Closing Thoughts from the 2013 Shapiro Conference: The Way Forward to a Sustainable Energy Future

This year’s J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Conference finished strong at GW Law on Thursday with a lively concluding dialogue.[1] Centered on a big picture discussion of where we are headed in the realm of sustainable energy development, this event was a culmination of the conference’s eight previous panels. Over the course of two days, attendees were exposed to an impressive breadth of speakers and diversity of topics. Panelists included environmental and energy law practitioners, professors, policy experts from NGOs and energy trade associations, environmental scientists, and researchers in technology.  Together, panelists from the U.S, the Netherlands, and China grappled with emerging issues in sustainable energy, including advances in technology, financing challenges and opportunities, environmental concerns pertaining to facilities siting, and national defense perspectives.[2]

The final panel, titled “The Way Forward,” was an opportunity for a distinguished panel of energy and electricity policy specialists to unpack the overarching themes of the conference and to propose ideas for chartering a sustainable energy future. Donald Santa of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) kicked off the discussion with a personal interpretation of the six major “big picture sustainability issues.”  Among his proposed focus areas moving forward was a need to recognize the global nature of the carbon problem. Although we may see substantial reductions in U.S. coal-based power generation, this does not diminish the reality that, globally, the use of coal is on the rise, and international energy use should not be ignored. Santa further mentioned a preference for favoring market mechanisms over mandates, and shifting terminology decrease polarization of discussions about sustainability (e.g., perhaps we should be talking about “resiliency” of energy sources rather than how they relate directly to the climate change problem). Ending on a positive note, Santa pointed to the passage of past energy legislation on a bipartisan basis, including the 2005 Energy Policy Act and the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Congress is capable of reaching consensus on major problems of energy scarcity and environmental harm, he said, and this indicates that there may still be hope for Congressional action at this time when such problems must urgently be addressed.

Brian Castelli of the Alliance to Save Energy then turned the conversation toward energy efficiency, an area that cuts across all energy sectors. He noted that if a global atmospheric CO2 limit were established at 450 parts per million—relaxed from the suggested 350 ppm cap that has already been surpassed—approximately 52% of that goal is likely to be met with energy efficiency programs. Castelli also mentioned the importance of energy and sustainability education. This sentiment was echoed by panelist Darryl Banks of the Center for American Progress, who emphasized that we must make the most of our window of opportunity of domestic energy security to educate both policy makers and the public about the key benefits of energy improvements, such as smart grid technology. Banks also pointed to carbon pricing, in particular learning from existing regional carbon-trading markets and taking full advantage of those experiences as  “policy levers” for moving toward a national climate strategy. The fourth panelist, Charles Berardesco from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, laid out some of the central realities that must be considered from an electricity reliability perspective. First, he noted, we may be faced with less baseload electricity generation than we require in the coming years due to the likelihood of reductions in coal and nuclear power generation—which currently generate about 45% and 20% of our electricity generation, respectively.. More broadly, Berardesco focused on a concern that, if and when we move to a new energy supply mix, we must not fail to recognize some key economic and technological constraints. We will be using fossil fuels for some time to come.

The panel then opened up to a concluding dialogue with the audience, presenting a unique opportunity for attendees to discuss their thoughts on what moderator James Hoecker described as a “particularly challenging and transformative period” in energy and energy policy making. The ensuing discussion reflected the myriad concerns, expectations, and questions posed over the previous two days, including comprehensive corporate tax reform, securitization to encourage investment; carbon taxation; making regulation and economic policymaking more stable;  promoting state energy efficiency standards; the pros and cons of distributive generation; the rising significance of rare earth minerals and world trade in essential materials and resources;  and barriers to development of  electricity transmission and storage.

Finally, in response to a question whether the U.S. is in a proverbial “sweet spot” with respect to energy supplies and security, given that we are not facing an immediate energy crisis, are pulling out of recession, and can take the time to learn from past experiences, the participants concluded with guarded optimism.  The conference demonstrated that taking advantage of this potential window of opportunity will not be a simple task. It will require bipartisan support for policies that promote capital investment and technology development, coordinated private action to take advantage of the competitive power market, and balancing economic with sensitive natural resources concerns. The good news is that the conference speakers were uniformly willing to confront the difficult questions and advocate for workable solutions that lead to a sustainable and economically feasible energy future.

Molly Masterton, Notes Editor

[1] The 2013 J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Conference, held at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.,  was co-sponsored by GW Law, Husch Blackwell LLP, The Environmental Law Institute, and The Constellation Energy Foundation.

[2] For a full agenda of the conference with panel descriptions, click here.

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