Energy and Climate Change Policies in the Americas

By:Martha Butwin and Stan Pence Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

Not a Quick Fix with One Solution

Energy and Climate Change

The final roundtable focusing on Energy and Climate Change was about to begin, but not before a quick bike ride around downtown Denver. The audience of over 1,200 waited patiently for the panel members, who were changing feverishly backstage into their business suits from biking shorts, to inform them on topics including mobility, electric vehicles, and the role of renewable energy in 21st century America – North, Central, and South.

The Roundtable was headlined by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who emphasized that the United States’ love affair with the automobile does not need to end, but needs to be tamed so that this country has fewer fully-utilized three car garages. LaHood emphasized that the Obama administration has instituted new standards that passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty passenger vehicles achieve 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The administration also calls for more accessible public transportation as well as a high-speed inter-city trains that will connect 80% of U.S. cities within 25 years.

After Secretary LaHood’s introductory remarks, moderator Robert Hutchinson of the Rocky Mountain Institute introduced the first round of panelists: Secretary LaHood, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Canadian Ambassador to the United States Gary Doer, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Executive Director Gustavo Arnavat, Panamanian Ambassador to the United States Jaime Aleman, and Colombian Ambassador to the United States Carolina Barco. Hutchinson began the discussion by offering up the topic of mobility.

Ambassador Aleman said that Panama has internal and external mobility concerns most notably a metro system that is designed to move commuters internally, and externally, the price and availability of jet fuel. Aleman declared that Panama - and the world - knows that fuel efficiency is key to sustainability. Colombian Ambassador to the U.S., Carolina Barco added that Bogota has seven million people in a compact venue, which lends itself to more efficient mobility systems. Seventy percent of Bogotans take the bus, but cars take up 70% of the roadways. To reduce bottlenecks, buses were provided with right-of-way lanes and bus commute time fell an average of seventy-five percent. Ambassador Doer further stated that he pushed California emissions standards through when he was Premier of Manitoba, and the economic advantage of this action was as impactful as the environmental advantage. The buses were manufactured in Manitoba to the high California standards and were sold throughout North America, benefiting both the environment and his province’s economy.

On the topic of electric vehicles, Secretary LaHood spoke briefly on the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. The Secretary told of plans to travel later in the week with President Obama to visit both GM and Chrysler in Detroit, and emphasized that the U.S. population has an appetite for cars other than those that only burn gasoline. Governor Ritter opined that he had the opportunity on his recent mission to Israel to witness battery switching technology. In less than a minute, one can switch out a car’s electric battery and drive away with a fully-charged battery. This was presented as an alternative to charging stations. While the energy systems across the Americas are weighted towards available resources – like fossil fuels in the U.S., Mexico and Chile and hydro in Canada, Colombia and Venezuela – all countries of the Americas face the consequences of climate change.

The esteemed group also discussed the pressing issues in the field of renewable energy. The group agreed that a key issue is connecting wind, solar, and geothermal to the electric grid. Ambassador Doer emphasized that this must be accomplished without “sticker shock,” but that he is convinced that the expense is currently running “one lawyer per megawatt” of electricity. IDB’s Arnavat addressed another crucial factor in the renewable energy arena when he proclaimed that the IDB will double funding on renewable energy projects in Latin America. The IDB funded wind farms in Nicaragua that serve 20% of the Nicaraguan population, and worked with indigenous subject matter experts to train the locals in energy efficiency techniques that resulted in decreased utility bills.

While the first round of participants included government leaders, the second wave of participants focused on private sector initiatives to further mobility and renewable energy. This group included CH2M HILL Chairman and CEO Lee McIntire, Public Service Company of Colorado (Xcel Energy) President and CEO David Eves, Encana Natural Gas USA Division Vice President Don McClure (Canada), AGA Group Program Manager Carl Bennett (Jamaica), Former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia Enrique Peñalosa and CEO of Stillwater Preservation Sally Ranney.

