Scenes from the Energy Soiree

At the big renewable-fuel summit, sunny self-congratulation—with a shadow of doubt

Photo by Isaac Brekken | Getty Images

Photo by Isaac Brekken | Getty Images

In feeling, if not format, this year’s National Clean Energy Summit resembled the holiday galas and political fundraisers that take place in capital cities. U.S. Senator Harry Reid’s big party for green-power players on August 13 at Mandalay Bay was somewhat exclusive, tickets being pricey and comps hard to come by. Clusters of VIPs—from U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira—could be heard exchanging industry news in the casually confident manner of players on a winning team.

At one point, a panel of former governors took turns boasting about the success of their state-oriented approaches:

“In Michigan, this was all about jobs,” Jennifer Granholm said. “We created an economic cluster around the lithium-ion battery.”

“Forty years ago, they said you’d have a heart attack, get stupid, turn gay if you worked out,” said California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, reminiscing about his campaign to get Americans into gyms. “Now everyone is training with weights. We have to make the subject of climate change sexier.”

In the ex-federal legislators’ corner, there was a debate over who is to blame—Democrats or Republicans—for the government’s failure to pass cap and trade.

“On energy, there is some glimmer of hope, but it’s still very difficult to get anything through,” said former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota. “My hope is that Congress will finally be able to understand that compromise is not a four-letter word.”

“I was in a meeting once where a bunch of politicians all agreed that climate change was an existential threat,” said former U.S. Representative Bob Inglis, R-South Carolina. “But when the Republicans proposed that they would agree to a revenue-neutral carbon tax, the Democrats disagreed, because they knew that Republicans would cut the corporate income tax. Well, if it’s really an existential threat, then they should have agreed to it.”

“I would have taken that deal,” said former Senator Timothy Wirth, D-Colorado, eliciting silent stares.

Every party has its rowdy section, and at the Clean Energy Summit, it turned out to be an assortment of people talking about the link between climate change and extreme weather—and the subsequent need for new disaster-preparedness plans.

“People see fast-onset events, and their first instinct is to rush outside and look,” said Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. “Then they look for a second or third trusted signal, the text from their neighbor or mother saying, ‘No, really, go.’ So, good, that works with hurricanes. But what do we do with these slow-onset events?”

“The most frightening thing to me is, we’re running out of time while we argue about it,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Stop trying to pay for the barn after it’s burned down!”

President Obama’s recently announced climate action plan came up a time or two, but the most frequently heard theme was how to wedge new renewable pieces into the existing grid puzzle.

“Price is coming down for wind and solar, and going up for fossil fuels,” said Western Interstate Energy Board Executive Director Doug Larson. “The problem is, we haven’t found a way to integrate this cheaper renewable generation.”

In other words, we need to figure out how to teach an old distribution network new-energy tricks. If we can agree that we’re facing an existential threat, surely we’ll find the answer.


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