The Value and Gaps in a Big San Francisco Clean-Energy Conclave

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Around San Francisco through the rest of this week, government ministers, investors, engineers, climate campaigners and wonks of all stripes will be discussing ways to provide the energy necessary to sustain human progress without overheating the climate.

This is a huge challenge (watch the late great Nobelist Richard Smalley) and a long march, no matter how much one shouts “urgency.” Are such meetings worth the carbon combustion it took for hundreds of participants to get to the Bay Area?

Over all, I’d say yes, just as was the case last week with the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting on sustainable development that I attended in Nairobi. The value is less in proclamations and joint statement than in creating and sustaining conduits for sharing and shaping ideas, as I explained here in the Nairobi context.

A “super wicked” problem like the climate/energy challenge will inevitably have no universal solution applicable everywhere. But discourse can clarify what works where – whether it’s a new financial instrument fostering solar panel deployment or a new battery design.

So what’s happening in San Francisco? The main event is the seventh “Clean Energy Ministerial” – the latest in a series of annual intergovernmental meetings largely shaped by the Obama administration but built on a Bush-era template – the “major economies” meetings on energy and climate.

The clean energy meeting brings together top energy officials and other representatives from 23 countries and the European Commission and attracts all manner of interested parties (some paying $10,000 a table to be at certain events).

The top American official at the conference, secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, explained the strategy this way in an Energy Department post:

C.E.M. may seem like a small group — just 23 countries and the European Commission — but together, its members represent about 90 percent of global clean energy investment and 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we get it right with this group, we can change the energy trajectory for the rest of the world.

The biggest problem with the energy ministers’ gathering is the walling off of one path on the world’s journey toward a low-carbon energy menu – nuclear power. A superb commentary on Medium by Matt Goldberg and Josh Freed, two young energy analysts at the Third Way research group, nails the issue:

The omission of nuclear from CEM7 is…like having a global conference on grains and excluding rice. [#CEM7 is the hashtag for the meeting]

Given Moniz’s enthusiasm for nuclear power, I was kind of surprised over the weekend when I found this glaring gap. A spokesman for the Department of Energy said that all the focal points for the ministerial have to be backed by three countries. It seems that nuclear can’t cross that hurdle — yet.

The city is also hosting a parallel meeting of top officials from the 20 countries that pledged at the December climate talks in Paris to double investments in clean-energy research and development through an initiative called Mission Innovation.

The parallel Mission Innovation effort does not exclude nuclear, with each participating country setting its own research agenda. But the lack of discussions of nuclear energy in the main ministerial meeting leaves off the table important questions about how to manage the world’s existing reactor fleet given rising competition from cheap natural gas and concerns about safety and security.

In telephone interview on Tuesday Moniz described the complementary nature of the two tracks — the ministerial session on deployment policies and the innovation session on research priorities.

“We have to have a very broad innovation agenda that both reduces costs and potentially introduces genuinely new possibilities,” he said. “As these technologies improve and there’s more deployment, the technology innovation tends to work together with things like business-model innovation.”

Interestingly, one of the most exciting aspects of the Clean Energy Ministerial process is not in San Francisco or Beijing (next year’s host city) or any other place. It’s in the global exchange of ideas on technical or bureaucratic challenges that’s been established through the online equivalent of a 1-800-CleanEnergyAdvice line: the Clean Energy Solutions Center. The advice is offered in a host of languages and there’s a new portal offering all the world’s countries advice on how to finance projects.

I understand the logic of starting with the countries with the biggest emissions of greenhouse gases and most capacity to do something about energy choices.

But it’s essential to offer outreach to struggling developing countries in which real-time pollution, transportation and energy crises are impeding progress. I made that point on Twitter in the context of Nairobi’s appalling pollution, paralyzed traffic and largely-unlighted slums:

Finally, it’s important to note that there is at least a hint of nuclear energy issues in San Francisco this week. A showcase of more than 90 companies’ clean-energy offerings includes a display by NuScale Power, one of a batch of startup companies developing new nuclear plant designs.

And on Friday, there’s one more Bay Area event — a daylong Silicon Valley Energy Summit at Stanford University featuring a midday debate over this proposition: “The World Needs a Nuclear Renaissance.”

The debate should be lots of fun, and informative, given the combatants.

Those for the proposition are two Nobel laureates in physics, the former energy secretary Steven Chu, now a Stanford professor, and Burton Richter, emeritus director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and author of a book on energy that I covered here quite awhile ago. Those against are no slouches: Ralph Cavanagh, senior attorney and co-director of the energy program at Natural Resources Defense Council and Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable & Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Maybe someone on the pro-nuclear side there can bring up the nuclear gap in the ministerial talks.

To learn more, I urge you to read “The History and Future of the Clean Energy Ministerial
,” an essay by David Sandalow, a former Obama administration energy official who was involved in the early days of the ministerial and now, as a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, offers five ways to boost the impact of these meetings. One is better integrating the ministers’ work with the research-focused agenda of the Mission Innovation initiative, as well as with Bill Gates’s private investment pool aimed at long-odds energy breakthroughs.

Production note | For the first time ever, I think, I hit “publish” before this post was completed. I’ll be adding some elements that I intended to include from the start. Apologies.

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