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By Robert Rapier on Feb 12, 2013 with 15 responses

Book Review – Reinventing Fire

A Thousand Barrels a Second

While I disagree with Amory Lovins on many topics, the man is definitely a visionary. In his latest book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, Lovins and his coauthors make the case for retrofitting 120 million buildings, and for fundamentally changing our transportation infrastructure, the way our industries use energy, and the way electricity is produced and consumed.

Reinventing Fire is an epic piece of work. I was initially amazed that one author wrote this book, but then in the acknowledgements it is made clear that the book is the result of major efforts by a dozen or so contributors. (I will refer to Lovins as the author in this book review, but there were clearly many contributors).

Contrary to one of the testimonials on the back cover, I did not find the book to be a page-turner. It was actually a slog; more akin to reading a textbook. There is a great deal of useful information in the book, but portions of it were a bit hard to get through. I attribute some of this to the many authors; some portions were just more readable than others.

I agree with Lovins on a number of points. I agree with him that oil is critically important to modern society. I also agree that dependence upon oil is problematic for a number of reasons and therefore, I agree that a transition away from oil is necessary. Finally, I agree that natural gas will be a very important part of the U.S. energy mix — even if we manage to produce the bulk of our electricity from renewables.

Lovins has provided a road map and said “Here is how things could be.” The biggest problem I had with the book is that in many cases the pathway is based on required technological advances that may or may not happen. For the vision to be realized, Lovins also acknowledges that we will need to do things like elect more visionary leaders, and get our electric utilities to completely change the way they do business. After a while, you think “Well, this could happen, and that might happen, but all ten of these things aren’t ever going to happen and thus the overall pathway from here to there is implausible.” If you devise a scenario based on a number of low probability events, you end up with a completely unrealistic scenario. That’s what I feel Lovins and company have done here.

An example of where Lovins and I see things very differently can be found in his comments on China. He praises China’s efforts on many fronts: Improving GDP efficiency, investing in renewables, shutting down inefficient coal-fired power plants, and on their national climate policy. Reading his comments on China would lead one to believe they are the shining example for the world to follow. In fact, he said that the U.S. should “draw inspiration from China’s efforts and strive to emulate and surpass them.” He goes on to say that “Unlike the U.S., China has laid the foundation for its carbon emissions to peak before 2030…”

This is an example of selectively presenting data, which then presents a misleading picture of the situation. The picture he presented of China contrasts like night and day with the data (see Climate Change and Developing Countries). Given what Lovins wrote, one would never imagine that U.S. GDP efficiency is far greater than China’s or that China’s emissions are growing rapidly and have actually accelerated in recent years, while U.S. emissions have declined.

This was for me a common theme in the book: Present the positives, ignore the negatives, and leave a flawed picture. In Lovins’ world, energy is cleaner and cheaper, cars are lighter, more efficient, and you get all of this at a low, low price.

Lovins and I also have different views on the role of government in helping to foster the required energy transitions. I don’t want government having a heavy hand in the situation. For example, I don’t want them attempting to pick technology winners, as they have attempted to do in the past. I want them to set a long-term, consistent framework and then let ideas battle it out based on the economics of the rules in place. I have been critical of programs such as Cash for Clunkers because I viewed it as a highly inefficient usage of tax dollars. Lovins’ problem with Cash for Clunkers is that it wasn’t nearly large enough. The problem with that is that at the end of the day, taxpayers have to pay.

Lovins correctly notes that the renewable industry will employ a lot more people than the fossil fuel industry. He stated that the wind industry already employs more people than the coal industry, even though it produces a fraction of coal’s output. I have noted that this is due to the much lower energy return on energy investment (EROEI) for renewables. The implications are that it is going to take a lot more of society’s time and effort to produce the energy equivalent to today’s fossil fuel consumption.

But then Lovins states many times in the book that these renewables are all going to be cheaper than oil. In some cases that may be true, but it won’t be generally true. If it takes 5-10 times as much labor to produce the same amount of energy, that energy is going to cost more. That’s a big reason that most renewables are more expensive than fossil fuel counterparts. In Lovins’ world everything is cheaper, cleaner, and wealth is being created. What appears to be missed is that someone is paying for that wealth creation, and in many cases what happens is merely a transfer of wealth from one group to another.

Ultimately, this books scores highly for visionary ideas, but falls far short when it comes to the steps required for realizing those ideas. Nevertheless, the world needs imaginative, visionary thinking — and the book does provide that.

Link to Original Article: Book Review – Reinventing Fire

By Robert Rapier

  1. By Ed_Reid on February 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I have a highly imaginative vision of a turf grass which grows to a height of 4″, then stops growing, so that it does not have to be mowed. It stays green year round in any climate and doesn’t require either fertilization or irrigation. My vision also “falls far short when it comes to the steps required for realizing those ideas.”

    The world is full of “great ideas” which are also implausible. They are a dime a dozen.

    “Don’t begin vast programs with half-vast ideas.”

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    • By Robert Rapier on February 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      Yeah, but did you write a book about it? If it only requires something as simple as electing better, more visionary leaders… Never mind.

