How Can We Unleash the Potential of Clean Energy?

Friday afternoon at the Aspen Ideas Festival offered two new Energy Revolution sessions, both of which examined differing perspectives on sustainable energy growth and environmental stewardship.

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Friday afternoon at the Aspen Ideas Festival offered two new Energy Revolution sessions, both of which examined differing perspectives on sustainable energy growth and environmental stewardship.

Powering Tomorrow
First up was "Knowledge Exchange: Powering Tomorrow," which brought together an expert panel to talk about climate change, financing energy projects, and the prospects for clean energy and renewable technology.
 
The panel was moderated by Chris Kibarian, who leads Thomson Reuters' intellectual property and science business. He was joined by Mick Sawka, director of business development at Harvard University; Michael Levi, David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Council's program on Energy Security and Climate Change; and Jeffrey Logan, senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
 
Kristina M. Johnson, CEO of Enduring Hydro and former U.S. under secretary of energy, made her third panel appearance at the Festival, once again lending her expertise and insights to the conversation.
 
The conversation opened with on the theme of volatility, with panelists observing that today's energy markets are very dynamic (read: unpredictable) and that circumstances differ significantly from region to region.
 
Logan pointed out that while the shale gas boom over the last five years has helped us make tremendous progress on reducing emissions by replacing lots of coal, the current price of natural gas is almost twice what it was. Many power generators are switching back to coal as a result, while natural gas prices seek equilibrium in the meantime. On the flip side, Johnson noted that when the price of natural gas goes down, it discourages investment in new renewable energy projects.
 
Michael Levi weighed in, declaring that the biggest factors impacting the development of renewables (according to Department of Energy modeling) are technology and policy--not competition from natural gas. Even if the price of natural gas goes up, renewables must still compete against low-priced coal.
 
One of the framing questions from Kibarian was this: "Clean energy technology is here, it's commercially viable and a growing part of energy economy, so what's it going to take to unleash its full potential and reverse climate change?"
 
The answers that came to the forefront: 1) better policies to support energy innovation and renewables, and 2) new ways to attract investors.
 
Logan observed that our energy policy largely focuses on tax credits, while China's industrial policy essentially selects winners--a significant cultural difference. Levi said that we need to support financing innovation (similar to the development of venture capital as a new vehicle for funding in the 80s) and not simply emphasize tech innovation.
 
The panel concluded with a discussion of energy efficiency and its role in powering a sustainable future. Levi said that we need fewer regulatory barriers. For instance, the permitting and application process for retrofitting buildings in places like New York City is expensive and time-consuming, and the cost of the process wipes out potential financial gains from greater efficiency.
 
Can the U.S. Reconcile Its Need for Homegrown Energy With the Environment?
Later in the afternoon, a plenary session took on the question, "Can the U.S. reconcile its need for homegrown energy with the environment?" and featured Frances Beinecke, president of the National Resources Defense Council, and Tom Fanning, chairman, president and CEO of Southern Company.
 
The discussion was moderated by Scott Tong, correspondent for American Public Media's "Marketplace." It kicked off with the now-familiar discussion of the impact of shale gas on energy innovation and renewables.
 
"Four or five years ago, before gas boom, there was a lot of excitement about innovation," Beinecke said. "[Now] the urgency of addressing energy needs has lessened, even though the urgency of addressing climate change has not."
 
Both Beinecke and Fanning stressed that we have to take action now to mitigate climate change. "As leaders of the enterprise, we've got to have vision and courage to find solutions even when the wolf is not at the door," Fanning said. "Abundant, cheap natural gas is a blessing - but we can't let it destroy our initiative."
 
Beinecke said that every detail of the energy picture must be placed in the frame of climate change, including unlocking technologies that control carbon. "We're going to need technologies we've haven't even thought of yet," she said. "And we should be investing a ton in carbon capture and storage."
 
One of Beinecke's most compelling points was that we shouldn't just think of climate change as an environmental issue: it's an economic issue, a social issue, and a health issue. "We need people in every sector to take on this huge challenge and its immediacy now, even though the consequences are in the future," she said.
 
At the earlier session, Kibarian concluded the conversation by asking the panel: "If we really don't do anything now on clean energy, if it just stays kind of static, how scared should I be?" 

Levi's answer: "You should be scared. We're bad at predicting the future. The planet is extraordinarily complex, and so is our energy system."

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