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Civilization in 2025: Cleaner, Richer, Decentralized?

So predict CEOs and world leaders at Bloomberg New Energy Finance's invite-only summit.

By Geoff Dembicki 14 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

[Editor's note: The Tyee's sustainability reporter Geoff Dembicki is on a months-long journalistic quest to answer the big question of his millennial generation: Are We Screwed? Find a complete list of his dispatches as they appear here.]

The future is oh-so-very-elusive for those tasked with predicting it. Assemble your best team of analysts, collect the latest data, run the most sophisticated algorithms, extrapolate endlessly from the past, and still what you're left with can only speak to the present moment. "One of our biggest challenges," Bloomberg New Energy Finance's Nat Bullard lamented recently, "is that there's no data about the future." Just an informed guess about the shape and texture of what lies ahead.

Which is what 1,033 world leaders, CEOs, investors, academics, activists, journalists and other delegates from over 40 countries gathered to do last week in New York. I also attended BNEF's Future of Energy Summit 2014, an invite-only confab where I humbly rubbed elbows with such one per centers as U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt, European climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard and past New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

So what consensus did this "Davos of clean energy," as one friend described it, reach about the future towards which human civilization is hurtling? First, let me set the scene: A dimly-lit ballroom in Manhattan's Grand Hyatt, black-suited energy nerds packed shoulder-to-shoulder, Bruno Mars crooning from the speakers, and a purplish hue around the stage that BNEF chairman Michael Liebreich bounded onto one morning, declaring "the structure of the future will be different from the past."

Energy from wind and solar is getting "unthinkably" cheap, he explained. So cheap it may soon provide more economic value to society than fossil fuels. If that trend persists, summit delegates were convinced, it will allow human civilization to become cleaner, richer and radically decentralized over the next half century. The future resulting from such a shift is "very difficult to predict," Liebreich said. "But what we do know," he went on, "is that it's going to be built by the people in this room."

'Strange phenomenon'

One of those people, United Nations Environment Programme head Achim Steiner, later that day pointed out the absurdity of our present era -- that 200 years of fossil fuel growth represent a historical nanosecond, and yet we're still willing to risk our existence on prolonging them. "Isn't this a strange phenomenon?" he said. Steiner's outlook for the future was nevertheless hopeful. "Rest assured," he said, our shift to a civilization less hostile to nature "will happen even faster than you assume."

BNEF seemed to think so too. It predicts new clean energy projects will grow 37 per cent by 2015, as renewables like wind and solar become just as cheap -- or cheaper -- than oil, coal and gas. Renewables last year though only provided 8.5 per cent of the planet's power. For them to fully displace fossil fuels "will require an enormous amount of investment," said International Energy Agency head Maria van der Hoeven. "But it is precisely that... an investment, and one that will pay out."

Right now Europe invests more than $2 billion each day in imported fossil fuels, lamented Hedegaard. "It goes without saying," she explained, "that at the same time we have unemployment, we have climate challenges, wouldn't it be smarter to invest [locally in clean energy]?" Such investments worldwide, she went on, are already dismantling the monopoly control fossil fuel firms have over our lives, and creating "more decentralized" societies.

What would life in that fully realized future be like, I wondered, where energy came from solar panels atop your roof, utilities and oil firms ceased in their present form to exist and politics reckoned with a thriving localism? In the Hyatt's "networking area" I pursued Hedegaard to ask. But she glided through the crowd with a forcefulness that gave me no entry, shaking hands with its dignitaries, giving soundbites to the TV crews, then exiting abruptly. The future remained elusive.

Broken model?

Yet I was provided another glimpse of its potentially decentralized structure by General Electric. Since 2005, it's generated revenues of $160 billion from investing in green technology, and plans to invest $10 billion more by 2020. "I would look at renewables as a reality," chairman Jeff Immelt said. He envisioned large power plants giving way to a vast network of solar panels, wind turbines and intelligent machines -- an "industrial internet" whose scope he compared to social media.

The vision is shared by the former chairman and CEO of Duke Energy, one of North America's biggest power utilities. If James Rogers could re-enter the electric industry today as a 25-year-old, he'd do it as an "attacker" of the old centralized business models founded on fossil fuels. Today's large incumbents "tend to be resistant to anything that attacks their core business," he said. "There's always an instinct to hoping all these new technologies go away. But the reality is that won't happen."

If that's true, it may in large part be due to clean energy moguls like Jigar Shah. "I'm working to destroy the utility business model," the former CEO of solar giant SunEdison told a packed breakout session. In Europe that process seems to be well underway. As renewables surge, its top 20 utilities have since 2008 lost more than half a trillion dollars in value. Such a day will come in North America, Shah thinks, when the centralized electric systems on which society was built cease to exist.

So what would be the nature of this newly decentralized society? I asked Shah the question after his session. "Well," he replied, "technology allows you today to empower the individual with a lower cost than a central system." By which he meant the savings that come from, say, putting a solar panel on your roof. But in Shah's prediction that "90 per cent of all [U.S.] utility companies will go out of business" by 2025, I sensed a shift with implications much broader than just cheaper energy.

Looking forward

What those implications were though remained elusive to me, but it seems I wasn't the only one intrigued by them. "We live in a moment when the possibilities for change are real and profound," declared bestselling climate change author and activist Bill McKibben. In the distributed clean energy system being built by people like Shah, or by corporations like GE, he envisioned a "world as interesting as the decentralized and increasingly democratic information world that the Internet has wrought."

Why such a world becomes ever feasible, argued former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, is because of its "no brainer business case." Wind, solar and other clean sources are getting so cheap that forgoing fossil fuels in their stead is "gonna save you money," he said. Not to mention lives. Bloomberg has given $50 million to the Sierra Club's efforts to shut down U.S. coal-fired power plants, whose pollution helps kill 13,000 people each year. "That's not altruism," he said. "That's common sense."

It was tempting to imagine that civilization's shift to a cleaner, richer and decentralized future would be smooth, logical and carefully planned. Yet sudden events have a way of intruding on our expectations, as when a summit server one afternoon dropped a gas burner by mistake and lit a section of Hyatt carpet on fire. I would later recall the shine of a dress shoe stamping out flames when McKibben warned our human species has only a few short years to avert planetary "chaos."

That was also the gist of last month's IPCC report, one of whose authors cautioned we face "horrible" risks so long as global carbon emissions continue their inexorable rise. Still, the difficulty of looking into the future is that it contains no measurable data. It presents to its predictors only a "wide openness," as BNEF's Bullard told me. So yes, as last week's summit came to a close the future felt no less elusive. Yet it seemed reasonable to sense somewhere in that openness a more hopeful world.  [Tyee]

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