Powering Tomorrow panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival

"Powering Tomorrow" panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival

By Laura Gaze, Thomson Reuters

“Carbon emissions know no boundaries. The effects of global warming are extremely urgent. This is a human race epidemic.”

Chris Kibarian, president of Thomson Reuters IP & Science, led a panel of thought leaders at the Aspen Ideas Festival titled “Powering Tomorrow,” on the challenges effecting our transition to clean, renewable energy as a primary source powering our world. The panelists alongside Chris were Dr. Kristina Johnson, CEO of EnduringHydro; Michael Levi, author of “The Power Surge;” Mick Sawka, director of business development at Harvard University; and, Jeff Logan, senior energy analyst for the National Renewable Energy Lab. They focused on solar, wind, hydro and biofuels as the main renewable sources in their conversation.

The panel explored government policies, financing, competition, globalization and other important aspects related to this critical subject. One sentiment that was repeated by all panelists was that government policy pushing renewable use is a vital component of its adoption. However, and unfortunately, as Levi said, “The ‘pulse’ in Washington is the patient is dead.”

“American politics on clean energy hasn’t gotten very far. We’re going backwards on every front. At first politicians were embracing the use of renewables, now they are trying to knock them down,” explained Levi. “Most of the policy is around tax credits here. There are a number of forces pushing against renewables in the U.S.,” added Johnson. Case in point: there are 77,000 dams in the U.S. right now that could be structured to produce enough electricity to power 20 – 30 million homes, but we can’t get the bills passed through the Senate for this to happen.

Additionally, the schizophrenic actions of the government make renewable adoption a challenge. An example is the use of ethanol. Initially the government mandated ethanol, but they also have the ability to penalize it, so it hasn’t been fully adopted. Case in point, you will see signs at gas stations in some Midwestern states apologizing for the inclusion of the small percentage of ethanol in gasoline. As Sawka shared, “we could already be at the point of having vehicles 100% powered by ethanol. The technology is there. But, it is a matter of policy and collective will – those aren’t yet there.”

Financing has its own challenges. Investment firms and investors look for technologies that turn quick profits, in two to three years. Unfortunately, renewables are a longer-term investment. The timetable for reaping returns is closer to ten to fifteen years. There needs to be new ways to finance green innovations, as money is available, but “it’s a matter of getting all the parties working together,” said Johnson. She touted the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act as a step toward finding sources for financing, as well as a company called Mosaic that connects investors to solar projects.

Despite the fact that it took nearly a century to convert from timber to coal does not mean it should take the same amount of time to transition to renewable energy sources. That is a weak argument made by those who are hesitant to transition or fooled by the glut of non-renewables. As Logan stated, “There is plenty of opportunity to work with China, Denmark and other areas to accelerate the rate of acceptance – and to model exemplary transitions in other parts of the world. We can get there much more quickly than 100 years.”

Chris did a fantastic job engaging the panelists to extract the most pressing points around renewable energy from them. He also shared findings from research done by the Thomson Reuters IP & Science team, which showed that despite China being the world’s largest emitter of CO2 gases, it also leads the world in renewable research and innovation. Additionally, South Korea and China produce the most influential renewable energy research, as evidenced by the number of highly cited papers from these countries. And, solar work is the most prevalent of all forms of renewables done.

The panel concluded with Chris asking each participant what we can do, as individuals, to contribute to the conservation of energy and transition to renewable sources. The panelists offered these suggestions:

  • Stage your home: replace any incandescent bulbs home with energy-saving or LED ones
  • Let your government representatives know of your interest in renewable energy; voice your opinions
  • If you’re in a position of influence on a Board, suggest renewable options
  • Walk or bike instead of driving when it is viable
  • Look into companies that lease solar panels, including doing installations, as a way of financing your own transition to solar
  • If you have money to invest, take a bet on renewable options

“There needs to be a more pro-active clean energy movement,” said Johnson. “This is about the type of planet you want to live on.”