Over 350 students and professionals attended the 16th Annual Energy Symposium to discuss the role of businesses in transitioning to a lower-carbon future.
How do countries and companies work to achieve their carbon reduction goals? Is a Green New Deal necessary to transform the United States economy? These were just a few of the questions driving discussions at the 16th annual Symposium hosted by the Energy & Environment Club at Harvard Business School.
With a theme of The Power of Business in the Energy Transition, event co-leads Lori Harrington (MBA ’20) and Nathan Nemon (MBA ’20) gathered more than 350 business leaders, policy makers, and students together for a full day of events to understand how businesses and policy leaders can play critical roles in the energy transformation. Harrington spoke to the theme: “We are at a critical juncture when our understanding of the urgent need to execute this transition is converging with our increasing ability to do so. As energy demand rises around the globe, so do the concerns about climate change, waste management, and availability of resources. Ongoing debates are less about whether to reduce the impact of human activities, but rather how and at what pace.”
Keynotes from Michael Skelly (MBA ’91), Senior Advisor at Lazard and Founder of Clean Line Energy, and Patricia DiOrio, VP of National Grid US Strategy, outlined the development needed for the US power grid to handle the growing amount of power delivered from solar and wind farms. Project development of major transmission lines to handle alternative sources must intently focus on stakeholder alignment across public and private sectors to speed project delivery. Both speakers touched on key gaps along the way to the widely publicized 2050 carbon goals.
DiOrio noted National Grid’s energy assessment, which focused on three key levers to pull along the path to reduced emissions in the US Northeast: (1) continued utility power conversion to alternatives, (2) the electrification of vehicle transportation, and (3) improved heat management systems for buildings.
Symposium Content Director Stephen Moch (MBA/MPP ’21) asked Skelly if he favors a centralized or decentralized grid; Skelly responded, “Try the experiment at home.” He further spoke of the importance of centralization, even in emerging markets, in order to attain the scale required to reach economic feasibility and develop a more reliable and holistic renewable energy infrastructure.
Tying in a policy perspective, former US Energy Secretary and MIT Professor emeritus, Dr. Ernest Moniz, presented a perspective of a Green Real Deal that simultaneously must achieve a lower carbon future, while addressing social justice issues. This challenge must be approached with pragmatism, innovation, and broad coalitions in order to deliver the optionality that different countries and regions need to meet aggressive goals. A wide range of technologies must continue to be invested in and developed—from hydrogen/electrolysis storage at scale, to engineered plants with deep root systems—so that businesses and governments across the world can select a mix of approaches that work best for each unique situation.
On the social justice side, recent discoveries of large natural gas deposits off the East and West Coasts of Africa have the potential to provide cheap, abundant energy to local communities that can simultaneously alleviate poverty while replacing biomass as a fuel source. In her keynote, Rachel Kyte, current Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts and former CEO of SE4ALL, urged the “need to be net zero by 2050,” but noted that the question remains, “How do we get there?”
At the “Future of US Policy and Politics” plenary, Victoria Mills, Managing Director of the Environmental Defense Fund, elaborated, “No company that claims to be environmentally sensitive should fund or support organizations that support climate denial.”
Jerry Taylor, President of Niskanen Center, added, “Climate change is a massive collective action that can’t be solved through collective wokeness,” and urged millennials to take action towards energy transition.
Attendees enjoyed balanced perspectives from panelists on topics ranging from sustainability efforts in natural resource firms, to redefinition of growth through the circular economy. Representatives from resource producers such as RioTinto and Shell discussed their work to ingrain sustainable practices in their operations, as well as serve as a source of expertise to execute alternative energy projects at scale.
From the venture capital and investor perspective, panelists from firms including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Energy Impact Partners, Marathon Capital, and FullCycle discussed the need for patient capital to be aligned with the longer timelines it may take for alternative energy investments to fully develop a return. As one example, waste-to-energy is growing rapidly in emerging markets alongside recovery and recycling of minerals out of these existing waste streams, presenting opportunities for those willing to take a long-term view of value.
“HBS aspires to train leaders who will make a difference in the world, and there is no area with a greater need for that type of leadership than climate change,” commented Trevor Hill (MBA ’20), Co-President of the Energy & Environment Club. “This year’s Energy Symposium was especially well done because it highlighted both how urgently action is needed on climate change and the tremendous business opportunities that will arise as we decarbonize our economy.”
The day closed with a case competition that featured several budding companies. They engaged in a wide range of sustainable opportunities, from building a better biodegradable plant pot (1st prize), to deploying smarter showerheads for water conservation (2nd prize), to expanding small-scale solar in the Congo (3rd prize). And the event engendered high engagement and interaction online, with many attendees sharing their experiences on Twitter.
Nick Murlo (MBA ’21) has spent his career in conventional energy, and he is passionate about the energy transformation, organizational design, and technology adoption. In his spare time, he enjoys running, woodworking, and reading a good history book. When winter comes, he heads to the mountains searching for powder.
Lori Harrington (MBA ’20) hails from Houston, Texas, and has been involved in energy since she worked in the oil fields in Wyoming at the age of 19. She is currently raising a search fund and can be handily spotted across campus in one of her signature technicolor wigs, a habit she picked up while living in The Big Easy.