Allan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, suggests that the Journal started its ECO:nomics conference several years ago largely because of the near certainty of federal carbon legislation. At the third annual ECO:nomics conference this week, prospects for such legislation (e.g., a price on carbon) are murkier. This uncertainty was one of the key themes running through a suite of energy-focused sessions on the conference’s main day. The sessions covered a wide spectrum of the energy sector, from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) to renewables (solar and wind); from established electric utilities to young ventures with potentially revolutionary technologies.
For the most part, the traditional energy executives carefully advocated for their place in a diversified energy portfolio and avoided aggressive, competitive comparison to each other. Though it may not have been universally accepted, the prevailing notion that ALL of these energy sources (nuclear included) are necessary in the near future went largely unchallenged. Further reinforcing the coalition-like atmosphere was the general preference, among those who were asked about it, for a national clean energy standard that includes nuclear and clean coal rather than a narrower renewable energy standard. The audience, able to weigh in on several questions via voting devices, tended towards a similar mindset, answering the questions “Can coal be clean?” and “Should America build significantly more nuclear power plants?” in the affirmative 56% to 44% and 66% to 34% respectively. In fact, the only truly feisty debate of the day was between thinkers Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute over the low cost potential of renewables and whether energy efficiency reduces or increases consumption (Jevon’s paradox).
Of course, there were numerous and substantive differences in approach and differences of opinion, particularly with regard to the role of government in reducing price uncertainty and fostering technology and innovation for a low carbon economy. As one example, the coal session featured mining company Rio Tinto, which advocates for federal greenhouse gas legislation as a member of the U.S Climate Action Partnership, alongside Peabody Energy, which has filed a petition against the EPA’s recent Endangerment Finding.
American nationalism, from a competitiveness or an energy security/independence standpoint, was another strong recurring theme throughout the day. It is primarily on the latter that T. Boone Pickens makes his pitch for domestic natural gas. Regarding the former, many agreed that the U.S. lags China as a leader in clean energy and technology. Venture capitalist John Doerr suggested that the U.S. is barely in the race. There was some optimism about the innovations that VC’s who cut their teeth in Silicon Valley are bringing to the traditional energy sector. However, Shellenberger argues that getting beyond incremental change to major breakthroughs in clean technology will require massive and direct R&D investment and technology procurement by the state, as has been done through the military in the past. Would it be Pollyannaish to modify this vision and imagine a national clean technology agenda that also inspires the next generation of engineers, scientists, and managers out of national pride and a sense of social and environmental responsibility?
A lot was made of a prepared graphic showing that, among energy alternatives, the public perceives solar to be cheaper as well as cleaner, and coal to be more expensive as well as dirtier. Given the frequent focus on the costs of energy sources, it was disappointing that the discussion did not at some point address how we might measure true costs. For example, how do we account for the negative externalities of using fossil fuels? A missed opportunity for some challenging thinking.