Monday, February 27, 2012

How Do We Find Tomorrow's Energy Solutions?

Last Tuesday, Disruptive Thinkers of San Diego hosted a forum on the "Future of Energy."   We tried a different format than our usual roundtable discussion -- this was partly because the size of our group has grown, but also to draw out more interesting discussion. 

What's Next When (If?) Oil Peaks?
Tech entrepreneur Dave Porreca gave the introductory remarks, and laid out the intellectual challenges to defining effective energy policy.  His most provocative remarks came when he asked the crowd "How many of you think that nuclear energy can be safe -- without any possibility of meltdown or negative side-effects?"  One person out of thirty raised his hand.  He was the only one who got the answer right.

It was the investigation of forth-generation nuclear that piqued our interest -- along with revelations about Tata's Air Car and the use of biofuels derived from algae.  To be sure, some of these technologies are still in the nascent stages, and may prove to be unworkable.  But it was refreshing to hear a different story than Big Oil vs. Green Tech that the media and politicians seem to be wedded to.

In fact, the night was remarkable in that not once did politics come up -- and this in a room full of people spanning the political spectrum.  The discussions were focused on moving forward, and embracing the best solutions, regardless of who proposed them.

Earlier in the week, our board members contacted the campaign of San Diego Mayoral Candidate Nathan Fletcher, and his staff was interested to hear some of our solutions to local energy issues.  Nathan's desired motto for a future San Diego is the "World's Most Innovative City."  It speaks volumes that he is willing to listen to entrepreneurs to make this a reality.  This defined our discussion for the evening. 

So much for Green Solutions in CA...
Before we were able to come up with solutions, however, we first had to define the problems facing the implementation of disruptive energy solutions.  And while all three groups had the task of discussing local energy policy, the randomly assigned groups tackled the problem from very different perspectives. 

In figuring out the questions to ask, we also discovered that many of us had no idea where our energy comes from.  Is it nuclear?  Wind?  Indigenous to California?  Imported from other states? We also had no idea how effective much vaunted alternative sources really are.  These questions seemed glaring, even among "highly" educated and involved professionals.  

In the end, here are some of the questions we contemplated: 
  1. Gas prices are likely to continue to rise. In the event of another conflict in Central Asia or the Middle East, prices could go well above $5/gallon. What is the breaking point for a city like San Diego? When do consumers/citizens have no choice but to fundamentally change behavior and how does that play out without chaos in public policy?  What incentive systems could be used to alter behavioral patterns?
  2. Over the course of the past decade, the ebb and flow of gas prices has brought the “alternative energy” conversation to the forefront.  Rare, however, are substantial solutions.  What is required for fundamental social change? 
  3. There are areas of our lives where energy consumption is readily displayed. Yet for the average citizen, they are usually not aware of how much energy they are consuming on a daily basis at home. Is there an application or technology that could simply make consumers aware?
  4. What is the role of Governmental policy?  Can it ever be useful?  More importantly, why does the government have such a bad track record in determining appropriate solutions (ethanol, Solyndra, etc)?
  5. How do we encourage established business interests, after buying up revolutionary innovations that threaten their markets, to grow them instead of shelving them?  
  6. How can we educate the public about where their power comes from, and ways to "Get off the grid?"
To be sure, these questions have been asked many times.  Yet, the institutional answers seem insufficient to the challenges at hand. 

The next post will delve into the answers to these questions, and what Disruptive Thinkers believes is the way forward. 

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