Renewable Energy Archive


Pre-Release Special: Power from the People

Monday, July 30th, 2012

More and more Americans acutely sense that the old way of doing things — investing our savings in Wall Street companies who care little about our families and communities; depending on polluting, costly, and non-renewable sources of energy; eating food grown far away that makes us sick — is no longer working.

People want to invest in their own homes and neighborhoods. They want to increase local self-reliance in the face of uncertainty. They want to have a say in the future of their communities. But how?

In partnership with Post Carbon Institute, Chelsea Green Publishing is publishing the Community Resilience Guides — a series of books exploring the newest and most promising examples of relocalization for uncertain times.

The latest guide is Power from the People by Greg Pahl, and to celebrate it’s publication we are offering a pre-release special discount of 25% off for this week only.

More than ninety percent of the electricity we use to light our communities, and nearly all the energy we use to run our cars, heat our homes, and power our factories comes from large, centralized, highly polluting, nonrenewable sources of energy.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In Power from the People, energy expert Greg Pahl explains how American communities can plan, finance, and produce their own local, renewable energy that is reliable, safe, and clean. Pahl uses examples from around the nation and the world to demonstrate how homeowners, co-ops, nonprofits, governments, and businesses are already putting this power to work for their communities—including the work Pahl has pioneered in his own community in Vermont.

Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at PCI and author of The End of Growth, says,

“Energy is at the heart of our 21st century economic-ecological crisis, but most writing on the subject is suffused either with immobilizing anticipation of doom or giddy wishful thinking. Here at last is a genuinely helpful energy book, one that’s realistic and practical. If you want to actually do something about our energy future, here is where to start.”

If you are part of a Transition Town, a city that is looking seriously at renewable energy sources, or just a citizen that wants to be knowledgeable about this exciting and optimistic set of solutions to our energy problems, Power from the People will inspire and inform you.

Get a copy this week and save 25%!

Energy Department Study Confirms Reinventing Fire‘s Vision

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

From TriplePundit, file in the extremely thin folder of articles that display governments’ ability to get with the program on climate change and peak oil!

May there be many more such articles in the years to come, and maybe, just maybe, by 2050 we’ll get to celebrate real independence — from fossil fuels and the gloom of a future we’re destroying with each gas-guzzling shopping trip and coal burning light-switch flip.

This has to be some of the more encouraging news I’ve heard in a while. A report released last week by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), called the Renewable Energy Futures Study, found that using renewables to provide the lion’s share of our electricity by 2050, without requiring any technological breakthroughs is a  reasonable proposition.

In fact, here is one of the key findings of the study.

“Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.”

This validates similar claims made in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2011 book, Reinventing Fire.

The NREL study, which used an hourly simulation analysis, evaluated a number of scenarios ranging from 30 percent to 90 percent, before settling on 80 percent as a reasonable, if ambitious, target. Of course it won’t be easy, and we won’t get there without real effort. Even if the technology doesn’t need a breakthrough to reach that goal, other things, such as business models, regulations, financing and infrastructure just might.

Renewables accounted for 10 percent of all electricity in 2010 (plus an additional 2 percent, mostly hydro, imported from Canada) with wind solar and others continuing to grow rapidly. In the 80 percent scenario, solar and wind, both of which are variable, unsteady sources, combine to contribute close to 50 percent of all electric power.

In order to accommodate this high level of variability, we will need a more flexible electric system (i.e. grid) that is capable of dynamically meeting the supply-demand balance in a world that relies heavily on renewables. This will include things like smart grid, demand forecasting, more flexible and responsive conventional plants (e.g. GE FlexEfficiency), grid storage (including V2G), and increased operational coordination.

The results achieved were found to be “consistent for a wide range of assumed conditions that constrained transmission expansion, grid flexibility, and renewable resource availability.”

