The Clean Energy Ministerial: If Only Hot Air Could Be Harnessed As Clean Energy

While internally, the U.S. may be offering a mixed message about its clean energy future, at the surface, the message is still positive. This month, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu met with his counterparts from more than 20 other governments at the second annual Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) in Abu Dhabi. The goal was to to announce renewed support for 11 worldwide clean energy


Participants of the Clean Energy Ministerial in Abu Dhabi, April, 2011. Source: Korea IT Times

initiatives.

The initiatives were strategically chosen to try and accelerate something that looks a bit like a global clean energy future. Specifically, the group has a stated goal of eliminating the need to build more than 500 dirty power plants worldwide in the next 20 years.

After the event, the press release language poured out fast and furiously.

“In just nine months since the U.S. hosted the first Clean Energy Ministerial, we have laid the groundwork for global progress in areas such as appliance efficiency, smart grids and electric vehicle deployment. Working together, we can move faster to save money, create jobs and accelerate the transition to a clean energy future,” said Secretary Chu.

Yadda, yadda, yadda, as they might say in New York.

The event sounds great in marketing brochures. The first-annual meeting was held in Washington, D.C. in 2010, and put forth initiatives for promoting economic growth while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants; supporting renewable energy markets; expanding access to clean energy resources and jobs; and working to promote the role of women in clean energy markets and careers.

Even if the event generates little more than press releases, at least the right players are at the table. The CEM participant countries together account for about 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than 70 percent of global gross domestic product. Most of the countries involved have also paid at least lip service to investing in R&D for clean energy technologies.

So what are these 11 “initiatives” and will they actually lead to anything getting done? The outcome seems a bit mixed.

The Bioenergy Working Group. This group’s goal is to discuss the use of bioenergy: biofuels and biogas. The group has planned a meeting for June 2011 to discuss and define future issues and past successes in the field. It will also attempt to designate an international organization that will act as a global clearinghouse for worldwide bioenergy information, and will hold a workshop in November of this year for interested multinational parties. The group plans to launch a “Biofuel Roadmap” by compiling and analyzing information already available on current bioenergy agriculture systems and databases and by tapping info from member countries, international groups, multilateral agencies, academia and the private sector.

PR Fluff Factor: Sky high. The Group’s job is to shuffle index cards and rewrite case studies.

Carbon Capture Use and Storage Action Group. Carbon capture and sequestration, the practice of taking greenhouse gasses produced in manufacturing and storing them rather than letting them escape into the atmosphere, is a dicey political issue…at least in the U.S. While many climate scientists agree that it’s helpful, it’s also expensive and politically risky. This action group hopes to address the “financial gap and risk associated with early mover CCS demonstration and deployment.” In other words, how to help the early adopters of CCS pay for and defend their actions politically, and be rewarded for their efforts.

PR Fluff Factor: Moderate. Initiating CCS projects will require as much high-level grease as possible, and countries and municipalities brave enough to spend the money and political capital to achieve it deserve as much support as possible.

Clean Energy Education & Empowerment Women’s Initiative. Get the womenfolk involved, it’s good for PR. Under the umbrella of the satisfyingly government-ishly named Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) initiative, the U.S. and eight partner governments held a public forum on “The Role of Women in the Clean Energy Revolution.” Three female ministers and eight distinguished panelists (who would be referred to by someone more cynical than me as “the token women”) from clean energy-related fields, held talks about policies and programs to enhance women’s leadership on clean energy around the world. Aside from the suggestion of some scholarships for women to study climate science or green engineering, the talking head factor on this one is almost comical.

PR Fluff Factor: Off the charts and patronizing, to boot.

Clean Energy Solutions Centers. These are “virtual networks of experts and world-class online tools.” In order to build the virtual centers, nations pledged more than $50 million over five years. The online resources will be there to “help governments of developing countries with a focus on major economies” (cough, cough, India and China) to drive “transformational low-carbon technologies by identifying and sharing best-practice policies, providing the market with information on emerging policy trends, and identifying opportunities for policy coordination across countries.”

PR Fluff Factor: Moderate. India and China will ultimately move toward clean energy at their own pace and will resent the intrusion of know-it-all Western nations, and the member countries will have spent fifty million bucks to build a couple of Web sites.

