Unleashing the Promise of Clean Energy

Keynote Speech at the Budapest Energy Summit

Thank you for having me here today. I’m humbled to join you in this historic city (Budapest) and talk about the future of energy. I join you from a comparatively young city—Washington D.C.—a city that just over 200 years ago was a swamp.

The history matters because our focus today—clean energy—offers a fundamentally different promise than energy discussions of the past. Indeed, despite the difference in the countries we all came from, the promise of clean energy is the same, and the hurdles we are overcoming are strikingly similar.

There’s a lot we can learn from each other, and that’s why I’m particularly excited to be here.

World-wide, our national energy ministries and regulators exist for a few basic reasons—usually having to do with assuring “security and prosperity” by means of “reliable and affordable” energy.

For the economists among us this makes sense: low prices are good, and there needs to be enough power to grow the economy. In general, those two things plus a fully charged cell phone keep people pretty happy.

While this view of energy is still useful, it is incomplete.

1. A square deal

A hundred years ago—1902 to be exact—Teddy Roosevelt, one of America’s most highly regarded Presidents, a Nobel Prize winner for brokering peace between Russia and Japan and conservation champion, brokered an energy deal. But it had nothing to do with “clean.” It had everything to do with keeping people warm and keeping factories open at a reasonable cost.

In just 100 years, the conversation has completely changed.

Now the key question people and businesses want to know is: how clean is the energy?

Imagine where we will be 100 years from today by focusing not just on price and supply—but on the quality of our energy.

The conversation we are having at this conference is different from “sustainability” and “climate change” conferences because we are focused on clean energy as a solution.

My organization, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, was established to raise the profile of clean energy.

We start with renewable energy–wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal sources–but clean energy also includes waste-to-energy, nuclear, natural gas, and carbon capture technologies. We believe in a free-market, all-of-the-above approach to energy with the goal of implementing the cleanest, lowest-emitting technologies available.

This definition matters because we can’t be serious about dealing with climate change if we are only focused on renewables and miss the opportunity to re-imagine nuclear power and implement new technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere.

This approach matters because we can’t be serious about a fast transition to a clean energy economy if we assume that government will do the work, instead of empowering people, communities, and businesses to choose the cleanest solution that is most locally appropriate for them.

Clean energy promises to be, in President Roosevelt’s words, a “square deal” in terms of economy, environment, and society.

2. Economic opportunity

Throughout all of human history, it has taken more energy to improve livelihoods. But things have changed. Globally, we’re more productive with energy than ever before, and in the U.S. we’ve decoupled energy from the economy—energy productivity has grown 17 percent since 2008. We’ve proven that the economy can expand as total energy consumption rates decline.

This is largely due to energy efficiency. Saving energy means saving money—a concept universally understood by businesses large and small, and at the kitchen table.

But it is also due to the rapid decline in costs for clean energy generation. These technologies are more cost effective than ever before.

The jobs associated with this transition are huge. Energy efficiency jobs account for roughly 2 million American jobs. In the years leading up to 2016, solar and wind jobs grew 20% annually. That’s job creation at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy.

This is not a uniquely American story … around the world, we see clean energy jobs as local jobs that cannot be exported.

We see jobs in manufacturing, but also in system design, project development, installation, operation, and management. These energy jobs also drive growth in other industries. An effective commercial-scale clean energy project is a massive undertaking requiring steel infrastructure, landscaping, civil engineering and substantial manpower during construction.

This means economic opportunity for men and women in urban centers and across the countryside.

3. Environment

From an environmental standpoint, what’s happening in those urban and rural environments can’t be ignored.

Last month’s IPCC report was particularly grim, but not unprecedented. We’ve known about climate change for decades.

In the US, our joint federal agencies found that “mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially … [but] do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.”

We have a lot of work to do.

But there’s cause for optimism.

In the U.S., the transition to a low-carbon economy is well underway. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to their lowest levels since 1991 — thanks to the transition to from coal to natural gas and the rise in low-cost renewables.

The transportation sector will be our biggest hurdle.