Given the abundance and diversity of renewable resources in this country, there are multiple pathways by which this level of contribution might occur, which promises a robust and resilient energy future, if we can find the political will to overcome the many non-technological barriers that stand in the way.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • All regions of the United States could contribute substantial renewable electricity supply in 2050, consistent with their local renewable resource base.
  • Higher than current renewable growth rates will be required to achieve this level, but not higher than what has been achieved elsewhere.
  • Electricity supply and demand can be balanced in every hour of the year in each region with nearly 80 percent electricity from renewable resources,
  • Additional challenges to power system planning and operation would arise, including management of low-demand periods and curtailment of excess electricity generation.
  • Additional transmission infrastructure will be required.
  • The direct incremental cost associated with high renewable generation is comparable to published cost estimates of other clean energy scenarios.

The study is not without its critics. However, they might not be who you expect them to be. Brad Plumer, writing for the Washington Post, suggests that NREL might be wildly underestimating the potential of solar and wind energy, which have been growing exponentially since 2001. He claims that estimates from official agencies, like the IEA, consistently underestimate the potential of renewables. Could that be because of cozy relationships that representatives might have with the utility industry?

Rocky Mountain Institute’s James Newcomb, has a different concern. Though he gives high praise to the report, calling it “rigorous and deep,” he points out that it maintains a business-as-usual assumption when it comes to the business model that utilities will use in the future. Specifically, he is concerned that the role of distributed generation, which could fundamentally revise the electric utility business, has not been adequately represented in the study. RMI’s book, Reinventing Fire, which came out last fall, made the same prediction of 80 percent renewables by 2050 achievable by two different pathways: one, similar to the NREL study, following a centralized utility model, while the second path, shows a more distributed approach.

Keep reading…

Join us at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Join Chelsea Green this weekend at the largest and longest running renewable energy and sustainable living event in the country – Register today!

Each year the MREA Energy Fair transforms rural Central Wisconsin into the global hot spot for renewable energy education. The Energy Fair brings over 20,000 people from nearly every state in the U.S. and several countries around the world to learn, connect with others and ready them for action at home. The Energy Fair is the nation’s longest running energy education event of its kind.

The Energy Fair features:

  • Over 275 exhibitors – featuring sustainable living and clean energy products
  • Over 200 workshops – including introductory level to advanced hands-on education: solar, wind, green building, local sustainable food, and more
  • Clean Energy Car Show – featuring demonstration vehicles and exhibitors
  • Green Home Pavilion – emphasizing building and remodeling in a sustainable way
  • Green Building Demos – displaying sustainable building techniques in action
  • Sustainable Tables – including workshops, chef demos, and a farmers’ market to bring sustainability to your dinner table
  • Live Auctions – two live auctions featuring plants and shrubs, to PV systems and farm equipment
  • Inspirational keynotes, lively entertainment, great food, and local beer

Join us for the 23rd Annual Energy Fair, June 15-17, 2012

Visit Chelsea Green at Booth A32 to receive our show special discount, for featured new and bestselling titles, such as Amory Lovins’s hopeful and pragmatic Reinventing Fire; or our classic primer Wind Power.

“What if we could make energy do our work without working our undoing?” – Amory Lovins

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

From TED.

In this intimate talk filmed at TED’s offices, energy theorist Amory Lovins lays out the steps we must take to end the world’s dependence on oil (before we run out). Some changes are already happening—like lighter-weight cars and smarter trucks—but some require a bigger vision. In his latest book, Reinventing Fire, Amory Lovins shares ingenious ideas for the next era of energy.

Reinventing Fire was written by Lovins and Rocky Mountain Institute’s many other experts. It outlines numerous ways in which industry—not government—can lead the charge toward greater efficiency and more sustainable sources of power, looking at transportation, buildings, manufacturing, and the way we make electricity. This talk is the best summary we’ve seen of the inspiring strategy the book reveals. If you’ve been feeling a bit blue about the state of things lately, Lovins’ talk should perk you right up.