Electric Vehicles Initiative. “Helping to put 20 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2020,” is the stated goal of this group. Specifically, the group hopes to launch an international “pilot cities” program to promote electric vehicle demonstrations in urban areas; share information on funding available for electric car research and development, and come up with deployment targets and best practices and policies for reaching targets.

PR Fluff Factor: Low, by accident. No amount of discussion, promotion or deployment targeting is going to make people buy electric cars if they don’t want them. The good news for this initiative, however, is that if fuel prices keep going up, the global public will continue warming toward the idea of hybrid and electric vehicles.

Global Superior Energy Performance Partnership. Though you’d never know it from the nonsensical and pretentious name, this group’s goal is to promote greater efficiency in industrial facilities and commercial buildings. The group will try to pull together some standards, best practices and certifications so all participating or aspiring nations and private industry groups can get on the same page.

PR Fluff Factor: Low. As a lack of serious global standards for green buildings and facilities is a real issue, this group may actually accomplish something useful.

International Smart Grid Action Network. ISGAN, a coalition of 20 governments, has a stated goal of “helping to accelerate the development of smarter electricity grids around the world, which will improve the reliability of electrical systems, promote the growth of renewable energy, expand the use of electric vehicles, and help consumers and businesses better measure and lower their energy use.”

PR Fluff Factor: Low. While most of the stated goals are nebulous, the network plans to make sure smart grid technologies and applications are built to the same standards across member countries, ensuring interoperability. This is particularly important in the case of the U.S., as we don’t have a good track record of standardizing with the rest of the world – witness our rejection of the metric system, or our weird and proprietary mobile phone network that is a square peg in a world of cellular round holes.

Multilateral Solar and Wind Working Group. This group’s goals are “the development of a global solar and wind atlas to facilitate the development of deployment strategies by policymakers and trigger investment by making the necessary information on resource potentials and socio‐economic framework conditions publicly available” and “multilateral capacity building activities to showcase successful paths for training the workforce all along the value chain and life cycle of renewable energy installations.”

PR Fluff Factor: 93 Million Miles High. The minute anyone starts using the word “socio-economic in their technology goals, you can be pretty sure that the talking-to-action ratio is going to be stratospheric.

Solar and LED Energy Access Program. While most developed countries now have access to more efficient and clean lighting, many developing countries do not. This group (called SLED) hopes to improve access to cleaner lighting services for 10 million people (primarily in Africa and Asia) within five years: namely, by focusing on replacing fossil‐fuel‐based light sources, such as kerosene lanterns, with solar‐powered LED lights.

PR Fluff Factor: Moderate. While many of the group’s goals seem airy, clearing the way for clean energy lighting manufacturers and distributors to find capital and investors in Africa and Asia is fairly worthy.

Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Initiative. Called SEAD, this initiative somehow aims to “incentivize” the deployment of super-efficient equipment and appliances. SEAD has identified six product categories (commercial refrigeration, computers, distribution transformers, solid-state lighting, motors, and televisions) and one energy-use mode (network standby) as areas for expanded technical exchanges to improve efficiency. The group believes that if it’s effective in its goals, it can eliminate the equivalent of 300 mid-size power plants worldwide in the next 20 years.

PR Fluff Factor: Moderate to High. While technological standardization is important, the moment anyone starts using words like “incentivize,” be wary.

Sustainable Development of Hydropower Initiative. The Sustainable Development of Hydropower Initiative will share expertise, best practices and methodologies related to the implementation and financing of hydropower facilities. It hopes to “motivate” development and financing agencies to tuck hydropower into their portfolios of possible energy solutions for developing countries.

PR Fluff Factor: High. Here’s the translation: We’ll lecture developing nations on how to use water many of them can’t spare to generate clean energy. In the meantime, we sure hope that it’ll become chic among investors and venture capitalists to put up hydroelectric installations in the middle of nowhere, so they can be photographed with local children for their corporate brochures. It’s so Brad and Angelina!

Do I sound like a cynic? I don’t mean to. I count the potential of clean energy as enormous and understated. But it’s hard not to notice that there is too much talk and condescension and too little action in many of these organizations. Developing nations are unlikely to be induced into making choices and taking action on someone else’s agenda and at someone else’s pace (unless a lot of someone else’s money is offered) no matter how much we discuss, digest, quantify, qualify, index, compile, recommend, propose or “incentivize.” Which isn’t, by the way, a word.

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