Renewable energy conferences tend to look a lot like other other kinds of business conferences. They are graced by flocks of middle-aged white men in suits, take place in capacious auditoriums, and are home to stylish-but-functional lounge areas, spotty wi-fi, and keynote talks that persistently spill over their allotted time slots.
iPads are tapped at, notes are scrawled, smart phones are endlessly checked and rechecked. You are suddenly tired but you don't know why. This is the second plenary. You slept well last night. A laminated name tag dangles in front of your wrinkled button-up, and your breath smells like cheap coffee.The crowd at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance summit is similar to the crowd at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum and the World Future Energy Summit and so on and so forth. There are reps from massive energy companies like BP and Chevron, who have come to make their progress in sustainable sectors well-known. They are very serious about investing in renewable energy technology, or else why would they have come?
There are hungry-looking reps from start-ups and CEOS of scrappy cleantech ventures who circle the room smiling wide, on the lookout for seed capital or Important Connections or maybe just a slightly stale pastry from the food table.
There are cheerful event staff, fidgeting academics, austere bureaucrats. There are interview opportunities.
There is indeed value to be found in the talks, if you are patient and able to stay focused, if you are able to refrain from rechecking your inbox for the 26th time in the hour. There are interesting people doing interesting things.
And the vast majority of them are interested in making money off of clean energy. This is good. Lots more folks need to start making loads of money off of clean energy so that lots more folks will want to make loads more money off of clean energy.
There are competing ideas on how best to do this.
In one talk, four CTOs from four major corporations—Lockheed & Martin, BP, IBM, and the German utility I.ON—and Amory Lovins, the chief scientist and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, engage in an energy debate with philosophical undertones.
Lovins says that Germany made a wise investment in subsidizing clean energy.
"The Chancellor made a smart bet," he says. "It was better to finance German engineers than Gazprom." Meaning building a clean energy industry is a wiser investment than continuing to buy natural gas from Russia, as many European nations do. There are millions of clean energy jobs in Europe where but a few years ago there were not.
"Those jobs will soon disappear," counters Dr. Klaus Dieter-Maubach, the CTO of I.ON. "They will all be bankrupt; Chinese competition is doing price dumping that nobody can compete with."
"When the Chinese lowered the price of solar modules, won't there be more work for solar installers though?" Lovins says. "It's just a transfer within the system."
"We have basically paid the Chinese learning curve on solar manufacturing."
"Yeah, that's okay. It's my taxpayer money, though."
There are other talks. The Verizon CEO promises to reduce his company's carbon footprint and to invest in energy management systems. A company has a new way to covert waste into energy-rich gas. A website will help you manage your clean energy investments.
This is the other half. The environmental movement, with millions of members and volunteers, can protest oil pipelines and condemn coal plants and call out polluters. Activists can take to the streets, organizations can pressure governing bodies to adopt renewable energy standards, more stringent pollution regulations, a price on carbon. They can exude a passion for ending our dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence that may cause our world to warm to the point where much of it is inhospitable. That passion is a burning moral passion that perhaps we all should feel. Tar Sands Action fights the Keystone XL, the Sierra Club fights to close down ancient coal-fired power plants.
As those battles are won—if those battles are won—a fundamental result of that protesting and petitioning and lobbying and fighting and organizing will be to create a more lucrative investment climate for the men in suits who attend renewable energy financing conferences.
The men in suits talk about climate change. Most often in the context of how it may influence markets. There are tables with computer monitors that display stock activity. There are firm handshakes and eager laughs and solemn discussions off to the sides. If these men were solely concerned with making as much money as possible, they would probably have selected another industry in which to attend conferences. A photographer takes pictures of the conference goers, and will later upload some of them to the conference's website.
A feature of the panel discussion with Dieter-Maubach and Lovins and co. is audience interaction. This is now a reliable fixture of business conferences. It is called something like the utilization of social media for audience participation. Conference goers are prompted to answer questions at various points in the presentation.
Today, one such question is beamed up on the projector screen. It is: What role will hydrocarbons play in our energy future?
The answers come back:
1% of the audience thought the role would be "none".
26% thought it would be "marginal (needed only for aircraft)".
73% of the attendees at the New Energy Finance summit thought hydrocarbons would be "essential".