Seohyun Shim for Tufts Energy Conference

Mark Vasu, executive vice president at Greentown Labs and a panelist at the conference, is pictured here during the 2018 Tufts Energy Conference on Feb. 3. Seohyun Shim for Tufts Energy Conference

Fletcher hosts climate change strategists, innovators for annual Energy Conference

Tufts hosted the 2018 Tufts Energy Conference (TEC) on Friday, Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 3 at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. A team of graduate and undergraduate students organized the conference with support from the Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) and the Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE). The conference featured a variety of panels hosted by speakers from various local and global organizations and included an Energy and Employer Showcase, Electric Vehicle Test Driving session and the Hitachi Center Energy Innovation Competition.

According to Ankit Grover, the director of the conference’s marketing and public relations team, the energy conference was hosted in the context of the United States’ June 2017 withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. The conference focused on what clean energy policy implementation will look like not only for the United States, but also other major countries like Germany, France and China in the next 10 to 30 years, he said.

Grover said the goal of the conference was to examine the impact of carbon emissions on technology and the development of electric vehicles.

“The focus is on how new energy technologies are coming into [the] picture to transform outlooks into realities,” he said.

Opening remarks

Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy Kelly Sims Gallagher gave the opening remarks on Friday afternoon. She said that using the past to predict the future is a poor tactic when it comes to the rapidly-changing realm of energy, pointing to recent changes in Chinese energy consumption.

“China’s growth rates were historically unprecedented by any country at any time in history,” she said.

Gallagher said that to eliminate energy poverty and meet the goals of the 2016 Paris climate agreement by 2030, trillions of dollars of investment would be necessary. She also emphasized the United States’ reluctance to contribute to international efforts.

“Everyone in the whole world is taking climate change seriously except the United States — as a matter of policy for national governments,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher also stressed further experimentation and the implementation of smart policy. She was optimistic about the possibilities of transitioning to clean energy in a variety of sectors, but also said that this would not happen without intentional efforts to do so.

“We should recognize that this transition is not likely to happen automatically or naturally,” she said. “There will be fierce resistance from some companies and workers. This says to me that the transition has to be planned really well and thoughtfully, with empathy.”

Panelists discuss carbon pricing

In the panel titled “How Can Carbon Pricing Deflate the Carbon Bubble?” on Friday afternoon, speakers discussed the implications of the growing trend of using carbon pricing as a way to reduce carbon release by implementing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.

The speakers were Boston Common Asset Management Portfolio Manager Steven Heim, BP Trading Manager Teresa Lopez, 2C Energy Founder and CEO Mark Boling and Patrick Schena, an adjunct assistant professor of international business relations at The Fletcher School. The talk was moderated by Funlola Otukoya, Investor Lead at CDP.

Lopez said it was highly inefficient to determine carbon pricing at the state level. She advocated instead for designating a global standard carbon price, a move that she said would be beneficial for the international market.

Boling spoke about the need to plan for the future, adding that businesses should consider the total societal cost of production.

“When customers make purchasing decisions, they look at the private cost,” he said. “If there is a huge difference between what the private cost is and [social cost] … then there is a truly a market failure and a socially inefficient outcome.”

Schena advocated for a systematic approach to risk. He gave the example of New Zealand, a country that has significantly reduced its carbon footprint in a manner that is undisruptive to other parts of its economy.

Heim acknowledged that investing in clean energy is a risk for banks and investors. When assessing the riskiness of a given investment, a company’s current carbon footprint and the ease with which it can transition to clean energy are key factors to consider, he said.

The session ended with panelists fielding questions about oil in the Arctic, carbon pricing in private markets, and the potential impacts of technology.

On Saturday afternoon, the winners of the Hitachi Center Energy Innovation Competition, for which applicants had submitted ideas before Jan. 15, were announced. The winning idea was Offbeet Compost, a composting and food scrap collection program based in the Greater Lowell area.

Looking towards the future of energy development

The next panel, entitled “Energy in 2100: The Shape of Things,” focused on energy development predictions. Moderated by Barbara Kates-Garnick, a professor of practice at The Fletcher School, the panel featured Judy Chang, energy economist and director of The Brattle Group; Jennie C. Stephens, professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University; and Jeff Goodell, a journalist focusing on climate change, as speakers. Garnick renamed the panel “The Shape of Water,” stating that water would be a major force in the future should the rate of climate change continue unabated.

