Every year the Harvard Business School Energy Symposium attracts industry professionals from the US energy sector, collectively representing a crucial and incredibly diverse sector. With this in mind, I made my way, bagel in hand, to the day’s first discussion: a “fireside chat” with Michael Brune from the Sierra Club and Tom Murley from HgCapital. I was filled with a sense of nervous anticipation for what I believed would be a great day to come.
As a New Zealander with little prior knowledge of the US energy sector, I had to work hard to keep up. For context: The last 20 years or so have seen the advent of a new era in fossil fuel production through hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking”. Fracking is a method by which natural gas and oil trapped within deep non-porous rock is extracted. This is done by pumping in large quantities of water to produce rock fractures, allowing the gas to diffuse to the pipeline and flow back to the surface. New technology in fracking, coupled with high oil prices, drove the recent “Shale gas revolution”: an increase in domestic fuel production obtained through tapping into shale gas deposits.
The first talk didn’t waste much time. We were confronted with the large steps towards sustainable energy taken within Europe—the German energy portfolio is now 20% solar and wind, in a country not ostensibly well suited for either technology. We then discussed how the increased consumer price in Germany would not make their transition model viable in the US. This brought what in my opinion was the most salient issue to the fore: whether the economic feasibility of natural gas makes it an appropriate intermediate fuel source from an environmental perspective.
The problem we are faced with is that although natural gas overall has a significantly lower CO2 footprint per unit energy produced than other fossil fuel competitors such as coal, it still emits fossil fuels in large quantities. Since the environmental impact is a factor motivating this shift, we have to ask whether the lower emissions of natural gas will be low enough. The speakers’ opinions about whether these effects were acceptable from an environmental standpoint clearly differed. Brief discussion ensued, but ended without resolution. For me, this was unfortunately to be the theme of the day: there was an elephant in the room that was either treated as an afterthought or skipped over entirely.
Over the course of the day I attended discussion sections on clean energy technology, “unconventional” (to be read as shale gas) fossil fuel production, and utility adaptation in a modern context. The talks were informative, insightful, and disappointingly compartmentalized.
The conference as a whole had brought representatives from a very diverse sector to one place. What frustrated me was that the questions posed to the speakers for the large part didn’t bring this diversity to light. When in a talk on clean tech, I found myself believing I was at a symposium on sustainability, while in a talk on unconventionals, I could have sworn I was at a conference of fossil fuel representatives. People were attending the wrong talks—either that or they didn’t want to feel like one alone in a room of others. Both reasons are understandable, but neither is what is needed right now. Climate change is an issue of outstanding urgency. Its implications for the environment we live and breathe in are fundamental for people everywhere—regardless of whether we feel like we have heard it before, this point cannot be stressed enough. When it comes to such issues, the world looks to institutions like ours to take on the debates that have not yet taken place elsewhere.
What would I suggest as possible solutions? Obviously our goals must include fostering meaningful debate. One method to do this might be to have highly polarized keynote speakers during the day, so that people are confronted with opinions besides their own. Another would be to have small group breakout sessions to actively include representatives representing different interests. The ensuing conversations might not be easy, but they would be better than no dialogue at all. Harvard can be a place for this.
Overall what did I take away from this symposium? That even at Harvard, the conversations we need to have are still being avoided. That opportunities for real debate between sustainability and fossil fuel representatives are still being squandered. Finally, that while people are still preaching to their own proverbial choirs at a conference at one of the best universities in the world, something seems deeply wrong.