Can We Reinvent Fire in the Southeast?

Guest Blog | November 21, 2012 | Clean Transportation, Coal, Electric Vehicles, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Nuclear, Solar, Wind

Here at SACE, we have been investigating new clean energy ideas that we can build on. These efforts have lead us to Rocky Mountain Institute‘s most recent publication, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for a New Energy Era.

Reinventing Fire caught our eye because it offers a future without coal, oil or nuclear power and with  2/3 less natural gas, which was pretty compelling to us. We have been thinking about how to use the book to change the course of business as usual in the Southeast – more on that later.

Reinventing Fire has four main sections, reflecting the four energy-using sectors of the economy in the United States: transportation, buildings, industry and electricity. It also aligns pretty well with the work that SACE is doing in the Southeast. In upcoming weeks, we will be blogging on each of these chapters in Reinventing Fire, and thinking about how the concepts presented in the book can be applied in our region. Today, we are providing a quick overview of each of the sectors, and the concepts that RMI introduces in Reinventing Fire.

Section 1: Transportation
Section 2: Buildings
Section 3: Industry
Section 4: Electricity

Section 1: Transportation

RMI’s  goal for transportation in 2050 is to provide increased personal mobility and less life-cycle cost than vehicles today with uncompromised safety and performance. Super efficient vehicles will use 75% less fuel, saving consumers $3.8 trillion on fuel. Many of the solutions to increase transportation efficiency revolve around lightweighting vehicles, as less than 0.5% of the energy in the fuel of a typical vehicle actually moves the driver from point A to Point B; and more than 60% of the energy needed to move an automobile is due to its own weight!

Tennessee is the proud host of a Nissan Leaf manufacturing facility, and Tennessee and Georgia are participants in the EV Project, a Department of Energy funded effort to install electric recharging stations.


Several Southeastern cities – Raleigh/the Research Triangle and Atlanta – are also participating in RMI’s electric vehicle preparedness project for cities.  As this work proceeds, we will be blogging about improved vehicle efficiency, fuel and engine standards, and how we can use our electric vehicle and alternative fuel platform in the Southeast to expand on RMI’s transportation vision.

Section 2: Buildings

The New Norris House is a great example of building efficiency.

Buildings are energy hogs. They consume 42% of America’s energy and 72% of its electricity. Much of that energy is wasted, according to Reinventing Fire. But relatively straightforward changes can make our new and existing structures super efficient. So efficient, in fact, that even with 70% more building space by 2050, our buildings will consume 40-50% less energy than today! Profitable deep energy retrofits of existing buildings and highly efficient or net-zero new buildings can increase real estate values, improve occupants’ productivity and health, and enhance corporate brands. Best of all, these changes will result in lower building operation costs, meaning more cash to revitalize the real estate sector and help rejuvenate the national economy.

Here in the Southeast, there are a number of up-and-coming building efficiency projects that will enable the region to improve its traditionally low ranking in the United States and become a leader in building efficiency. A few examples include the New Norris House in Tennessee,  the Bosch Zero Energy Home in Georgia and The Zero Energy Homes in New Smyrna, Florida and Lakeland, Florida, just to name a few. Here at SACE we plan to take the integrative designenergy efficiency technology and financing solutions RMI proposes and apply them to the unique collection of existing and new building stock in the Southeast.

Section 3: Industry

Paper and Pulp Mill in Loudon, Tennessee

The industrial chapter looks at how to use combined heat and power and efficient motors and pumps to significantly reduce our industrial energy use. We use a lot of energy in industry in the Southeast, so this chapter provides a significant number of opportunities. Industrial processes use about 300 million kWh of electricity a day in the South! That is a lot of pumps and motors that can be made more efficient, combined heat and power that can be installed and integrative design that can happen. RMI experts discuss the solutions for the industrial sector here, showing us how to have an industrial sector that is 84% larger but uses 9% less energy!

As we have mentioned in the past, combined heat and power has many applications in the Southeast – particularly in North Carolina. We have been discussing how to implement CHP with several Southeastern utilities and will be updating you on that and other industrial efficiency efforts we are making in upcoming weeks.

Section 4: Electricity 

Reprinted by permission from Reinventing Fire, published by Chelsea Green, 2011.

The charts to the right visually depict what RMI thinks could happen in the electricity sector if we follow the solutions laid out in Reinventing Fire. In short, RMI projects that we can have an electricity system that is efficient, largely distributed, and powered at least 80% by renewable energy. This means that in 2050 we would produce and consume about 71 quads of primary energy a year instead of 117. While that may not seem so impressive, think about it this way: One quad is 293,083,000,000 kWh…so we are talking about a lot of energy!

How do we get there? Well, there are definitely barriers to overcome.  For example, incorporating high levels of distributed renewables on to the grid, and shifting the policy and business model that supports the current electricity system, are no small tasks. However, there are viable solutions, as discussed by RMI experts here and here.

This chapter is of particular importance to us in the Southeast as utilities and legislators are making decisions on whether or not to invest in large centralized fossil– or nuclearfueled power plants. In blogs to be published in the coming months, we will expand on how we can help make our electricity system in the Southeast cleaner while still maintaining a reliable system.

Be sure to stay tuned for additional posts on how we can “Reinvent Fire” in the Southeast!

Guest Blog
My Profile