The group agreed that adoption of renewable energy technologies is viewed as the key to transitioning from the world’s non-sustainable (fossil) energy systems to a long-term sustainable energy future. While the energy systems across the Americas are weighted towards available resources – like fossil fuels in the U.S., Mexico and Chile and hydro in Canada, Colombia and Venezuela - all countries of the Americas face the consequences of climate change. Across the hemisphere, countries are adopting policies to address this issue by altering long ingrained transportation patterns. The hope is that by developing more sustainable mobility models, energy use will be altered and climate change slowed or rolled back.

Secretary LaHood noted that while most U.S. cities have been shaped by cars, governments are now working to integrate mobility systems such as light rail, streetcars, biking/walking networks and other transport systems to reduce public dependence on the automobile. Speakers from Latin America noted that light rail and subway systems often aren’t economically viable in developing countries. Cheaper modes of transport developed in Central and South America are often better suited for these countries and are easily adaptable to U.S. and Canadian communities as well. Dedicated bus lanes were again highlighted by the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, also a transportation expert, as a proven technology that works. By grouping buses together in dedicated lanes people are moved faster, cheaper and more efficiently, than by subway or light rail. Unfortunately, these type of systems suffer from what Peñalosa terms “a lack of sexiness,” thereby making them less attractive political solutions.

The problems faced by small, developing countries in addressing mobility and energy issues were highlighted by Carl Bennett, an expert on the Caribbean region. He cited Jamaica as an example of the region’s poor and resource deficient economies that also need better energy and transport systems. Bennett stressed that one-size-fits all models developed in larger economies will probably not be successful in places such as the Caribbean, and that different systems appropriate for the region’s unique circumstances will need to be developed in these countries.

Renewable energy is now viewed in the Americas and around the globe as the key to moving beyond fossil fuel-based power systems. Several speakers addressed the development of renewable energy systems in the Americas, especially the use of natural gas as a transition fuel in achieving a cleaner energy future. Encana’s Don McClure outlined the impact of newly accessible shale gas resources in Canada and in the United States. Natural gas is 40% cleaner than coal. Its widespread adoption in vehicles and power generation would immediately cut global greenhouse gas emissions. McClure stressed that shale gas is plentiful not just in North America, but worldwide. He also pointed out that countries such as Argentina are rapidly adopting natural gas vehicles (NGVs) in their transportation fleets, underlining the importance of Latin America as a model for all the Americas in developing new mobility models and energy sources. Development of U.S. offshore wind resources is also constrained by lack of government and public agreement on developing adequate transmission capabilities.

Xcel Energy’s David Eves also addressed the importance of natural gas in the world’s energy mix and its value in pairing the resource with wind and solar. In developing policy, he stressed that both power providers and public stakeholders must agree in planning for new energy resources. Without agreed upon policies, issues critical to the development of renewable energy, such as new transmission lines, will not be easily developed. As an example of the potential of renewable power, he cited Argentina’s wind-rich Patagonia region which can power much of that country but is constrained by the lack of transmission lines. Development of U.S. offshore wind resources is also constrained by lack of government and public agreement on developing adequate transmission capabilities. Stillwater’s Sally Ranney agreed that the challenges in wind technology include speed and scale, with efficient transmission a still unsolved issue.

When all the laws have passed, permits have cleared, and the energy project has been approved, CH2M HILL’s Lee McIntire may be the person managing it. McIntire has to look at the big picture, including energy issues and an even greater global concern - water. As McIntire stated, “We can live without energy, but try to live without water.” The group thus began a discussion of energy efficiency and water resources that will most likely be a topic at the next Biennial.

In the end, participants agreed that the Americas need to change its way of life in order to affect its energy use patterns and by extension, climate change. The changes will not be easy and will often require radically different ways of thinking and more than a few bike rides around the block. Across the Americas, new models of energy use and energy systems are developing. This includes innovative ways to address public and private transportation as well as new innovative uses of fuel. Continued dialogue between the Americas like those at the Biennial can only advance the hemisphere’s and the world’s transition to a less energy intensive and, hopefully, greener world.