Tipping Points: finding an energy and climate balance

Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver opening and closing remarks on day two of the “Tipping Points: Finding Energy-Climate Balance” Conference. The conference was hosted by the Atlantic Council, Ecologic Institute and the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) network. Gathering the top leaders under forty years old from around the world, the conference explored “one of the most pressing challenges the Millennial generation is inheriting: how to balance mitigating and adapting to climate change with the need for secure and reliable energy to fuel our future.”[1]

To keep the conversation going, I am sharing a written version of my opening remarks and welcome any comments or follow-up questions. Big thank you to Sam, my fellow ELEEP alumnus for hosting this on his blog and to ELEEP alumni Catrina Rorke and Devin Hampton for their input.

Julia can be found on twitter at @Julia_JCo

——————————————————————————————————————–

96 million.

Any guesses what the significance of this number is?

It is the number of barrels of oil and liquid fuels the world consumes each day.[2] That is enough to fill more than 6,000 Olympic-size swimming pools every 24 hours.

Oil, natural gas and coal account for about 80% of the world’s primary energy supply. Clean energy (nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro) constitutes about 8% of the world’s energy supply. 80 to 8.[3] Biofuels and waste make up the remainder. Regardless of your fuel preference for energy, would you call this balanced?

That is what we are here for. To find balance. I, myself, have been on a search for balance: I am a green-hearted Californian, raised with a love of nature and the desire to prevent harmful effects on the environment and our beautiful planet. I also worked for ExxonMobil for a few years and saw how integral hydrocarbons are to everyday life and for powering the world’s economy.

Think about energy in our world and in our lives specifically. How many times did you use electricity this morning? Did you take hot shower? How many lights did you turn on? Did you make coffee? Did you charge your phone? Did you drive or hop on a bus? Here in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. and developed economies, we use electricity all the time. But some don’t.

Finding Energy-Climate Balance

An estimated 1.2 billion people, 16 percent of the global population, do not have access to electricity according to the International Energy Agency. That is a staggering number. Many of us are motivated by the need to bring clean electricity to disconnected areas, especially in sub-Saharan African and certain Asian countries, which are home to more than 95 percent of the 1.2 billion people mentioned above.

People disconnected from electricity need it and they need it now. They need it to access basic health and sanitation services, to work and study at night and power their progress to prosperity. Is it right to limit their energy choices and their access because of a problem (climate change) that they didn’t create? The economics, though, are changing quickly. Now we can light up those communities in a way that’s consistent with our efforts to fight climate change.

Even if you are more focused on your local community in the U.S. or Europe, growing populations are going to continue to use additional energy. How do we balance a changing climate with the need for secure and reliable energy for everyone in the world and a growing population? How does the business community factor into finding this balance? Who is going to pay for this? Or flipping the question, is there a business opportunity here, to make money?

Before diving into the numbers, it’s important to note that highlighting the dangers of climate change and fossil fuel emissions is no longer sufficient for promoting and paying for clean energy, especially today in the U.S. In fact, this can often have the opposite effect. If mitigating climate change is the primary reason for building a solar photovoltaic array for example, some may take offense and oppose the project on ideological grounds. If the goal is to advance clean energy, we must focus on the business case. No matter your political or philosophical leanings, nobody’s wallet will argue with choosing the cheapest form of energy to keep your lights on and your smartphone charged.

Change in unexpected places

A great example of this comes from Texas, the heart of oil country! A small town called Georgetown is one of first cities in America entirely powered by renewable energy. The Mayor is a staunch Republican who voted for Trump. When the power contract was up, city managers looked at the options and realized wind and solar prices were more predictable and didn’t fluctuate like oil and gas. The city now knows what their energy bill will be for the next 25 years. Georgetown’s Mayor joked that the decision came down to a love of green rectangles (money) and green energy.[4] Here, the business case won out over ideology and politics.

We are in luck because the cost of land-based wind power, utility and distributed photovoltaic solar power has fallen an average of 53% since 2008, per a U.S. Department of Energy 2016 report.[5] Not only has the cost fallen, but renewables represent a huge investment opportunity. The U.S. was the second biggest clean energy investor in 2016, with $56 million, an increase of 8% from 2015.[6] The total invested in global clean energy rose from $62 billion in 2004 to an incredible $329 billion in 2015.[7] Plus, the fuel for solar and wind-powered generation is free, it’s the sun and air.

I support the Department of the Navy’s Resilient Energy Program Office as a Booz Allen Hamilton Contractor. A few weeks ago, I ran a groundbreaking ceremony in Mississippi for a 6-megawatt solar facility on a naval base. One of the Public Service Commissioners said in his remarks that he couldn’t tell us what milk was going to cost tomorrow or next week, but he could tell us what the cost of fuel for the installed solar panels would be: $0. Once installed, renewables provide long term cost savings and more stable electricity prices.[8]

How do you think we should balance our growing need for energy and tackling climate change? Please leave a comment to keep the conversation going. Thanks!

References

[1] http://www.actippingpoints.org/

[2] https://www.iea.org/about/faqs/oil/

[3] https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdf (page 7) biofuels and waste account for remaining 10 percent

[4] http://www.npr.org/2017/03/08/518988840/wind-energy-takes-flight-in-the-heart-of-texas-oil-country

[5]https://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/09/f33/Revolutiona%CC%82%E2%82%ACNow%202016%20Report_2.pdf

[6] http://www.eesi.org/articles/view/going-green-in-2017-the-case-for-renewable-energy

[7] http://www.eesi.org/articles/view/going-green-in-2017-the-case-for-renewable-energy

[8] http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/smart-energy-solutions/increase-renewables/renewable-energy-electricity-standards-economic-benefits.html#.WSCwCmjyvIU