Reinventing Fire: Visions for Building a Clean Transportation Grid

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 21, 2011

Everybody loves renewable energy, but the current debate is dominated by the spectacular crash of solar maker Solyndra after absorbing a $535 million Department of Energy loan. It’s a handy target for people who want to bury Obama’s wind and solar dreams and, not coincidentally, his hopes for a second term.

Obama’s program is vulnerable because, as Jeremy Rifkin points out in his new book The Third Industrial Revolution, he is “lacking a narrative. We are left with a collection of pilot projects and siloed programs, none of which connects with the other…” Obama is described as “droning on about the latest technology breakthroughs without any sense whatsoever of how they might fit together as part of a larger story.” It doesn’t help that both the DOE and the EPA are terrible communicators, keeping officials away from the press. One interview I had with a senior official was postponed twice, then canceled.

Unfortunately, that’s true—Obama hasn’t made a convincing case for renewable energy, and even less of one for climate change as a big reason for moving in that direction. But the actual case is compelling. And now both Rifkin and the clean energy advocates at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) are providing frameworks that Obama would be wise to embrace.

First, RMI, whose vision is explained in this video:

The think tank is calling it “Reinventing Fire,” and it really could be a revolution on that scale. The six basic points are:

  1. Build efficient buildings and retrofit existing ones on a tremendous scale. There’s $1.4 trillion on the table for smart building owners and entrepreneurs.

  2. Transform the auto industry. Reinvent the car through lightweighting.

  3. Sustain and accelerate energy savings and cogeneration in industry. Increase the efficiency of manufacturing.

  4. Keep driving down the cost of renewable energy. Make wind and solar more affordable than the fossil fuel alternatives.

  5. Dramatically reduce the distances traveled by autos and the haul length, weight and volume of cargo carried by heavy-duty trucks. Give people an alternative to driving, and using smart IT to reduce trips. Expand rail use.Sustain and accelerate energy savings and cogeneration in industry. Increase the efficiency of manufacturing.Keep driving down the cost of renewable energy. Make wind and solar more affordable than the fossil fuel alternatives.

  6. Change the rules of electricity production. Level the playing field for renewables and energy efficiency.

Easier said than done. Fortunately, some of this is already underway. RMI’s vision for the auto industry is largely dependent on building ultra-lightweight cars out of carbon fiber composites, which are lighter but stronger than steel. They’re also very expensive, but BMW is trying to close the gap with steel by building its own carbon fiber plant (in Moses Lake, Washington) and streamlining production processes. It’s all coming together in the electric BMW i3 “megacity” vehicle, which (as I wrote in a recent post) is aimed at crowded urban cities and will hit the road in 2013.

I talked to Greg Rucks, a consultant with RMI, and Jesse Morris, an analyst with RMI’s transportation practice. “We’re getting to the bottom of the learning curve with traditional lightweight materials like aluminum,” Rucks told me. “There’s starting to be diminishing returns. That’s why we need a transformation with carbon fiber. The BMW i3 is absolutely on the path, and it galvanized our vision. They’re talking about having the capability of producing 100,000 cars per year.”

Rucks also cites Volkswagen’s XL1 concept, which is two-seater TDI diesel hybrid weighing just 1,725 pounds (thanks to copious amounts of carbon fiber, magnesium, ceramics and aluminum), producing a tiny 24 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, and achieving an incredible 260 mpg. Amazing aerodynamics (0.186 coefficient of drag, the best I’ve yet seen) also help a lot. Here's a video view of the XL1:

It’s rare that visionaries actually see their concepts being made into production vehicles as they’re announcing them, but the auto industry is moving fast these days. Is VW going to produce the XL1? Probably not, but a slightly less amazing four-door sedan could get built.

RMI’s Morris says that “it’s time to re-examine the whole system of getting people from A to B and really expanding our mobility options. A third of Americans are either too young, old or sick to drive, so we need choices other than cars.” RMI has a whole laundry list, including increasing light and heavy rail options, enhancing opportunities for telecommuting (already on the rise), car sharing (also on the rise, with in California at least the option to share your very own car) and congestion pricing that makes traveling at rush hours an expensive pursuit.

Building more highways, or expanding existing ones, is out. “If you expand road capacity one percent you end up with one percent more congestion,” Morris said. “We believe in using smart IT to get more out of the transportation system we already have.”

I think it’s more likely that we’ll build better and more efficient cars than that we’ll create a European level of alternatives. Morris imagines “retooling suburbia so that we don’t drive as much,” but good luck on that one. Our sprawl grew up around the car.

I talked to Rifkin, too, and his book imagines buildings transformed into renewable energy plants—capturing electrons with wind and solar installations and storing it in the form of hydrogen. Rifkin has a huge audience in Europe, and the plan stands a good chance of being enacted there. The U.S. is a tougher nut. Here's how he describes it working:

"When the sun is shining on the photovoltaic panels on the roof, electricity is generated, most of which is used instantly to power the building. If, however, there is a surplus of electricity that is not immediately needed, it can be used in the process of electrolysis to sequester hydrogen in a storage system. When the sun isn’t shining, the hydrogen can be transformed back into electricity by a fuel cell to provide power."

Panasonic, Toyota, and others have demonstrated just such building-based holistic energy systems. I toured Panasonic’s Eco Ideas House in Tokyo and saw a system including solar panels, a fuel cell, a storage battery—and a plug-in hybrid in the garage. Electric cars are a key to this kind of plan working.

“By 2030,” Rifkin writes, “charging points for plug-in electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will be installed virtually everywhere, providing a distributed infrastructure for sending electricity both from and to the main electricity grid. And by 2040, it is estimated that 75 percent of light-duty vehicle miles traveled will be electrically powered.” That last estimate is from the Electrification Coalition, and it’s very optimistic, but Daimler has committed to putting tens of thousands of hydrogen cars on the road by 2015.

I hope we realize some of these optimistic visions. If you believe, as I do, that peak oil and climate change are very real indeed, our future depends on it.

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