Clean Energy 101: RMI Experts Answer Your Questions

We field questions from the RMI community on everything from agriculture to energy storage to inspiring change

On December 15, 2016, RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst and Amory Lovins, RMI’s cofounder and chief scientist, held a live video discussion—introduced by Sir Richard Branson—about the business case for renewables and clean energy. They did not have time to answer all the questions attendees asked, so staff from across RMI have stepped up to answer some of the most intriguing. Thanks so much for your interest, keep the great questions coming, and stay tuned for future Facebook Live streaming events!

The most frequent question I hear is, Won’t all the energy industry tech changes have a major unemployment impact. Thoughts?

Good news: the changes happening in the energy industry are already having a positive impact on employment in the United States, and if we play our cards right, that trend will continue. Consider this: today, there are 55,000 coal-mining jobs in the United States, compared to 260,000 jobs in solar photovoltaics. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that wind turbine technician will be the fastest growing job in America in the next eight years.

It’s true that some traditional fossil-fuel industry jobs will be lost as the market shifts to clean energy, and both political parties have put forward proposals to help the communities affected adjust to the new reality. But part of what makes the American economy the most dynamic and successful in the world is our willingness to innovate and lead the global charge into new markets. While helping workers in fossil industries retrain, we have a chance to lead the way in the multitrillion-dollar global clean energy economy and the well-paying jobs it can bring to American workers.

—Paul Bodnar, Managing Director

How can we improve energy efficiency with such low fossil-fuel prices?

The challenges we have seen to advancing energy efficiency often have little to do with the relative costs compared to other potential fuel sources. Energy efficiency has and continues to be the most cost-effective energy resource. More common barriers include a lack of trust in predicted savings and limited access to actionable information or data, which result in less willingness to invest in energy efficiency.

To address this in the buildings sector, recent developments in technology and financing are not only reducing building energy use, but are also making those savings more tangible and investable. One example is the recent advancement in LED lighting technology that provides significant energy reduction, increases user control, and supports new business models, and that has decreased in cost by 90 percent over the past five years.

—Koben Calhoun, Manager

What are your thoughts on energy storage technologies and supporting the integration of this tech to enhance renewables deployment and grid management?

The entire electricity system was initially designed under the premise that energy cannot be stored. Now we have a technology capable of doing so, and it will play a major role as the grid evolves. Importantly, it’s worth noting that “energy storage” includes a variety of technologies, not just stationary Tesla-like systems that continue to dominate news headlines on energy storage. We’re talking about things like electric vehicles, electric hot water heaters—even precooling or preheating entire buildings to use energy when it’s abundant and available is one form of energy storage.

—Jesse Morris, Principal

Much of the discussion is on renewable electricity, which is growing continually, but how can renewable heat for industry be better deployed—using bioenergy, solar, thermal, and geothermal as well as electro-thermal technologies? 

Fifty-seven percent of the heat requirements for industrial processes in the U.S. can be met by temperatures under 750°F. Renewable resources like evacuated tube solar technologies, heat pumps, geothermal resources, biomass, and concentrated solar can meet this demand.

The remaining 43 percent of industrial heating applications are trickier because they require high temperatures (>1,000°F) not easily attainable with renewable resources. We can reduce the energy requirements of an industrial process by preheating water or other materials with renewables. Waste/biomass incineration can act as a coal substitute and take care of many of these higher heat requirements, and concentrating solar towers can get up to 1,800°F. That’s not quite hot enough to process virgin steel, but renewable technologies are making big steps every day.

—Robert McIntosh, Senior Associate

How do we best motivate and incentivize a much larger number of consumers to purchase goods that have been produced with clean energy/less embodied energy?

While there is a lot of value in educating consumers about low-carbon choices, RMI mainly engages with businesses, governments, and other institutions to help them cost-effectively shift to energy efficiency and renewables, making clean energy the default for how goods and services are produced. RMI’s Business Renewables Center works with big-data service providers like Salesforce and Amazon (and with companies from many other sectors) to shift to complete or nearly complete renewable power, so that whatever corner of the cloud you park your files in, it’s run by clean energy. While not a major focus across our portfolio of programs and initiatives, some of our work is intrinsically related to consumer choice. An example is our driving for efficiency ratings for real estate listings, such as Tendril’s Energy Scores, which is now used by more than 80 percent of Australia’s home market.