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      • By Ed_Reid on February 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm

        I’m available, but probably far too politically incorrect. ;-)

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  2. By Benjamin Cole on February 13, 2013 at 1:40 am

    There is often a schism betweens engineer types and economists. Lovins has a lot of ideas—but do they pencil out?

    The price signal has to work. In fact it does work, when it comes to energy. Remember all the “Peak OIl End of the World” talk of 2008. Now what? We could see gluts of fossil fuels for decades.

    I wonder if oil will be cheaper in five years than now. Natural gas?

    Let the price signal work, and use taxes when the signal does not capture a cost. It is perfectly reasonable to tax fossil fuels to artificially capture the environmental and political costs that the price signal does not reflect.

    But, as RR says, when the government picks winners you get ethanol. A loser. And a loser for the rest of time, given the immortality of government programs, especially farm programs. Your great grandchildren will be using E10.

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    • By Ed_Reid on February 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      While it might be ” perfectly reasonable to tax fossil fuels to artificially capture the
      environmental and political costs that the price signal does not
      reflect”, it is very difficult to accurately and objectively calculate those costs. For example, I have seen estimates of the environmental externalities costs of CO2 ranging from $20-300 per ton. It is possible, but by no means certain, that the costs lie within that range.

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      • By TimC on February 14, 2013 at 10:39 am

        If I prefer to use fossil energy, but my government forces me to use renewable energy, shouldn’t I count that lost freedom as an external cost of renewable energy? I put a high value on freedom, so it would be easy for coerced renewable energy use to cost me more than $300 of freedom per ton of CO2 abated. The dollar value of my lost freedom could easily exceed the total external costs of fossil energy, environmental and political. This would make renewable energy a very bad deal, when all of the external costs are factored in.

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        • By Ed_Reid on February 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm

          Careful. You could find yourself identified as a “bitter clinger”. :-)

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        • By SplatterPatterns on February 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm

          If you hurry there’s a asteroid passing inside the earth’s geostationary satellite orbital distance on Friday. If you hurry you’ll be able to move to it where I’m quite sure that you will be able to value both your freedom and a ton of CO2 abatement to your satisfaction.

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    • By Russ Finley on February 17, 2013 at 11:19 am

      To my knowledge, Lovins has never completed a degree in anything. He is not an engineer by training, or experience, and it shows. His technological naivete isn’t obvious to the general public …all hat as they say in Texas.

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  3. By Ed_Reid on February 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I think I will wait for Dr. James E. Hansen’s new book, “Undiscovering Fire”.

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  4. By Matthew Klippenstein on February 14, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Hi Robert, one quibble on what is otherwise a great review — Amory Lovins is definitely a visionary whose reputation has remained untarnished by his track record.

    My quibble is: what are your sources for renewables having lower EROEI than fossil fuels? According to Wikipedia, solar has an EROEI of about 7, better than most estimates of EROEI for bitumen extraction in Alberta. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_returned_on_energy_invested)

    I don’t know when the Wikipedia data was calculated, but given the tremendous reductions in solar cost in the past few years, I have to imagine that some portion comes from reduced material inputs, meaning lower energy costs in manufacturing, and thus higher EROEI right now. Wikipedia also lists wind at an EROEI of 18 — which is higher than oil and gas as of 2005.

    I would also imagine that technological progress for renewables means their EROEI is gradually increasing over time. Silicon wafer thickness has dropped from 350 microns to 180 microns over the years, which must mean EROEI has improved, right? Similarly, wind turbine blades have gotten bigger, so for marginally more construction material, the cross-sectional area covered, increases substantially. (And it’s not as if we’re running out of prime geography, the way we’ve run out of “prime geology” for fossil fuel extraction.)
    As such, could you clarify your statements on renewables having lower EROEI? Have I overlooked some data?

    That said, I don’t have a good answer for why renewables involve more employment than fossil fuels. Perhaps it relates to the fact that a wind turbine and solar array have low capacity factors? (In other words, if these magically worked 24/7, I wonder if the employment-per-unit-of-energy-produced, would be more in line with fossil fuels?)

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    • By Robert Rapier on February 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm

      “My quibble is: what are your sources for renewables having lower EROEI than fossil fuels?”

      You can certainly find that some renewables have a better EROEI than some fossil fuels. So it isn’t an absolute rule. But oil tends to have a much higher EROEI than biofuels, and I expect that coal is higher than wind or solar.

      “Perhaps it relates to the fact that a wind turbine and solar array have low capacity factors?”

      Yes, that is the main reason.

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  5. By Rufus on February 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Well, yeah, the “labor” in renewables is mostly in the manufacturing, and build-out of the facilities (“front-loaded, in other words.”)

    Pro-rate the labor out over 30 or 40 years, or longer in the case of solar, perhaps, (and when they’re digging deeper, and deeper, to get that coal,) and see how it looks.

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  6. By Russ Finley on February 17, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Money quote:

    I want them to set a long-term, consistent framework and then let ideas
    battle it out based on the economics of the rules in place.

    Always bet the opposite of Lovins. I doubt that this book contains a single novel idea.

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  7. By Rolf Westgard on April 15, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    He still loves those Chinese backyard smelters and digesters along with lots of wind and solar and no nuclear. Soft energy almost tanked China and California. Check some of Lovins earlier forecasts on our energy fuel makeup/

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