Photo: A Tale of Two Perspectives: Framing is Fundamental

The Rocky Mountain Institute's 2050 energy vision. (Credit: Rocky Mountain Institute)

By Ralph Torrie, Managing Director of the Trottier Energy Futures Project

Please visit the Trottier Energy Futures Project website for more information on this initiative.

Two major news reports in the last week of October showed how much the answers we come up with on sustainable energy futures depend on how we frame the questions.

"To solve the energy problem, we needed to enlarge it, to look at the whole thing," said Amory Lovins, the co-founder, chair, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), during the October 27 release of his latest book, Reinventing Fire.

Lovins believes the productivity gains and other business benefits of new energy technologies will bring American business to a tipping point, beyond which efficiency improvements will far exceed anything that can be achieved through regulation or carbon pricing. In one of the interviews he conducted for his book release, he positioned Reinventing Fire as a prescription for a 158% bigger U.S. economy by 2050, requiring no oil, coal, or nuclear energy.

"The transition requires no new inventions and no Act of Congress," he said, "and can be led by business for profit."

The Game-Changers

Lovins' comment reflected the emerging results of the Trottier Project's research on low-carbon energy futures: the biggest game-changers in carbon and energy only reveal themselves when we look at the fuel and electricity market as a sub-system of a wider web of value creation. One commercial developer described an upgrade he had recently completed on a mid-sized office building, where a $5 million investment yielded:
•$7.5 million present value in fuel and electricity savings (not bad)
•$7 million in the increased value of the building asset (nice to have)
$30 million in increased productivity for building occupants (the game-changer)

The 'Bigger System' Kick

A day before the Reinventing Fire release, Nature magazine reported on a 2050 scenario by the California Council on Science and Technology, one of the studies the Trottier Project included in its review of low-carbon energy research."A concerted effort to deploy known technology could cut emissions by more than half, but getting all the way down to 80% cuts will almost certainly require major advances in near-zero-emissions fuels," wrote lead author Jane Long.

"California can't just spend or deploy its way to an 80% reduction or beyond—and neither can anywhere else."

Without the kick from the "bigger system" factors that figure prominently in the RMI scenario, the low-carbon future looks much more difficult.

The takeaway is that framing is fundamental. Widen the system boundaries, and a much larger solution set will reveal itself. It may not be the road most easily travelled, but the Trottier Energy Futures Project is working on scenarios that mobilize the entire economy toward a low-carbon world.

November 1, 2011

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