2016 Solar Power Colorado, Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association’s annual conference, was themed “Developing New Markets: Solar Leads the Energy Transition.” My day at the event yesterday lived up to that theme; of course, I may be biased, having moderated one of the very last breakout sessions, with Zachary Owens (Associate Program Manager, Colorado Energy Office), Andrew East (Executive Vice President, AET Solar), and Piper Foster Wilder (Deputy Director, Renewable Energy Alaska Project/Program Team Lead, CEO/COSEIA Solar Thermal Pilot) to discuss our efforts to great a market-ready program to install more solar thermal heating in Colorado.
There was feisty back and forth between utility representatives and solar energy advocates regarding whether or not business models such as Uber and Starbucks have any relevance when when looking at the essential and impending overhauls of utility business models. Speakers such as John Fielder and Jacqui Patterson helped us understand what is at stake in transitioning to a new energies: from the perspectives of our environment and our economy as well as from the perspective of the needs and health of all of our people.
Fun fact from John Fielder, photographer, conservationist, and accountant: outdoor recreation supports over 300,000 jobs in Colorado, 3 times the jobs and revenue created by the oil and gas industry in our state.
Key points from Jacqui Patterson, Director of Environmental & Climate Justice, NAACP: of course, energy is a social justice issue, when children of color and low-income households are disproportionately affected by the health impacts of fossil fuel powered energy, and people of color and low-income households disproportionately pay more of their income for energy than white and middle class households.
And, as Andrew East, on my panel, so persistently and persuasively made clear: we have to stop equating “energy” with “electricity.” Because, while electricity contributes an enormous portion of our greenhouse gas emissions (due to the difference between primary and end-use energy), the majority of our energy used is for thermal (heating and cooling) purposes, not electricity. (This is a point I’ve been making since I developed the Colorado Energy Wheel in 2012, showing that over 40% of Colorado end-use energy goes to thermal applications, and 75% of Colorado building energy use goes to thermal applications.)
Karl R. Rábago, Executive Director, Pace Energy and Climate Center and Co-Director, Northeast Solar Energy Market Coalition (NESEMC) made abundantly clear, why he is doing what he is doing professionally: he tasked the Colorado solar industry with making Colorado a state that is leading the charge to a new, smart energy economy by the time he permanently returns to the state to be with his grandson.
Likewise, I became a strategic energy management consultant because I wanted—in my old age—to be able to look my daughter and her children in the eye and say that I did something to create the wonderful world that we have today (in that future today).
Many energy professionals are in the business because of this kind of deep personal commitment. Which is why energy professionals must care about issues like protecting that last un-dammed river in Colorado—the Yampa—(which I’ll be floating in Colorado in May with my husband, my 76-year-old parents, and my 11-year-old, 6th-generation-Coloradan daughter). It’s why we have to care that black and brown children are getting sick and dying more often than white children because of energy.
But, I also became a strategic energy management consultant because I am able to see the strategic view: I see how fossil fuels, utilities, heat and cars and electricity, water ways, children of color, grandchildren and my grandmother’s childhood home in Grand Lake all fit together.
Okay, so, it’s a gift—and a curse. I can see all of these moving parts and their relationship to each other at the same time, in this amazingly detailed view. I can’t build a gas-powered combined cycle power plant. I can’t design a new solar cell. I can’t finance the service of solar heat or design the service of distributed energy devices management on the grid.
But, I know a bunch of brilliant people who can. And, I can understand all of these people and pieces and fit together. I can help all of those brilliant people relate to each other more effectively—and to the public. I see how each one and each piece has a role to play in the transition. I can see where they all need to be down the road.
I can see how we need to stop dissing each other when one of us brings an analogy like Uber and another tries to convey the deep complexities and responsibilities faced by today’s utilities. I can see how the two relate and there doesn’t need to be contention, but rather an effort to fit these seemingly mismatched puzzle pieces together. I can see how we have to stop talking about “energy” as if it were only electrons on wires because I can see how a water heater tank can serve as a battery for the grid and a solar thermal system can charge it.
I do what I do because I want a beautiful future for my daughter and her children and grandchildren. But also, because there are a lot of things that I can’t do in the energy transition. But seeing how it all fits for all of our citizens and help others see it and make it happen? That’s what I can do.
Which allows me to see that we need to stop seeing things in terms of us and them, in terms of sides. We need to find ways to close chasms, to come to every table ready to see the opportunities not the barriers, to be prepared to say “yes” instead of “no,” to listen rather than to speak. I can see that all energy professionals need to stand side by side and get it done.
That, I can do.