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July 2nd, 2014

Cutting Down the Use of Oil and Coal by 2050?



Amory Lovins, the founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, speaking at an energy summit in Berlin, Germany this past year. Photo: Rudolf Simon

Dear EarthTalk: How does the Rocky Mountain Institute think we can get off of oil and coal by 2050 and save money in the process? - James Greenville, Redding, CT

Colorado-based sustainability think-tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) was founded in 1982 by American physicist and environmentalist Amory Lovins to research and promote market-based solutions to our energy crisis without breaking the bank. The group is focusing efforts on transforming domestic and eventually global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure energy future by mid-century.

"We can eliminate our addiction to oil and coal by 2050 and use one-third less natural gas while switching to efficient use and renewable supply," says Lovins, adding that doing so could actually cost less and support a more robust economy than continuing with business-as-usual: "Moreover, this transition needs no new inventions and no acts of Congress and no new federal taxes, mandate subsidies or laws…"

To get there, Lovins acknowledges that we have to start thinking differently now. RMI is advocating cutting U.S. electricity consumption by 18 percent over the next 10 years while almost doubling renewable energy’s share of generation from 16 to 30 percent.

Few would argue with the cost savings and environmental benefits of such a plan—implementation is the challenge. According to Lovins, we already have the technologies to help foster a rapid evolution of our electricity system, but we still need the political and institutional will to make it happen. RMI has begun a dialogue with utilities and other entities to align incentives and create more opportunities for electricity users to contribute clean power to the grid themselves through technologies like rooftop solar power.

One key feature of RMI’s plan is rate structures that reflect the true benefits and costs of moving to more distributed (small scale/decentralized) energy resources. The group is working with utilities to launch six "Electricity Innovation Labs" nationally as well as a "Solar Development Excellence Center" to highlight the feasibility of distributed renewables. RMI also wants to simplify commercial photovoltaic financing, incorporate renewables into real estate finance and make solar financing affordable to underserved markets.

RMI also wants to make large buildings much more energy efficient, and aims to make a billion square feet of commercial space 35 percent more efficient by 2025 through so-called "deep energy" retrofits, including the adoption of more renewables. RMI is targeting four of the largest, most influential segments of the buildings market—major companies, the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense and "activist" cities (those already on the green cutting edge)—for major energy retrofits, and is working to persuade private investors to consider overall impact and long-term costs, not just short term gains.

Another major part of RMI’s plan is to work with large metro regions with upwards of 10 million residents, and with university campuses, to make major efficiency gains. Other keys to getting us off oil and coal by 2050 include transforming how we design and use vehicles, and getting Fortune 500 corporations to rejigger their energy supply chains to facilitate procurement of more renewable energy. Beyond the U.S., RMI is working along similar lines with China and other large developing countries to help them avoid some of the energy development missteps undertaken here at home.


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