it from RMI’s library.