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Bay Area energy meeting is where climate protection gets real

The Paris Agreement on climate change, agreed to last December, set the world on track to avoid catastrophe.  Or did it?  More than 180 nations have committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but now we need to see whether these commitments are real. On June 1-2 in San Francisco, energy ministers from the world’s 24 largest-emitting nations—including China, India, the U.S., the EU, among others—will report on their progress and plans.

Climate science offers up horrifying prospects if we do not promptly cut emissions.  Ice melt has accelerated beyond scientific estimates, and sea level rise is now projected at nearly double previous projections, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk by 2100.  No coastal country has the resources to cope with this.  A decade ago, New Orleans suffered one terrible storm, Katrina, which left the city with only about 75 percent of the population it once had.  The Bay Area is threatened by the same fate – San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission projects regional water levels could rise 8 feet over current high tide by the end of this century.

The world is warming up: the first four months of 2016 have already made this year the hottest to date, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations haven’t reached their current levels in 23 million years.

{mosads}So how are we doing on reversing this climate trajectory? Back to Paris: If all the national plans presented are met, we can achieve carbon reductions that get us halfway toward a reasonable future, which would be a big step.  But let’s not forget the “if”. 

Every county that filed a plan in Paris now must put it into action.  Reducing climate threats only become real when we swap coal plants with wind and solar, when we double fuel efficiency of cars and trucks, powering them over time with electricity, and when we start constructing zero-energy buildings. 

The technologies for this transformation are available and finally cheap.  A few weeks ago, a large solar plant was installed in Dubai at 3 cents a kilowatt-hour—a fraction of the cost U.S. households pay for electricity—for a brand new solar plant.  Of course, these are wholesale prices, and our readers pay retail, but the point is simply that it is wholly affordable to transform the electric grid into a zero-carbon machine. 

The technology is here, or near, and the economics of a clean energy transition are favorable, but the question remains: Will countries perform these new low-carbon plans? 

Once a year, energy ministers from the world’s largest economies convene to tighten the nuts and bolts of energy policy.  This year, it will be chaired by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a steadfast advocate for climate action and a knowledgeable visionary about the potential for new technology to deliver a cleaner world.  Secretary Moniz will be joined on stage by the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Wan Gang, a former Audi engineer who built his own fuel cell car.  He is working harder than anyone on the planet—possibly excepting Elon Musk—to electrify transportation. 

It’s no coincidence this ministerial meeting is being held in California – it has led the world’s energy transformation.  Within a few years, the Golden State will get a third of its electricity from renewable energy sources, and by 2030, more than half.  California is America’s leader in solar energy installations, and second for wind energy.  It has the nation’s best building code, and its only comprehensive carbon cap program. 

Silicon Valley in particular is at the vanguard of charge: Substantial overlap exists between energy technologies and the region’s software and hardware skills of Silicon Valley.  Solar cells are essentially vast sheets of microelectronics, and their cost reduction has followed—no, exceeded—Moore’s Law  as prices have fallen more than 80 percent in the last five years, largely driven by Silicon Valley innovation. San Francisco and San Jose consistently rank as America’s top clean tech metro areas.  Companies based in these areas, like Nest and Enlightened, are using tiny sensors and big data to slash energy consumption in buildings by as much as 25 percent.

The planet’s future will look decidedly better if we accelerate technology development through the strategies being presented at the Clean Energy Ministerial this June.  Innovation must be accompanied by energy policy to transform electric utilities, buildings, transportation, and industry.  Building codes can drive us to zero net energy buildings.  Advanced transportation policy can double fleet efficiency, and make vehicle electrification commonplace. We can decarbonize our grid through solar, wind, and other technologies within two or three decades.  The right policies, designed and implemented correctly, are the elements to make that happen. 

Closely watching the Clean Energy Ministerial will show if the ministers are serious about innovation and implementation.  It is not hyperbole to say that their actions, taken together, can help determine our common future.

Harvey is CEO of Energy Innovation.



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