Coal was essential to the industrial revolution. It provided the power to drive steam engines and to build our infrastructure. The result is that in developed countries today, we have an incredible infrastructure that supports thousands of industries that, in turn, support our industrialized lifestyles. Industrialization, however, came with a cost. Oil, coal and fossil fuels produce harmful side effects in terms of greenhouse gas emissions that have been linked to climate change. Moreover, the reality is that the global appetite for energy is growing exponentially, especially as underdeveloped countries focus on economic development. We are at a transition point where we need to secure a sustainable energy future—globally. Fortunately, some of the greatest minds around the world have come together to focus on this challenge.
“A sustainable energy future is the most important challenge of this generation,” declared Susan Hockfield, president emerita, MIT, during her keynote address to the first Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Symposium held September 28, 2012, on the MIT Campus in Cambridge, Mass. The MIT Energy Initiative (MITei) was designed to put MIT’s weight behind this challenge. The strength of the initiative is in the recognition that great technology alone will never win. Great technology must be paired with good policy and strong alliances with industry partners. Led by Executive Director Melanie Kenderdine, MITei has been transformative for MIT. “The time is right,” said Hockfied. “In my mind, the efforts of MITei are designed to deliver real results for the real world. It is a wonderful problem. The threat of climate change is daunting. The number of nonbelievers is daunting. But this is a problem with solutions. We can, if we pull together, make a significant change.”
Transformation is underway from multiple directions, and one leader is corporate America. “True transformation will only occur through sustainable development,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative Meeting. This is a message that is clearly internalized by Wal-Mart, British Petroleum (BP), General Electric (GE) and Cummins, all sponsors of the C3E program, an initiative led by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in strong partnership with MITie. Each of these industry-leading companies has implemented corporate initiatives that focus on both sustainability and the bottom line.
“These companies really do care,” said Kim Saylers-Laster, vice president of energy for Wal-Mart International. “Wal-Mart has three broad goals,” continued Saylers-Laster. “Be 100% powered by renewable energy, create zero waste, and sell sustainable products.” BP has made a commitment to invest $8 billion in clean technology in ten years, said Terry Wood, vice president of technology for BP. Cummins, the world’s largest independent manufacturer of diesel engines, is driving cleaner products while still producing a product that meets the needs of the customers. Using this strategy, Cummins has virtually eliminated NOx, a byproduct produced from the reaction of nitrogen and oxygen gases in the air during combustion, and particulate emissions from their engines. They are taking advantage of the abundance of cleaner burning natural gas to develop natural gas engines, said Jennifer Rumsey, executive director of heavy duty engineering at Cummins. “When it makes good economic sense, it’s easy to convince the shareholders that it’s the right thing to do.”
These corporations recognize that true transformation can’t happen when we don’t engage all of society in the solutions. “It is critically important that women play a significant role,” said Kenderdine. The need for a sustainable energy future is a problem with an incredibly important purpose, a problem that touches the lives of everyone on the globe. “When more women enter the workforce, it spurs innovation, increases productivity and grows economies. Families then have more money to spend; businesses can expand their consumer base and increase their profits; in short, everyone benefits,” said Secretary Clinton during opening remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative.
A sustainable energy future is a global issue, especially in places where there is a chance to develop energy infrastructure the right way—learning from the mistakes of the developed world. South Africa is one of nine countries that participate in the C3E program. Elizabeth Dupuo Peters, energy minister of South Africa, addressed the audience from the perspective of a continent where women leaders in energy are few, and in some countries no more than 7 percent have direct access to electricity. “The development of the clean energy sector marks a revolution in the energy sector, which will in the long run change amongst others: the economics of energy, the dominant energy technologies for energy production, issues of transformation, the way we consume energy, as well as the form and structure of energy as we know it today,” began Minister Peters. An energy revolution is underway, and women are beginning to take decisive roles in the economy. There are signs of an industrial revolution, but access to power is a crucial prerequisite to force this positive industrial change.
Positive change can only happen if energy poverty is eradicated. “Energy poverty is one of the debilitative factors which militate against development of communities and society at large,” emphasized Minister Peters. The statistics are staggering: Globally, around 1.5 billion people don’t have access to electricity, and 2.5 billion rely on traditional biomass for sustainability. This model is not sustainable considering that the proportion of people in Africa without electricity and the rate of electrification is lower than any other continent. “Affordable, reliable energy is a fundamental hindrance to human social and economic development. Poverty in education will remain a dream as long as energy poverty is not solved,” remarked Peters.
Worldwide, however, there is economic opportunity. We can improve infrastructure, and we can look to demonstrated progress. “The influence and drive for C3E has resulted in gender parity. Over 50 percent of the personnel in the Department of Energy in South Africa are women. Significantly, women have been kept back in the past for our skill in “soft” issues. However, it is that “soft” understanding that we need to drive issues forward helping to overcome huge obstacles by working together and supporting collaboration. “In every country we have the responsibility to ensure that we grow. We want women in Africa to be empowered,” Peters declared.
Advancements for the developing world
Access to electricity globally is possible with new technologies and new business models. Not only that, but we can do it better. We can leapfrog the steps in development that we undertook in industrialized nations and implement today’s solutions. For example, rather than investing in traditional infrastructure for landline telephones, underdeveloped countries recognize that they can jump directly to mobile telephones. “We can use the same strategy to bring high-quality energy solutions to off-grid populations,” said Allison Archambault, president, Earth Spark International. With emerging micro-grid and distributed generation technologies, it is possible to support communities without the huge investment required to support an extensive grid infrastructure. “We work on business models that bring high-quality energy solutions to off-grid populations in Haiti—75 percent of Haiti’s population. There are a number of pathways for clients to access these services,” continued Archambault. Providing pathways to access and finance the technology is crucial to providing global electricity access. Whether the perspective is that of corporate America or a developing country, no one can argue that energy is critical to our future. The challenge of our generation is to ensure that it is sustainable, and the way we get there is to leverage the tremendous talent working on these challenges and make the economic case. Transformation of this magnitude, however, requires global collaboration and leadership—two concepts exemplified by MITei and C3E.