Visions beyond flat-earthers: Providing leadership on low carbon energy

I sometimes wonder if those top people that fly in and fly out for conferences ever actually remember what they say. The top CEO’s and politicians for events must give the same speech 20 times before they begin to alter it. Well, while I don’t discount this practice, I was struck by Ferdinando Beccali-Falco, the President and CEO of GE Europe and North Asia. This time I heard him at the 21st Economic Forum in Krynica Zdroj, Poland on September 9, 2011.

Getting tired of waiting for the future energy system

Mr. Beccali-Falco was also at the Energy Forum that took place in 2008 in Budapest. The main topic was about regional energy markets. There I remember him, and others, made a good case for the need to increase regional coordination in the energy sector. Although not much has happened since. This year, he even referred to his previous speech in the region and the need to increase economies of scale. He laminated on the lack of progress since then. He places this down to the lack of political will along with not enough vision and understanding that a new energy system can bring. For him, we are hitting the roadblock for implementing policies, with politicians and bureaucracy central in this roadblock.

The speakers at the Economic Forum – generally – could be divided into two groups. The first group had the vision and knowledge that a more integrated, low carbon, and smart energy system can provide – at around the same cost as the current system. The second group, were grappling with old arguments of price and uncertainty that an integrated energy system with high levels of renewable energy sources brings. Thus the second group views gas as an essential element to bridge to a low carbon energy system. Although this is a false view, as enough technologies exist to begin to strongly re-invent the energy system.

My contribution to the conference was in the form as a commentator to the panel discussion on ‘After Fukushima: Europe’s future energy mix.’ Lacking on the panel was someone that represented the renewable energy sector, and while they were present in other sessions, I focused my comments on the strong need to reduce energy use, increase RES and quickly begin the transition to a post-carbon energy system. According to the European Climate Foundation, to make the transition happen within a moderate investment climate, it must begin within the next five years. The inability of governments, regulators and energy companies to cooperate in the CEE region, fails to provide the foundation for this long – but fruitful – transition. (see my earlier post on the necessary cooperation).

Overall, the conference was informative and inspiring. There is widespread agreement, at least in the energy industry, that the smart grid and demand reduction are essential for the future energy system. Both Schneider Electric and Alstrom had strong speakers describing the benefits that a smart grid bring. The political tension that previously marked energy conferences, has given way to more practical and technical issues. However, it can expected that this aspect will emerge again. One of the essential elements of a smart grid is complete market transparency in the electricity system. For those like, Mr. Beccali-Falco who are calling for regional integration and rolling-out new technologies at a large scale, it is distrust and vested interests into nationally controlled energy markets, which remain as the primary barriers for the emergence of the smart energy system of today.