Wrap-up of Yesterday’s National Clean Energy Summit

Yesterday, I attended the well-publicized National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas.  Launched by Sen. Harry Reid, the Summit was held to focus attention on the importance of developing clean energy solutions that can positively impact our economy and energy security and help combat climate change. The lineup of speakers featured a host of experts, politicians, environmentalists and clean energy enthusiasts, including the aforementioned senator, the governors of Utah, Arizona and Colorado, Congresswoman Solis, and NYC Mayor Bloomberg, along with prominent clean energy advocates such as T. Boone Pickens, Bob Rubin of Citigroup, and Dan Reicher of Google.  A good wrap-up of the summit can be found here.  My opinions follow below.

The core message: a new clean energy economy promises a virtuous triumvirate – job growth, climate change benefits and improved energy security.  And with 25 separate speakers, it was a message repeated again and again (and again…and again).  Still, it was a strong and powerful framing device, especially given our current economic, environmental and energy challenges.

Other themes mentioned consistently by most speakers:

  • We need to pass a long-term, comprehensive national clean energy policy immediately, but this will require much more political will and leadership than we’re currently seeing.
  • Eliminating our dependency on oil is imperative, but extremely challenging
  • Increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy demand is a top priority, followed by accelerating large-scale, long-term build-out of clean energy supply
  • Five national policy prescriptions that must occur (the uniformity of these recommendations across almost all presentations was notable):
  1. Extend renewable energy tax credits
  2. Pass a renewable energy standard and energy efficiency standard
  3. Pass cap-and-trade legislation
  4. Significantly improve and invest in transmission grid
  5. Boost spending on R&D

Lots of good moments, but some frustrating as well:



T. Boone Pickens: gave a strong presentation focusing on his highly-publicized plan to reduce our reliance on foreign oil by replacing gasoline-powered cars with natural gas autos, and installing enough wind and solar power to make up for the natural gas reductions.  Under this plan, we could reduce oil imports by 38%, while wind would provide one fifth of our national electricity needs.  His presentation was clear, concise and funny (even if it grossly oversimplifies certain issues) and extremely well-received by the audience.  A few more thoughts from T. Boone:

Focusing on electric cars as a short-term solution is unrealistic (hence the need for natural gas as a “bridge” fuel to the next generation of cars), but in the long-term, he expects hydrogen or electric cars to supplant gasoline cars. 

Developing natural gas-based infrastructure for transportation isn’t as difficult as perceived, if one starts with our national trucking fleet, which has high turnover and represents 30% of transportation. 

The media budget for this campaign is $58 million (funded entirely by T. Boone), and the primary focus right now is on elevating U.S. energy conservation and educating customers

Tone of nonpartisanship and bipartisanship: in an event sponsored by the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, and the Center for American Progress, the event had very few partisan moments.  Many Republicans had prominent speaking slots (T. Boone Pickens, Gov. Huntsman of Utah, Mayor Bloomberg) and if anything, expressions of frustration over a lack of national leadership were decidedly bi-partisan.  As the development of climate change and clean energy policy solutions will require considerable bipartisan support, it was encouraging to see that tone set in this conference.

Achievements of individual states: presentations by state leaders from Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Utah demonstrated how much a motivated state government can achieve in terms of boosting clean energy and reducing energy demand.  Nevada is installing a number of ground-breaking solar, wind and geothermal facilities and employing innovative public-private sector partnerships.  In Arizona, all new government buildings must be LEED certified, and, similar to Nevada, a combination of RPS and incentives is boosting clean energy installation rates dramatically.  One innovative Arizona program trains inmates in solar installation, by converting prisons to solar power.  Utah and Colorado demonstrated similar efforts as well.

Emphasis on Federal government leadership with complementary state-based efforts: many presenters lamented the lack of Federal leadership on the issue of clean energy, while focusing on the specific and unique areas where state government efforts can be powerful.  What this mounting frustration accomplishes remains to be seen, but it is important that the future national conversation blends both of these concepts – the importance of strong Federal support and the value of targeted and achievable state policies.

Strong presentations from Dan Reicher, Van Jones, Mayor Bloomberg: Each of these presenters added something significant and unique to the conference – Reicher provided Google’s cachet and strategy and announcing sizable EGS (geothermal) technology grants; Mayor Bloomberg gave a scathing indictment on federal efforts (as well as the two presidential candidates), and proposed a study of renewable energy options for New York City (which has the local media in a relative frenzy), and Van Jones gave an amazingly inspirational speech on the power of a green economy to help the poor.  Definite personal highlights (along with T. Boone of course)

Uniformity of policy recommendations and outcomes: as described above, with few exceptions, presenters followed a very similar script when it came to policy prescriptions and outcomes from capital redirection into a new clean energy economy (the most notable exception being Mayor Bloomberg’s call for a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade).  This gives the appearance of a bi-partisan and unified front on policies that could be valuable when communicating to the American consumer and voter.  In addition, focusing on the “big three” of jobs, environment, energy security that a national clean energy policy can provide is a helpful and concise message in support of clean supply. 

Cool Facts: Nellis Air Force Base gets 25% of its power from photovoltaic solar panels…the MGM Grand saved 2.6 million kWh annually (enough to power about 200 homes) just by installing CFLs in their parking garage…developing 2% of the potential geothermal capacity in Nevada via “enhanced geothermal systems” could produce the equivalent of one third of U.S. electricity generating capacity.



Uniformity of policy recommendations: While there is certainly value in presenting consistent policy recommendations, it would have been nice to hear about some of the most innovative thinking happening in this space.  Certainly the five policy efforts described above (tax credits, RES/EES, cap-and-trade, grid build-out and R&D) are imperative to future climate and energy efforts.  There was an overwhelming consensus on these five, although Bob Ruben, Dr. David Overskei of Decision Factors, and Jon Wellinghoff of FERC among a few others, tried with some success to inject a little debate on additional options.

However, this reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quote: “If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse.”  Other countries (e.g. Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden) have installed far greater amounts of renewable energy than have the U.S., through policy measures ranging from feed-in-tariffs to conservation measures and yet there was no discussion of their successes. The political nature of this event may have played a role in this decision, but I believe it quite possible to plan for the present political reality while discussing new and unique policies for the future, no matter how politically unfeasible they may seem currently.

Lack of California presence: similar to the above, but notable enough to warrant separate mention.  Even given the potential politics involved, the most successful state in the nation in terms of renewable energy had no presence at this conference (save one presentation from a California Congresswoman, focusing on national green jobs).  There is no better clean energy testing ground than California right now, and it would have been useful to gain insights and learnings from the state.

Unfunny Las Vegas metaphors: “what happens in Vegas…stays in Vegas”.  Seven speakers.  The same joke told seven different ways.  And each time…just…not…funny.