On a related note, if you happened to be in New York City on the evening of May 10th you might have noticed a very tall and bright birthday card to Rocky Mountain Institute. To celebrate RMI’s 30th birthday, and in thanks for their help in completing the Empire State Building’s efficiency overhaul, the Building’s floodlights glowed bright green! Read more here.

Amory Lovins: Cars need to go on a diet (video)

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Kids say the darnedest things. One of my favorite stories from childhood is a time my little brother made a shocking comment to our neighbor. She had sprained her ankle, and was talking about how it wasn’t healing rapidly enough. She was worried. She didn’t know what to do.

Little Andrew, being of the ultra-logical mindset, and eager to help, had a suggestion for her, “Why don’t you lose some weight?”

My mom’s face turned beet red, and she spluttered an apology to the neighbor, while Andrew smiled innocently, proud of his engineering assessment.

“Well, you’re probably right Andrew. Maybe that would help.” she said finally, a little crestfallen perhaps but not acutely offended.

My cheeky little brother isn’t the only one who thinks the world would be a better place if we had less weight to haul around. Turns out Amory Lovins thinks so too! Except he’s talking about manufacturing lighter automobiles to improve fuel efficiency. The video below goes into detail about this important step toward a fossil-fuel-free economy.

From CNET‘s SmartPlanet:

“We Americans aren’t the only ones who have gained weight. Over the past 25 years, our cars have gotten heavier too, says Amory Lovins.

Lovins, chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, says he believes that ultralight materials like carbon fiber composites can make cars simpler and cheaper to build. At the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco this week, Lovins talked about strategies to make oil-free automobiles.”

This video originally appeared on SmartPlanet with the headline “Amory Lovins: Carbon fiber cars would cut oil dependency.”

State of the Global Climate – A Quick Look

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

A few years ago I was involved in a very fun event called Step It Up 2007. It was dreamed up by Bill McKibben, author and activist extraordinaire, and implemented across the country by separate small groups — including the rag-tag group of activists I was leading down in Jacksonville, Florida.

Our event was simple. We wanted to get folks together to talk about the facts of climate change, as separate as possible from all the politics that has been mixed in for as long as the problem has been observed. We gathered together all the scientists we could find who were willing to go on the record as saying, “Yes, climate change is real, we caused it, and it’s serious.” This wasn’t as hard as I had feared in my rather conservative hometown. In the end we had a great turnout and started a great conversation. We didn’t really figure out a perfect way to follow up on the energy we felt that day, but the core group of us who put the event together continued to meet, attend events, talk, and generally poke at the problem of climate change for another year or so.

When I first heard about the Transition Towns movement my first thought was, that’s what we should have done! By then of course I had moved on, as frantic twenty-somethings seem apt to do, and was working on a career in farming. Which I subsequently gave up for a career in publishing.

It’s incredible, and quite silly, to realize how completely your view of the world can change when you shift your attention. Thus, the problem of climate change which used to keep me up at night worrying, and used to haunt me while I washed the dishes, struggling not to waste a drop of the fossil-fuel heated water, simply doesn’t seem to matter anymore. It’s a kind of blessing I suppose. The dishes are certainly easier to clean when you’re not as angsty about rinsing them. But I know it’s just a trick of perception. The atmosphere is still filling up with carbon, even if I don’t think about it much anymore. The global average temperature is ticking upward inexorably, even if I don’t check.

One nice lesson from my personal experience is this: worrying really doesn’t help save the world, so feel free to stop.

But I’m struck with a kind of morbid curiosity today. What exactly is up with the global climate right now, in May 2012? Let’s take a look around the internet and see what we can find out.

You can always count on James E. Hansen, climate scientist at NASA GISS, to tell it like it is. In an article from this past January which includes a nifty animation to show the global temperatures since 1880, he said:

“We know the planet is absorbing more energy than it is emitting. So we are continuing to see a trend toward higher temperatures. Even with the cooling effects of a strong La Niña influence and low solar activity for the past several years, 2011 was one of the 10 warmest years on record.”