—Brad Mushovic, Managing Director

Low-income households in the U.S. offer both an outstanding carbon reduction opportunity, and an amazing social justice/local economic development opportunity in both accessible jobs and families with more money to spend in their communities. How can we leverage financing and partnerships to capture this potential? 

We are seeing a significant number of innovators—including entrepreneurs, utilities, and community-based organizations—beginning to tap into this potential and test new concepts that deliver clean energy benefits to low-income households and communities. These first forays into this field illustrate the critical importance of private, philanthropic, and impact investor dollars to:

  • Pilot new services and scalable delivery models that can effectively engage low-income customers in a clean energy future, and deliver more than just reduced costs (e.g., greater choices, more jobs, local economic stimulation)
  • Create attractive lending and investing opportunities through innovative financing approaches that help reduce perceived risks for financing parties seeking to participate in this sector

Moving forward, we think it’s critical to leverage these financing innovators—such as impact investors, community development financial institutions, private banks with Community Reinvestment Act obligations, and green banks—to bring together a broader constellation of stakeholders who can support cutting-edge ideas for low-income customers.

—Coreina Chan, Principal

For those of us who work inside the energy sector, how do we communicate and inspire change to those who resist change around us? 

One way that RMI finds success communicating about opportunities for change in the energy sector is by leaving politics aside. No matter how you might feel about the rights and wrongs of it, clean energy and energy efficiency are hotly debated in partisan political fashion by a lot of people. And of course, a lot of people—oftentimes the exact same people—also consider energy issues coolly and pragmatically. We find that we’re most persuasive when we discuss energy issues in pragmatic terms that focus on the economic and technical opportunities—and the societal benefits—that the energy revolution affords.

The performance improvements of clean energy technologies in recent years are remarkable—and the price drops are breathtaking. Whether it’s cheap renewable power for corporations, deferred grid upgrades for utilities, or a more reliable electric grid, there are compelling economic reasons for anyone in the energy sector to embrace the energy revolution.

—Cindie Baker, Editorial Director
Most of what you are talking about is electricity. How do we replace the 3 billion barrels of oil we use to fuel the industrial food system in the U.S. alone? 

RMI is currently working on a paper that discusses multiple strategies to reduce emissions from the agricultural, land-use, and forestry sectors. Adopting five basic measures, we were able to demonstrate an emissions-reduction potential of roughly nine gigatons of CO2e by 2050 and 16 gigatons of CO2e by 2100.

As a general approach, RMI has found that reducing overall consumption before applying alternative technological practices leads to least-cost pathways. As a result, we believe that reduction in beef and palm oil consumption will be significant in realizing this vision. Other measures, such as better cropland and grazing management techniques, agronomy, nutrient management, and agroforestry, will lead to reduced emissions and oil consumption in agriculture.

Further, improvements in technology, new land management practices, and behavioral change could help realize reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions from the production, transportation, and application of fertilizers, as well as reductions in nitrous-oxide emissions from managed soil in the sector.

—Aman Chitkara, Senior Associate, and Marshall Abramczyk, Associate

In Canada our governments are planning construction of billions of dollars of pipelines and major expansion of tar sands production. Does this make any economic sense? 

One word answer: NO!


What are your thoughts on the effects your work in efficiency and renewables may have on moving investments out of oil and gas?

A growing number of investors seek investment portfolios that better reflect their values. For many, investing in oil and gas companies is inconsistent with their desire to grow a clean energy economy. While some organizations preach divestment, RMI develops innovative business models for renewable energy and energy efficiency that create attractive opportunities for a green investment strategy.

RMI’s approach stems from the fact that investors need to deploy their capital somewhere. To move toward a clean energy economy, investors need viable alternatives to oil and gas. RMI staff is devising project structures that translate into attractive investment opportunities, whether for community solar projects, aviation biofuels, or energy efficiency retrofit programs for commercial buildings. In each case, RMI analyzes the financing considerations as rigorously as the technical ones, to ensure that our work product resonates with market players.

—Jeff Waller, Principal