Globally, emissions will need to come down further, and ultimately, we may need to go “net negative” with carbon emissions. But we are working on solutions there too. Carbon-capture storage technologies are proven and now helped by a new tax credit in the U.S.

However, we need to keep in mind that clean energy is not just about greenhouse gas emissions. We’re talking about quality of life for millions of people in this generation too.

Clean energy is about the air we breathe and water we drink. By focusing on how to do each type of energy generation in a cleaner way—we are engineering success across the technology spectrum, and those technologies will find suitable sites across the world.

4. Democracy

We need to be realistic about the future of oil and gas. Even with the most ambitious climate change policies in place, global oil and natural gas demand will grow through 2040 as Asian and African countries develop and industrialize.

The U.S. is in an unprecedented position to help meet global demand. Until 2015, we didn’t export any crude oil by law; but because we’ve regained our confidence to innovate, in five years, we are expected to be among the world’s biggest exporters. The U.S. is focused on being a “consistent, reliable partner” and providing energy choices, specifically when it comes to oil and gas. American influence on global oil markets is already rising and expected to grow.

I believe this will be a welcome change because, for the past 100 years, relatively few players—a few countries and a handful of powerful individuals—controlled the global energy system. It wasn’t always a bad thing. In many cases it was necessary.  From extraction to distribution, monopolies and oligopolies were largely in control.

The next 100 years will be different. It will be characterized by diverse, low-pollution technologies. If these technologies can be brought to consumers and meet surging market demand, we’re likely to see more prosperity and better quality of life across the board.

5. Clearing hurdles

The hurdles we’ll clear along the way are different, but the common denominator is the need for energy choices and competition.

In Africa, the race is on to bring electricity to millions. Through my work across the continent, I’ve seen first-hand the unmet need for electricity, and the demand for clean energy. It’s largely a blank slate for the newest technologies, distributed generation, and infrastructure that can produce energy cheaper than anywhere else on earth. Or not.

In the U.S., I’ve woken up every day of my life, walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and turn the light switch. Every day the lights come on. It’s remarkable! It’s thanks to almost 100 years of cumulative infrastructure and reliable operation. But it’s that same costly infrastructure that may hold us back from building new, clean energy systems.

What will make the difference in the transition to clean energy economies is whether governments allow clean energy to compete. By creating a level playing field for clean energy, we can deliver low cost, clean, reliable power so that our economies grow and people– irrespective of where they were born — can drink the water, breath the air, and plan for the future without fear of a changing climate.

6. Collaboration

In the U.S., we are shining a spotlight on the diversity of clean energy choices and the economic, environmental, and social benefits that come with them.

Two years ago, my organization started the first ever National Clean Energy Week.

Year 1 was a success. We started with 12 trade and business associations representing solar, wind, nuclear, biomass, and several other industries came together as a steering committee. We had a day-long conference in Washington DC with senior appointed and elected officials talking about what clean energy meant to them.

Year 2 was even bigger. We went from 9 Governors signing proclamations and declaring their support to 29 — that’s over half of the governors in the country!  We also had over 100 participating organizations representing thousands of businesses large and small.

By focusing on the promise of clean energy technologies we are reducing barriers to collaboration between industries that might not otherwise work together — and we’ve created an opportunity for leadership.

7. I’m optimistic

I’m optimistic that we can improve livelihoods and overcome constraints because we’ve done it in the past.

Do you remember when the conventional wisdom was that we’d soon run out of food to feed the world? It was in the 60’s and 70’s.

What happened to avoid catastrophe was a “green revolution”. Persistence, determination, and the confidence to innovate brought about the technologies needed to feed the world. High-yielding grains/seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides — especially in the developing world — changed everything. It’s not a perfect system, but we saved a billion people from starvation.

We can do it again … this time delivering on the promise of clean energy.

The technologies are at our fingertips. By implementing policies that allow for diversity and competition in the marketplace we will match clean energy supply with surging demand.

By doing so, we will democratize energy, and deliver a cleaner future faster than expected.

I’m looking forward to our discussions today.

Thank you.

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