Follow this link to NOAA’s interactive map, and you can find out how your home will fare when sea level rises. Maybe you can use it to speculate in future-waterfront property! I looked at the little barrier island where my parents live in northeast Florida and got kind of sad. But then I hopped over to the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (or CAKE). Their advice? DON’T PANIC! Also, 42.

Looking northward, ice sheets in Greenland have not accelerated into the ocean quite as rapidly as was predicted, according to a study mentioned by Climate Central last week.

“The good news stemming from this study is that the worst-case scenarios scientists have been entertaining for sea-level rise by the end of the century — two meters, or about six feet, by 2100 — appear less likely given the rate of observed ice motion. The middle range projections, however, are still well within reach.”

In other words panic, just do it gradually over the coming century so you don’t wear yourself out.

It’s clear from a peek around the online world that the science of figuring out climate change is accelerating almost as fast as the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For instance, scientists are now able to measure changes in intensity of the water cycle by measuring changes in ocean salinity. According to Reuters, the cycle of evaporation and rainfall, is speeding up, sucking water out of arid regions and dumping it on wetter ones 4 percent faster than it did in 1950.

Around this point in my research, I start to regret having gone down the climate change rabbit hole again. Oh well, can’t stop now! Let’s try to wrap this post up with a little hope, shall we?

According to the Guardian, some analysts are starting to recognize that fossil fuels are a bad investment. They’ve even been dubbed “sub-prime assets” by advisors to Sir Mervyn King (the awesomely-named governor of the Bank of England). The reasoning for this shift toward taking the situation seriously comes as nations expect to see binding international agreements on greenhouse gases in the next rounds of UN climate talks. See? Policy works. It gets greedy bastards bankers to feel a bit sore around the pocketbook and then they behave a little more like they have to live on this planet too. In the absence of policy the moneyed elite sometimes talk like they’ve got someplace else to set up shop when things get hot and nasty down here.

Finally, perhaps the most hopeful development in years comes from right here in our catalog, a book we published last year from Rocky Mountain Institute and Amory Lovins: Reinventing Fire.

We’ve talked about Reinventing Fire a good deal on this site, and others have spread the word as well. Essentially, the study presents a detailed set of steps toward an economy run by renewable energy (fire) instead of fossil fire. The push is geared toward business instead of government (we’ve seen how fast governments have dealt with the problem), and requires no new inventions — just the will to get to a sustainable place. The best synopsis is from Amory himself, contained in his recently released TED talk. Check it out here.

Trust me, it’s a great antidote to the climate change blues.

– Jennifer McCharen, Web Content Editor

Can Radical Efficiency Revive U.S. Manufacturing?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

By Robert Hutchinson and Ryan Matley  | March 16, 2012 |

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era.

Industry has long formed the foundation of America’s economy, from before the first Ford Model T factory to the military-industrial complex that grew out of two world wars to the robust economic growth and high-tech innovation that followed. And whereas U.S. manufacturing is experiencing a resurgence, its old foundation—built on cheap fossil fuels and plentiful electricity—is showing cracks. Rising and volatile fuel prices, supply-security concerns and pressures on the environment are wrecking balls thumping away at many of the underpinnings of our country’s key industries—and thus our prosperity.

Fortunately, we can render these wrecking balls harmless through a systematic drive to upgrade industrial energy efficiency. Even with no technology breakthroughs such an effort can, in just over a generation, transform U.S. industry and provide 84 percent more output in 2050 consuming 9 to 13 percent less energy and 41 percent less fossil fuel than it uses today. This scenario, outlined in Reinventing Fire, a book and strategic initiative by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), can help U.S. industry build durable competitive advantage and keep jobs from going overseas.

