I awoke the first morning of the conference sans suitcase, which was lucky enough to hitch a ride to the Aspen, CO airport via United’s baggage service, while I was forced to negotiate a ride with two other stranded passengers met at the Denver airport. However, one could hardly complain in a place surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the bluest sky imaginable, setting out to hear titans of industry, well, my industry – the environment, speak on everything from global warming to energy efficiency. The three-day conference, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic, laid out the “Energy Challenge” on day one, “Energy Transitions” on day two, and a “New Energy World” on day three. I arrived just in time on day two to hear the new NOAA administrator, Jane Lubchenco, speak on her vision for the agency. As it was only her sixth day on the job, the moderator joked that she had already spent one third of her career at NOAA with us.
From there, I went to “Taking the Carbon Out of Energy: A Range of Choices” to find Professor Robert Socolow, co-director of The Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University speaking on his “wedge stabilization” theory – a paper I had quoted for my carbon tax versus cap and trade economics paper last semester. With him were Sally Benson of Stanford University, Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch Institute and Keith Trent of Duke Energy. After a brief presentation and introductions, the session was opened to the audience and I posed the question, after identifying myself as a Columbia graduate student working with the Alliance for Renewable Energy, “Do you see a role for renewable energy payments in the future of the industry?” Chris Flavin responded very affirmatively while Keith Trent emphasized that for Duke Energy, it is a balancing act between price, reliability and clean technology. Trent pointed out that it is more expensive; however, he also stated that he thinks there is room to make it work. Can we hold you to that? To round out the day, I attended a lively debate titled, “The New Oil: Energy Demand and Water” where participants argued the merits of thinking of water as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Day three was again bathed in Colorado sunshine and views of the surrounding ski slopes, owned by one of the most environmentally-conscious ski companies in the nation, with a strong commitment to renewable energy. Executive Director of Sustainability for Aspen Ski Company, Auden Schendler, (shown center above) participated in a panel on “Strategies for a Green Economy” with fellow sustainability executives from Wal-Mart and General Motors, as well as senior counsel from Crowell & Moring. SkiCo, as it is affectionately called in the valley, purchased renewable wind power credits from 2006 to 2008 and recently installed a 150kW CRMS solar array. Moving from renewable energy to energy efficiency, I had the pleasure of hearing Amory Lovins (shown center below), author of Natural Capitalism, and colleagues speak on, “The Power of Scale: The New Frontiers of Energy Efficiency.” The focus of this talk was taking integration to a higher level and thinking of energy efficiency as an actual resource the way most people currently think about wind and solar.
I was drawn to my final session of the Forum by its title, “Radical Solar Power.” Was it fundamental? Extreme? Or did the term simply refer to 80’s slang for “cool”? I had to know. Moderated by Dennis Dimick, Executive Editor for the Environment at National Geographic magazine, the panel was comprised of Robert Freling, Executive Director of Solar Electric Light Fund, Chuck Kutscher from the Thermal Systems Group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and John Woolard, CEO and President of BrightSource Energy, Inc. A fairly scientific discussion of solar technology ensued, but after catching the moderator’s eye, I again introduced myself and posed the question, “Would you be in favor of a renewable energy policy, and if so, can you comment on renewable energy payments versus other policy incentive strategies.”
Freling immediately pointed to the success of the feed-in tariff in Germany and it’s exportation around the world as an indicator of its effectiveness in driving renewables growth. Kutscher also commented on the availability of best practices from other countries’ implementations and stated that 10 years ago it would never have been considered, but now [U.S. Representative] Jay Inslee has drafted federal legislation! Finally, Woolard, who has made a career in the private solar industry and whose business potentially has the most to gain, was cautious. With a clear understanding of renewable energy payments, he expressed concern about passing on higher fees to ratepayers, the merits of pricing strategy in terms of its affect on competition and the importance of learning from Germany’s mistakes. As I sat back down, audience members turned to me and mouthed, “Good question.” Indeed.
As I was shuttled from the conference campus back into the main part of town in a black hybrid SUV, a man carrying a tripod and camera equipment waved us down asking for a ride. Once settled, he turned around, identified himself as a reporter for Mother Earth News and said, “Aren’t you the expert on Renewable Energy Payments?” I replied, “I’m no expert, but I know enough to be dangerous.”