Tufts brings together academic, government, private-sector leaders for energy conference

Medford/Somerville, MA - Campaign Director Kristina Skierka gives a presentation about Power for All at the Tufts Energy Conference at Fletcher on Feb 11. (Sitong Zhang / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts hosted the 12th annual Tufts Energy Conference on Saturday at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The event, primarily organized by student volunteers, was attended by students, scientists and private-sector investors. 

Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) Director Linda Abriola told the Daily that a primary goal of the conference was to hear from a broad range of voices about challenges to growth in the energy sector.

“Part of it is educational,” she said. “And it’s to bring people from different sectors together to have conversations about these very challenging problems.”

Annette Huber-Lee, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and panel moderator, said that another benefit of the conference is that it provides opportunities for student organizers.

“The fact that it is organized by students I think is a wonderful opportunity for them to engage with a broader cross section of people,” she told the Daily.

The event included opening remarks from Abriola, who is also a university professor of civil and environmental engineering, nine separate student-organized panels, a keynote address from Power for All Campaign Director Kristina Skierka and an informal closing reception, according to the event’s online agenda.

During the first panel, which focused on challenges for energy policy during the administration of President Donald Trump, panelists drew on expertise from diverse fields including law, government policy and energy and environmental research.

Every panelist said that they thought the new administration would undermine energy policy trends at the federal level, but they disagreed on how much of an effect that would have on the national energy market.

Alison Cassady, director of domestic energy policy at the Center for American Progress, said that if the federal government does not promote clean energy in the coming years, the market for it may suffer.

“Without an administration pushing clean energy, it may become less profitable,” she said. “China could fill in the void.”

Kyle Danish, a partner at the Van Ness Feldman law firm who advises both traditional power companies and clean energy companies, disagreed. He argued that, despite confusion about the future direction of Trump’s policies, there are broader economic forces at work that will continue to drive current energy trends, such as the declining use of coal.

“Our clients are looking at the Trump administration mostly with bewilderment,” Danish said. “Coal will not come back … Their plans are locked in for five years in advance.”

In a later panel entitled “Energy-Water Nexus: Expanding Access to Critical Resources,” one of the primary problems addressed was politicians’ unwillingness to work towards long term sustainable energy and water policies.

World Resources Institute Research Associate Tianyi Luo said that embracing private industry can provide a solution to an unmoving government.

“To deal with a lack of political will, go private,” Lou said. “Convince companies and investors to invest in long term projects.”

Huber-Lee said that it may also be prudent to use political fervor during crises such as natural disasters to affect governmental change.

“We need to find windows of opportunity when there’s a crisis and use them,” she said.

At the next panel, entitled “Fostering Energy Ecosystems for Local Prosperity,” Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers Administrator Macky McCleary explained how those sorts of crisis-based political movements have already begun to change the political landscape in the United States.

“The large transformation in the political climate on climate [change] came from … [storms like] Irene and Sandy,” he said.

During the keynote address, Skierka explained the mission of her organization, Power for All, a global campaign dedicated to increasing energy access.

To provide power to areas that are off the energy grid, Skierka explained, Power for All helps companies sell decentralized, clean energy generators like solar panels and hydroelectric turbines. The goal, she said, is to give people without energy access an alternative to waiting to connect to an electric grid.

“The energy impoverished are tired of [waiting for] an energy grid that isn’t going to come,” she said. “So the whole point [of Power For All] is to translate things that are happening — what works and what’s successful — and making them local.”