These seem like incredible numbers: Twice today’s efficiency? Output nearly doubled with reduced energy use? The opportunity is so significant because, in spite of efficiency gains over the past decade, plentiful opportunities for energy efficiency remain for industry. The U.S. Department of Energy’s 24 industrial assessment centers, which have offered energy audits for more than 30 years, report that energy savings per recommendation increased by 9 percent between 1985 and 2005. Turning our wastefulness into profit is our biggest opportunity to reinvent fire.

Dramatic efficiency gains in industry can be enabled by transformations occurring in tandem in other key sectors of our economy. For example, the hugely energy-intensive petroleum refining industry will shrink or eventually disappear as vehicles electrify. But efficiency can be doubled in two main ways: applying new technologies to old sectors, and applying old technologies to new sectors.

Adding new technologies to old sectors
A well-known success story is the steel industry. Since it recovered from the capacity overhang and devastating mill closures of the 1970s, it has quietly expanded with state-of-the-art facilities. The energy intensity to produce a ton of steel fell 40 percent from 1978 to 2008. This was driven by a new technology well suited to our scrap-rich economy: the share of steel production from electric arc furnaces (EAFs) grew from 25 percent to nearly 60 percent. EAFs recycle steel scrap in an electric furnace to produce new steel, bypassing the energy-intensive, coking coal–powered step of converting iron ore to metallic iron, and then to steel in a conventional blast furnace. Adding EAFs close to scrap sources has also pulled steel recycling rates up to the mid-80 percent range in recent years.

Even the conventional route has a more efficient alternative that is starting to make inroads. Steel industry bellwether Nucor recently broke ground on a new direct reduced iron plant in Louisiana. This innovation replaces coal with natural gas in the iron ore conversion step. If the steel industry continues to adopt new technology, it can help lead the transition outlined in Reinventing Fire.

Some old industries have less positive stories. Pulp and paper is still struggling with declining demand for its core product, a dynamic that stymies investment in new and existing facilities. Paper mills are often net-zero or even net energy producers, so many would ask: Why bother? But pulping typically produces a potentially valuable by-product—black liquor. Gasifying it has the potential to transform the industry, unlocking the opportunity for the pulp and paper producer of the past to become the biorefinery of the future—producing a portfolio of products alongside paper, from renewable electricity to boutique chemicals and bulk biofuels.

This is just the first part of the excerpt. Read the rest over at Scientific American.

Illustration borrowed from Nature.

Gathering Low Hanging Fruit is Not Enough to Green Industry

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

This is the fourth in a Rocky Mountain Institute series on the steps business leaders can take to seize the economic and competitive opportunities outlined in Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era. Other installments in the series from GreenBiz are listed here.

America’s industrial sector generates more than 40 percent of the country’s GDP and employs almost 20 million people in refineries, paper mills, chemical plants, smelters and countless other facilities. This mighty engine consumed one-quarter of all U.S. energy in 2010 — 91 percent of which came from fossil fuels — in many diverse segments, in a dizzying array of complex processes.

If we are to move off of fossil fuels, U.S. industry must lead with investment and innovation. This is not only possible, but critical to capturing durable competitive advantage, according to Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire — a blueprint to a 2050 U.S. economy powered by efficiency and renewable sources of energy.

Eliminating the use of fossil fuels will result in a healthier environment by reducing toxic air and water pollution while stabilizing CO2 emissions at levels that avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change. In addition to improving the environment and stabilizing the climate, Reinventing Fire is also an enormous business opportunity.

Firms that lead this transition will benefit from reduced operating costs, improved profits and product quality, reduced fuel price volatility and supply risks, the creation of new markets and a competitive edge at home and abroad. While the work is not easy, one key technique can help industry make fast strides: energy management systems.

To capture energy savings in industry, it is not enough to merely gather up low-hanging fruit either when capital is available or cost-cutting is required. Leading firms are attaining dramatic results by pushing far past that opportunistic paradigm, establishing a continuous improvement mindset to monitor and manage their energy use in good times and bad.

