How are we going to power the knowledge economy? Are we witnessing an “energy revolution”, upending the way we generate, store and distribute power? What is a sustainable energy system?
Such were the questions asked at the 2016 Aspire conference that took place at the Computer History museum in Mountain View, California two weeks ago. Convened by Bloom Energy and Morgan Stanley, Aspire brings together industry leaders from energy, finance and policy to discuss the energy “opportunity”, or, as VC financier John Doerr called it, the “mother of all markets”.
Founded by former NASA engineer K.R. Sridhar Bloom Energy produces solid oxide fuel cells—palm-size ceramic plates stacked together in “servers”, much like transistors on a silicon chip—that extract energy from natural gas at a much higher efficiency than a combustion process. Bloom servers are installed at customers’ location (data centers, warehouses, office buildings) for a stationary energy production. In most cases, the systems are used as the primary power source, while grid energy serves to balance peak use and as back-up.
The Computer History museum proved an apt location for the conference as speakers time and again drew parallels between accelerating innovation in IT and energy: personalized power enabled by micro-grids, distributed generation, storage and demand devices, all leading to a smarter energy system. Bloom itself hopes to follow a Moore’s law path of stacking ever more cells in a given amount of space—thus lowering production costs per unit of energy.
Many of the technical panels, moderated by CNN anchor and political scientist Fareed Zakaria, were intertwined with social questions around income inequality and fairness. Unequivocally, energy CEOs made the point that a sustainable energy system would need to be clean, reliable and affordable at once.
What’s the role of policy? End sloppy rate making, said Severin Borenstein, energy professor at Berkeley’s business school. Fund research in energy technologies, suggested Arun Majumdar from Stanford and founding director of ARPA-E. Modernize the national grid.
But “don’t wait for Superman in the White House”, cautioned former Secretary Colin Powell. “Super people” (and super states) are going to have to lead the way instead. Kevin de Leon, pro tempore president of the California senate, showed how Sacramento hopes to “democratize” energy policy through Senate Bill 350 (he also made half the audience blush by warning that clean energy subsidies would never be sustainable if effectively reserved for Tesla owners residing in Palo Alto and Menlo Park).
“If something isn’t boring, it isn’t really green” quipped Tom Friedman, columnist at the New York Times, in one of the panels. Not in Northern California.
Category: Sustainable energy
Location: Mountain View, CA, United States