Energy summit promises lively discussion on 21st century challenges

You might say that trying to predict the future is a little like nailing Jell-O to the wall — in some cases without a hammer. That’s no less true when it comes to energy policy. Yesterday’s peak-oil, hair-on-fire energy crisis can easily morph into today’s fracking-fueled, cheap-gas energy surge.

But that doesn’t mean our world doesn’t face some keen energy-related challenges, or that population trends aren’t requiring cities to rethink their approach to a sustainable energy future.

A host of policymakers and leading academics will convene at the UW-Madison’s Discovery Building and Union South from 8:30 to 5 p.m. on Oct. 29 for the 2014 Energy Summit, which will focus this year on a “Global Energy Outlook: Meeting Needs for Future Cities and Communities.” The event is sponsored by the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

With the world’s population continuing to migrate into cities, the summit’s participants will address numerous policy-related and technical issues facing the world in general and the world’s rapidly growing municipalities in particular.

The summit will include a keynote address by Alice Madden, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy. In addition, the event will feature seven panels on energy-related topics: Perspectives on Future Cities; Water-Energy Nexus and Sustainable Supply; Sustainable Energy for Global Cities; Energy Planning and Policy Issues; Energy, Air, Healthy Cities; Managing Weather and Climate Risks to Urban Electricity; and Energy-Efficient Urban Transportation Planning.

“I want to create a conversation in each of these panels so that people can hear what our experts conceive the future to be and challenge them,” said Michael Corradini, director of the Wisconsin Energy Institute and one of the organizers of the summit. “Some of the policies of various states are amenable to technology, some aren’t. Some have ways in which they will cost out new technologies that are different than others. So we want to have that discussion.”

According to Corradini, who will moderate the Sustainable Energy for Global Cities panel discussion, the format of each panel will allow for plenty of audience participation. He said about half or more of the hour and a half allotted to each panel will be dedicated to a Q&A and discussion period.

“I don’t want to come in with any preconceptions that there’s a right answer [to these questions],” said Corradini. “I want a discussion with these experts and our audience, because my guess is that students, faculty, and the local leadership in politics and business will ask some pretty tough questions.”

The panel moderators come from the UW international studies, engineering, environmental studies, and public affairs departments, but the panel participants represent numerous institutions, fields of study, and municipalities.

For instance, the featured panel, Perspectives on Future Cities, will include Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; H. Stephen Halloway of the International Law Institute; Damien Ma, a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Paulson Institute; and Franziska Breyer, environmental director of the City of Freiburg, Germany, which some experts consider the greenest city in the world.

The summit will focus on government policy as well as the technologic innovation and vision that can — or will someday be able to — back it up.

In his Sustainable Energy for Global Cities panel, Corradini will host Harold Ray, a retired executive vice president for Southern California Edison; Bob Lasseter, emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison; and Frank Carre, scientific director for the Nuclear Energy Division at the French Commission for Atomic and Alternative Energies. (France currently derives more than 75% of its electricity from nuclear power.)

“I brought in [Ray] because Southern Cal, at the time he was in charge, they probably built the most renewables anywhere in California, so he’s going to talk about how renewables spread in the state and the appropriate policies and the technology challenges,” said Corradini. “And then professor Lasseter is going to be talking about his ideas on distributed generation. In his mind, if one does it that way, it will create more opportunities for renewables to expand into the marketplace.”

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Meanwhile, the summit’s subhead, “Meeting Needs for Future Cities and Communities,” assumes we have some sense of what the future will — or should — look like. That can be a tricky proposition, says Corradini.

“I hate predicting because usually you are wrong,” said Corradini. “Right now we’re about to become the second biggest oil producer in the world, second only to Russia. We’ve just passed Saudi Arabia in oil production. Nobody expected that to occur. Now you have to ask an environmental question: Does that make sense? Now there’s a policy issue there.

“Part of it is an opportunity based on resources, part of it is an opportunity based on technology, and then you have to take a policy stand as to where you want to drive things. So that’s part of the conversation that we want to have at the summit.”

But for Corradini, despite the difficulty in setting out a clear roadmap for the future, it’s vital to engage in these conversations, especially considering that cities are expected to account for 90% of global population growth, 80% of CO2 emissions, and 75% of global use of energy, water, and food in the 21st century.

While Thomas Malthus’ long-noted yet still-unrealized predictions about our population outstripping its resources remain chilling to some, others are swayed by Pollyannaish expectations about an abundant-energy future (which were buoyed somewhat by Lockheed Martin’s recent announcement on fusion).

For his part, Corradini can envision a wide range of possible outcomes, which is part of what makes the topics that will be explored at the Global Energy Summit so tantalizing.

“Let me take a positive and a negative side just to show you the range of things,” said Corradini. “What worries me is that we’re not investing in infrastructure, and this is going to come back and get us. And I worry about energy infrastructure because that’s what I know, but I could go on with transportation infrastructure, I could go on about water infrastructure. …

“On the positive side, we’ve proved to be a nation of innovation, and that means we’re going to come up with ideas that will make things hopefully less expensive or less complex, so we can get [through] some of our issues. So, for example, there might be new water purification methods, there might be new ways to do distributed generation that would reduce the cost of electrical transmission, so those are the positive things technologically that we’re looking for.”

For more information on the 2014 Energy Summit, click here.

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