For example, Frito-Lay cut its electricity energy intensity by 25 percent, natural gas intensity by 33 percent and water by 41 percent from 1999 to 2008. These energy savings investments not only brought a financial benefit, with an IRR of 25 percent and $55 million added to the bottom line, but they also reduce risk. These investments have even generated marketing benefits, especially as consumers get more savvy about where their products come from and how they are made. The installation of solar thermal power at Frito-Lay’s Modesto, Calif., plant enabled the use of the tagline “Sun Chips are now made from the sun.”

….

To read the rest of the article, head on over to GreenBiz.

Take the Subway — Reinventing Fire in the New York Times

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

In his latest column, Thomas Friedman takes a look at Reinventing Fire. News flash everybody: energy efficiency makes sense!

OUR plan was to meet for lunch at noon in Moscow. It was to be just myself and Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. He picked the restaurant. It had been snowing that day, and the Moscow traffic — already nearly impossible because the city, which 15 years ago had 300,000 cars and today hosts nearly four million registered vehicles — was even more impossible than usual. Soon the e-mailing between us started. I was first: “I’m running a few minutes late.” Lukyanov said the same a few minutes later. Then me again: “I am going to be 20 minutes late.” He then saw my 20 minutes and raised me 20. In the end, I was 50 minutes late, and I beat him by two minutes. We sped through an interview about Russian foreign policy in 30 minutes, before I rushed out so as not to be late for my next appointment. As we hurriedly put on our coats, Lukyanov had one piece of advice for me, and it wasn’t that the U.S. should stay out of Syria.

It was: “Take the subway.”

But this is not a column about traffic — per se.

This is a column about energy and environment and why we must not let the poisonous debate about climate change so tie us in knots that we cannot have any energy policy at all, particularly one focused on developing much more efficient use of resources, through better designs and systems. …

The planet is getting flatter and more crowded. There will be two billion more people here by 2050, and they will all want to live and drive just like us. And when they do, there is going to be one monster traffic jam and pollution cloud, unless we learn how to get more mobility, lighting, heating and cooling from less energy and with less waste — with so many more people. We can’t let the climate wars continue to derail efforts to have an energy policy that puts in place rising efficiency standards, for buildings, windows, traffic, housing, packaging and appliances, that will drive innovation — which is our strength — in what has to be the next great global industry: energy and resource efficiency.

This is where Amory Lovins, the physicist who is chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, begins in his new book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, which is summarized in the current Foreign Affairs. The Rocky Mountain Institute and its business collaborators show how private enterprise — motivated by profit, supported by smart policy — can lead America off both oil and coal by 2050, saving $5 trillion, through innovation emphasizing design and strategy.

“You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it,” says Lovins. “Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.”

 Read the entire article over at the New York Times.

How Can Business Leaders Accept the Challenges of the New Energy Era?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

By Ned L. Harvey, reposted from Rocky Mountain Institute

I have one word for you — scalability.

If you’ve have heard about Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute’s roadmap for a secure, renewable energy future, and are like almost everyone with whom I have talked about it, you wonder where to start. This blog is the first of several by RMI staff to help business leaders identify the steps they can take now to begin seizing the economic and competitive opportunities available by leading in the new energy era.

Since releasing Reinventing Fire back in October, I’ve been on the road introducing its vision. The majority of my time has been spent with senior business executives, most of whom recognize the risks associated with our aging energy systems but struggle with the magnitude of the challenge and a clear picture for what they can do about it.

A lot of execs are already taking the initial, common sense steps to move their businesses and industries toward a new energy economy. Many others, though, despite their concerns about the consequences of business as usual in our energy system, seem to want that same business as usual to make things better.