Goodell explained his experience growing up in Silicon Valley and working at Apple, which was then a small startup. He noted the importance of not only trying to predict the future, but also reacting to what that future will bring, a skill he saw in Steve Jobs.

According to Goodell, the coal industry has no potential for innovation.

“As a Silicon Valley kid, it did not make sense to me. Why were we still burning rocks for power?” Goodell said.

He described how the world of the future will be dramatically different from the world of today, as rising sea levels pose a threat to coastal cities.

“In a world of rising seas … Miami as we know it today has no future,” Goodell said.

Goodell stressed the importance of adaptability.

“The need for adaptation, flexibility, resiliency is [key] for the future,” Goodell said.

Chang said she believes the future can be 100 percent renewable, but acknowledged that many people might consider that laughable. She noted that local and international collaboration are necessary.

According to Chang, failure to transition to 100 percent renewable energy would be dangerous because society is so dependent on energy.

“You can’t imagine how quickly society will fall apart when we have a major blackout,” she said.

Stephens focused on the social and political aspects of climate change. She drew parallels between energy justice and social justice. Stephens also contrasted the concept of energy democracy with that of energy dominance, a policy the U.S. government is currently endorsing.

“[Energy democracy] is a vision of the future that will be 100 percent renewable energy [with] … community-controlled energy [and] appropriate mixes of renewable energy [on a by-area basis]. Energy dominance is about having power and control and using our energy system to oppress people,” Stephens said.

The panelists also spoke about the forces currently driving energy development. Goodell described the influence of the nonprofit organization Citizens United in preventing energy development, letting “dark money” into government and transforming climate change into a “political litmus test.”

Chang explained that both politics and economics drive energy development. She cautioned against the U.S. government supporting coal at a time when renewable energy is more affordable than ever.

Goodell noted that there are non-monetary benefits to renewable energy and costs to traditional coal energy that many overlook. 

All three panelists discussed their belief in a “decentralized system” for energy in the future, where energy is renewable, not limited like fossil fuels, and where individuals control the energy, not corporations.

Goodell said the current rate of carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced through geoengineering technology, which would help buy scientists time for implementing clean-energy solutions later on.

Geoengineering technology is large-scale human manipulation of the earth’s atmosphere, [like] making artificial trees to absorb carbon dioxide, … putting particles in the air [like volcanoes do] to reflect sunlight,” Goodell said.

The conference was concluded with a keynote speech by Tom Dinwoodie, the lead independent trustee for the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

Dinwoodie said that large-scale changes will be required to lower carbon dioxide emissions. He presented a thesis for a project he was working on with the goal of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

“You can’t solve climate [change] without disrupting current practices in energy and land use,” Dinwoodie said.

Dinwoodie proceeded to outline the goal of removing carbon from the atmosphere to create a “carbon-managed world.”

He reported statistics of the rapid growth of wind and solar energy. Dinwoodie also discussed the ways in which market disruption was occurring, citing attempts to eliminate the retail of gas-powered cars in the Netherlands and other countries.

Dinwoodie envisioned a world in which carbon dioxide emissions could be managed in coming decades and in which solar energy will continue to thrive.

Outcomes of the TEC

Aleksander Gerard-Ursin, a sophomore on the marketing team for the TEC, said he hopes that the conference encouraged people to think more concretely about the future of energy development.

“I hope people walk away with an appreciation of at least thinking of what is to come … and how to deal with this transition from fossil fuels to clean forms of energy but [also] trying to think in a more long-term sense. I genuinely hope people are able to think of these topics in less abstract ways,” Gerard-Ursin said.

Stefan Koester, a co-chair of the conference and a first-year MALD student at The Fletcher School, expressed that the conference was put together with the goal of reaching many people. 

“We worked hard to make it as … interesting to as many people as possible,” Koester said.

Both Koester and fellow co-chair Elizabeth Minchew, a fourth-year MALD student, said the conference was successful in this regard. Minchew emphasized the importance of looking beyond current challenges and policies.

“One of our big goals … was to encourage people to think beyond the challenges and the policies and the atmosphere we are surrounded with today,” Minchew said. “I think we achieved that. By the end we’re thinking [about] what’s a viable technology for us to invest in now considering that in 100 years people hopefully won’t have to deal with [the problem of climate change].”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misrepresented Chang’s position on the transition to renewable energy. The article has been updated to reflect her position. The Daily regrets this error.

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