Reinventing Fire Live Chat: Questions and Answers

"LiveOn Thursday, I hosted RMI’s first-ever live web chat to answer questions about our latest publication—Reinventing Fire. The chat drew a large audience that had several great questions and comments. I was able to answer some of these questions during the hour-long chat, and those answers can be found here. However, I couldn’t get to many of the questions in the allotted time.

Below, you’ll find answers to five outstanding questions—and, since we’d like to continue the conversation, it ends with a question for you.

To all those who participated, we greatly appreciate your interest and inquisitiveness, and we will continue to host live chats, so stay tuned. If you have any ideas on content for future chats, post a comment below or e-mail us at rf@rmi.org.

Q: From Brian, “I am curious about your perspective on the role of grid storage in the future U.S. grid. Clearly from a technological standpoint it can help make intermittent renewable sources more dispatchable, but from a cost perspective many of the emerging technologies (batteries, flywheels, etc.) are still too expensive, especially with cheap natural gas.”

A: I think grid storage will play a role, but I don’t believe that a lot of grid storage is necessary to integrate high penetrations of variable renewables. Variable renewables such as wind and solar cannot be turned on like other generators; their output is driven by weather—sometimes they may provide power in excess of demand, at other times they may not be generating at all. This means that an electric system with variable renewables needs to have flexibility—other sources that can quickly be turned on or up when variable renewables aren’t generating power or turned off or down when they are (see the RMI knowledge center for more on flexibility). Flexibility can come from the supply- (e.g., gas turbines or batteries) and demand-side (e.g., demand response), and even from institutional solutions.

Using some or all of the flexibility solutions means that we don’t have to depend on one approach. That said, I do think that with all the capital flowing into battery technologies, we might see some breakthroughs there. Furthermore, as we integrate more variable renewables, I think we will see refinements in electricity markets where they begin to pay for specialized services that help balance the system. These markets will provide more opportunities for storage technologies.

Q: Jenn Cage asks, “We have been declaring plans to make America energy independent for decades, what makes your plan different?”

A: You are right about the volume of discussion concerning energy independence. However, there are very few comprehensive and credible plans. Of those plans, I think Reinventing Fire is different because it relies on the dynamic power of business to drive the transition, not public policy. The plan also sets itself apart by supplying solutions that take into consideration synergies among transportation, buildings, electricity and industry. And finally, the plan shows that it is possible to eliminate our dependence on oil and coal using technologies that are available today. (Read the Reinventing Fire executive summary)

Q: MyEarthNameisMother asks, “One of your plans is to use lighter, more efficient cars to promote fuel economy. Will these cars still be safe to drive because in my mind, the lighter the car, the less crash safe it is?”

A: The perception that lighter vehicles jeopardize safety largely comes from a flawed analysis conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (for more click here). Auto safety is not actually driven by weight; it is driven by size. Larger vehicles have more room to absorb energy from crash impacts.

Using lightweight materials like carbon fiber, auto manufacturers can produce a car that is very light, yet has the size to protect its passengers in a crash. Moreover, lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber are cable of absorbing more crash energy than steel. At any size, these lightweight materials should show superior safety performance to steel (click here for more on energy absorption of these materials).

(Learn more about lightweight vehicles and safety)

Q: From Jenn, “Can non-cropland biofuels be produced efficiently with the techniques we have today, or will new refineries have to be constructed with better means to process primary and secondary biofuels?”

A: First, let me define what we mean when we say non-cropland biofuels. Non-cropland biofuels come either from crop residues (e.g., corn leaves, stalks, husks, cobs, prairie grass) or dedicated energy crops grown on land not taken out of food production. Refining these crop residues and dedicated energy crops into biofuels requires new steps to be added to the conventional refining process used to create corn ethanol. In Reinventing Fire we assume that all biofuels are created in new refineries built to deal specifically with crop residues and dedicated energy crops. New refineries are also needed because we project the demand for biofuels in 2050 will be 3.1 million barrels per day compared with today’s production of 0.6 million barrels per day.

Q: Ellerby asks, “How do you expect businesses and ordinary people to adopt the attitudes and behaviors that are necessary for a change on this scale, when humans in general do not accept change?”

A: This is the big question, isn’t it? I don’t think we have all the answers, but here are my thoughts.

First and foremost, we need to shift the conversation around energy and eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. In the past, the conversation has followed two threads: “It’s impossible,” and, “How much will it cost?” Using the story articulated in Reinventing Fire, we want to shift the conversation to “here’s how” and “how can we invest.”

Second, although many efficiency and some renewable energy investments are already cost effective, implementation is slow because the incentives are too weak, lacking entirely or are even perverse. We must align incentives with the outcomes we want, and we think much of that can be done by working with business and working at the state government level. This is an important point because we distinguish between acts of Congress at the federal level versus changes in state law and administrative action—both of which are faster-acting and better-suited for what we need to move toward Reinventing Fire. (Learn about the key drivers in the Reinventing Fire infographic)

Third, to implement energy efficiency and integrate renewable energy at the levels we are advocating, we must gradually build the workforce to be able to deliver these products and services.

By shifting mental models, creating the right incentives and building the right capabilities, I think we have a great chance of creating an energy system that is no longer dependent on oil and coal. In its day-to-day work, RMI is utilizing all three of these approaches to compel business and civil society to make the changes that will reinvent fire, but it will take time, and it will take a concerted and coordinated effort. That’s my take, but this is a question without an easy answer.

Now, here’s a question for you: What do you think is needed to create the magnitude of change we are talking about? Post your thoughts in the comments field below.