Thankfully, Reinventing Fire provides a robust framework to develop solutions that transcend the industrial boundaries and entrenched interests hard-coded into our energy systems over the past century. Our guide to a 2050 energy system that requires no oil, coal or nuclear power includes detailed recommendations for key players within the relevant sectors: transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity. These suggestions range from no-regrets actions everyone can take today to truly innovative actions steps for the most progressive leaders.

Yet, faced with such complex and interconnected issues, many readers are still asking: How do I gain traction personally and professionally? Are there other tangible steps to take now, and how can I influence those around me to join in this grand quest? And, maybe most difficult to answer, how do I know if I am making progress? When asked these questions, I have a few suggestions. They include: Focus on the economics of opportunity vs. the economics of cost. The math may be the same, but people and organizations seem willing to accept a lower potential ROI or assume more investment risk when pursuing an opportunity they are excited about vs. trying to justify a cost they would prefer to avoid. Establish a winner’s mindset as winners and losers are sorted out in the shift from fossil fuels to a more efficient, renewable energy base. Accomplish this by focusing your own and your business’s attention on the opportunities created by action. Keep in mind the risks associated with inaction and maintaining a business-as-usual attitude toward energy.

Own your role in contributing to the problem — and pursuing the solution. I recently had a transformational experience at an event hosted by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Up on stage, in front of several hundred people, the CFO of UPS opened his presentation with a simple statement: “We are polluters.” His point was clear and honest — that in the execution of its core business, UPS generates a lot of pollution. The CFO said he — and all of UPS management — own this as a real business challenge, and have made addressing their environmental impact a top-line priority.

I realized that at some point the energy at UPS must have shifted from denial and obfuscation of the obvious facts to acceptance, so all the energy wasted before that turning point could be redirected to solutions. I was left wondering how many coal-based utilities would openly and honestly acknowledge that they were polluters, and how much energy and resource might be unleashed if they just accepted that fact and owned the responsibility to deal with it.

Become present with the problem and challenges for all stakeholders, and look across boundaries to embrace “coopetition.” It’s one thing to understand a problem from your own perspective. It’s another thing to really experience it — to internalize the challenges that the problem causes and really commit yourself to being an active, vital part of the solution. Yet, you’ll also want to understand the perspective and roles that others will play in the transformation and work in concert with them to achieve progressive alignment across all the powers with a stake in the game.

A great example of this is playing out in the renewable energy space, especially in the solar industry. Ultimately, deep penetration of renewables will require broad acceptance by electric utilities. However, management and engineers within today’s utilities often see renewables as a major nuisance with technical and economic hurdles that are not worth overcoming compared with the alternates at hand. While most entrepreneurs and renewables advocates are spending their energy and precious resources lobbying for mandates to force utilities to use renewables, a few are starting to understand they might gain more by working with utility leadership to envision solar and other renewables as a problem-solving asset.

Avoid a too big a focus on quick wins or buzz about the latest and greatest technology. Instead, measure progress one step at a time and in terms of potential scalability. Solutions to messy problems including climate change, national security and economic competitiveness take a long time to develop and rarely take the shape or form expected at the outset, so it’s really hard to predict and measure progress.

That’s OK, and as such it’s essential to see and celebrate small wins and to recognize that in many ways the ultimate scalability of what we are doing today may contribute more than the specific ideas themselves.

For example, many of today’s very successful solar business models and products, which work really well under subsidies, are likely not terribly scalable since they are often unintentionally customized for success within an artificial market. Conversely, some of today’s more moderately successful solar business models and products are slowly proving themselves in unsubsidized and less solar-friendly markets, likely building on a core set of customer-oriented values, which will serve them well in when all the subsidies fade away.

As visionary business leaders have shown, we can all take immediate actions in this grand effort to transform the biggest and most complex system in modern society. Beyond the first steps, diligent application of tested approaches including systems thinking to look beyond narrow boundaries will, in time, create solutions to some of the most wicked problems of our time.

Ned Harvey is the Chief Operating Officer of the Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at RMI.


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