Highlights of Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s June 2011 Energy Summit

By Justine Burt

The buzz at the June 2011 Paris Air Show was about the biofuel jet that flew from New Jersey to Paris the week before. This was the first transatlantic flight powered by biofuel, in this case a 50/50 jet fuel blend derived from camelina and petroleum.

The flight closely followed Charles Lindbergh’s famous first flight across the Atlantic but is also important because of what it symbolizes: the green tech community’s collective anxiety about whether we can reach a sustainable energy future in time. Will our technology carry us where we need to go or will we crash into the ocean, short of our destination?

On June 29th, clean tech leaders assembled at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Energy Summit at Stanford University to be inspired. Various speakers reminded a ballroom full of thought leaders about government’s ambitious sustainability targets and challenged the audience to help us meet them:

  • By 2020, 33% of California’s electricity will be renewable (California Senate Bill 2X)
  • By 2050, California’s greenhouse gas emissions will be 80% below 1990 levels (California Governor Schwarzenegger’s executive order S-3-05)

Jeff Greenblatt from Lawrence Berkeley Labs presented his team’s analysis about how to meet Schwarzenegger’s target. According to his report California’s Energy Future – The View to 2050, “California can achieve emissions roughly 60% below 1990 levels with technology we largely know about today if such technology is rapidly deployed at rates that are aggressive but feasible.” An 80% reduction will require “significant innovation and advancements in multiple technologies that eliminate emissions from fuels.”

A key part of meeting these goals involves bringing down the cost of solar. Cathy Zoi, who managed the Department of Energy’s disbursement of $38 billion in energy investments for the recent economic stimulus, talked about the “sunshot.” Playing on the term “moonshot” in which we accomplished the challenging task of landing people on the moon, the sunshot involves achieving a $1/watt solar module. Now that the solar industry can make solar for less than $1/watt, people at the DOE are asking what mix of policy tools, tax incentives and other efforts they can employ to bring the cost of other clean energy technology within 120% of the price of conventional energy sources.

A number of speakers explained why government plays an essential role in building a clean energy future. Even though government bashing has been popular in the media lately, federal R&D investments have yielded great societal benefits. Government R&D helped make the iPad and jet plane technologies possible.

Given that the energy sector invests only 0.3% of their sales in R&D, compared to the pharmaceutical industry at 18.7%, we need government investment to make clean energy breakthroughs possible. To those who want to reduce this type of spending, Zoi asserted that “cutting R&D funding for clean energy would be like when you are flying through the air and need to drop some weight so you get rid of one of your jet engines.”

Open dialogue between clean tech and government leaders at conferences like these makes the next steps clear. To realize 80% GHG reductions, we need innovations that eliminate emissions from fuels. The question is, in the current budget climate is Congress willing to fund the breakthroughs we need to reach our goals?

Justine Burt is a sustainability consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in helping organizations overcome internal barriers to change and swiftly implement beyond-compliance projects.  www.justineburt.com

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