10/31/2011 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

Reinventing Fire : A Vision for Our Energy Future

Amory Lovins says we can do it all.

Do we need to emit far less CO2 into the atmosphere? To stop using the dirtiest fuel of all, which now generates more of our electricity than any other? To reduce sharply our importation of oil, from Canada and elsewhere, and achieve the elusive goal of "energy independence," set by successive presidents but never done? Need to use natural gas only as a "transition" fuel? To restore the strength of our economy and create jobs?

No problem, according to the new book, Reinventing Fire.

To the extent this promise is possible, the author brings very good news. Lovins has never thought small, since transferring after two years from Harvard College to Oxford. Co-founder in 1982 of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which consults on energy, he has long advocated the "negawatt," a unit of electricity saved by efficiency, arguing that consumers do not want megawatts for their own sake; they want certain "energy services."

According to Lovins, our great friend with regard to energy is the reduction of waste: cars that are too heavy, buildings that leak heat, industrial processes that use more power than required, electric grids that just aren't smart yet. The goal of Lovins and his colleagues at Rocky Mountain Institute is to reduce sharply the use of fossil fuels (hydrocarbons from ancient dead swamps that emit CO2 when burned), and thus avoid the worst of global warming while preserving our economy and our physical mobility.

Is it possible?

Many defenders of the current energy system assume that our economy would be wrecked by what Lovins, in his opening section, calls "defossilizing fuels." They assume the switch would lead to fewer net jobs. That lighter vehicles are necessarily less safe. That the current energy industries will universally and necessarily fight every change.

All these assumptions are wrong, Lovins argues.

The idea of a green revolution is not new. What Lovins brings to the table is optimism, an overall program, the plans for a highly efficient car, and numbers. During our one meeting at a conference, he quoted to me W. Edwards Deming's saying, "In God we trust; all others, bring data."

Engineers will debate the extent to which the Rocky Mountain plan is technically feasible; political observers, the extent to which it's passable. But if the plan can do what Lovins argues, on he basis of extensive evidence, it would address the challenges of global warming, the peak of oil production, the need for mobility now built into the U.S. landscape, and the pollution produced by "clean coal" (an oxymoron that would win blue ribbons at a county fair).

Business executives in the energy field won't necessarily support all of the plan, in the absence of government action. But they know big developments are happening. As the president of Shell says in his foreword, "there is room for exponentially more change than we have already seen." He grows vague when praising Lovins for "compelling arguments and perspectives on the challenges and resistance that often come with change," but refers to "the rewards that are possible."

One critic ridicules Lovins for trying, with his light-weight, carbon-fiber car, to extend the era of "happy motoring." But Lovins envisions a world made by brains. His book is peppered by the words "smart, "intelligent," and even "clever." For example, he wants to design autos that are vastly more efficient and derive power, to a great extent, from fuels that don't emit greenhouse gases. He foresees fuel becoming more expensive, but our figuring out meanwhile how to use less of it, with the bottom line that our long-term cost could even be less.

Is it possible, this return of Prometheus? Lovins argues that "our analysis, consistent with many other official and independent studies, suggests that the Reinventing Fire vision is already viable, based not on miracles or magic but on purposeful application of what's already proven." Yes, we'd have to keep climbing a steep learning curve (on vehicle batteries, for example), but we don't need to depend on developments that violate laws of physics.

The lack of much progress toward the world of Reinventing Fire does not discourage Lovins. Addressing readers at the end, he says:

"So apply your native intelligence, that amazing human gift that hasn't yet failed our species in its entire history, to this question: Shall we continue down the path we're on, toward economic stagnation, rising costs, unpleasant risks, social upheaval, and an ever more dangerous world, or shall we make a bold break and start laying the energy foundations of a world without waste, want, or war?"

Apart from this pep talk, he considers the barriers in the way of his plan. Frame a plan (as Henry Ford did with the Model T or JFK with the trip to the moon), encourage leaders of government and industry, offer the right incentives, and it will happen. But, says Lovins, "If our elected representatives continue to make decisions based on shifting political winds, if special interests keep blocking meaningful reform, if captains of industry shrink from bold steps out of caution, then we'll get the mediocre energy system we deserve."

This book offers not ideas of how to deal with these barriers, but a vision of what we could have, a system that would benefit many stakeholders, including nimble corporations. The key will be transforming the incentives. Otherwise, we could achieve little more than "greenwashing," like the wind turbines and solar panels on the website of the Exelon corporation, 93% nuclear, of which the CEO supplies the other foreword to Lovins' ingenious, fact-rich, and optimistic book.