The Time to Take Action on Our Energy Future is Now

Recent sessions have addressed a central tension in the Energy Revolution: The tension between the extremely long time frames needed to truly transform the global energy economy, and the urgency to act on climate change.

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The past six sessions of the Aspen Ideas Festival's Energy Revolution track have oscillated between exciting, encouraging news about clean energy technologies and dire, discouraging predictions about climate change and the huge amount of energy the world's future population will require.
 
The average citizen, trying to wrap his or her head around the issues, can end up feeling confused and frustrated by this good-news, bad-news dynamic.
 
At yesterday's plenary session with the NRDC's Frances Beinecke and Southern Company's Tom Fanning, an audience member who has been coming to the Festival for several years said that each year she hears optimistic reports about new developments in renewables and clean energy technologies, yet she feels like we're aren't making any real progress in the battle against climate change.
 
Beinecke responded that she shared the woman's frustration, especially after working on climate changes for two decades. She said that to realize meaningful progress we must all dig in and take action, using the tools we have (primarily the Clean Air Act), to mitigate climate change as much as we can.
 
This exchange got at the heart of one of the central tensions in thinking about our energy future: balancing extremely long time frames for change with the sense that we are quickly running out of time.
 
Fast Changes on the Energy Front
Sometimes, progress is remarkably swift. One of the big energy stories running through all the conversations in Aspen is the transformative power of shale gas in North America-and its potential transformative power for the world. Ten years ago, shale gas wasn't part of the energy equation, and in just the past few years it has completely changed the country's energy outlook and led to a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

Panelists have also shared many powerful examples of fast-changing energy landscapes at the local and regional level. Chris Kibarian recounted how when he was living in the South Caucasus in the mid-90s, when things fell apart and gasoline became very expensive and difficult to acquire, within just a year most people had converted their gasoline vehicles to natural gas. 
 
Michael Levi pointed to Brazil, which made a policy decision in 70s to switch away from gasoline, so most cars there today are able to run on either gas or ethanol. Jeffrey Logan said that in some parts of the U.S., rooftop solar is becoming so prevalent that it is a threat to local utilities.
 
Again and again, energy sessions at the Festival have offered inspiring stories of how quickly a newly discovered resource or disruptive technology can shift the energy equation, given the right social and economic conditions. However, despite all this good news, a global energy revolution can't happen overnight, due to the sheer size and complexity of the world's energy sector.
 
Our Big Battle is With Time
At Saturday morning's energy session, the focus was on Shell Oil Company's use of scenarios. The discussion focused on what we can learn from two scenarios developed by Shell to explore how economic, political, and social forces will shape the global energy system and environment for the next century.
 
The current scenarios, which can be explored in depth on the company's website, posit a "Mountains" future and an "Oceans" future. The two scenarios are also on display at the Festival in Shell's Discovery Theater, where attendees can take an interactive poll to determine which of the two scenarios they think is more likely to dominate.
 
The point of the scenarios is not to predict the future, but to establish boundaries. According to Shell CEO Marvin Odum, the scenarios create a corporate sandbox where executives can play and make decisions for themselves. "Once you jump into the sandbox and are surrounded by people who are challenging you on every front, it really opens your mind and gets you to a better place," Odum said.
 
Jeremy Bentham, who heads up Shell's Scenarios Team, explained that both scenarios have positive and troubling elements: "The question is not Mountains or Oceans - it's going to be a mix - but how do you achieve the best of both worlds, rather than falling into the worst of both."
 
The Shell scenarios look out 100 years because in many cases that's how long it will take to see significant change. And one of the big lessons of scenario-based thinking, according to Bentham, is that the real battle isn't between different energy sources, such as fossil fuels and renewables.
 
"The big battle is with time," Bentham said. "One aspect of time that people sometimes neglect is the global scale of the energy industry. If solar sees 25 percent growth each year over 30 years that will get you 1 percent of the total global system-that's just how big the system is."
 
When an audience member asked about the possibility of fusion energy as a solution, Bentham said that even if fusion actually became viable in the next 10 or 20 years, it would take until 2070 for it to register in any meaningful way in the global energy system.
 
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on climate change. "Both scenarios show our C02 emissions can reach zero in 100 years," Bentham said. "The problem is that we need to reach that point in 50 years."
 
The Time for Action is Now
What can a concerned citizen do? Panelists have repeatedly pointed to advocacy as an essential part of the equation. At Friday's "Powering Tomorrow" session, Kibarian closed the discussion by asking the four panelists to offer one thing everyone can do.
 
Kristina Johnson said that each of us can be a leader in what we do in our homes and daily lives to be more energy efficient, and that people in the position to buy renewable energy should do so. Jeffrey Logan said people should contact their representatives, telling them how they feel, and agreed that we should pay attention to our personal energy-use behavior. "It sounds superficial," he said, "But on a massive scale with 310 million people it makes a difference."
 
Mick Sawka said to forget about improving energy technology because there are enough people working on the issue and those problems are getting solved. He urged the audience to spend time instead on changing behavior, changing politics, and on financing energy projects if you have the means to do so. Michael Levi also urged people to be sure their representatives are backing good policies across the board.
 
In other words: be an energy leader in your own life, get inspired by the many reasons for optimism, and channel your frustration into speaking up on behalf of the planet and future generations.
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