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Charles McConnell: Energy Sustainability Through a Global Lens

Charles Mcconnell Rice University
December 17, 2014
Transformative technology continues to be the single largest enabler for a sustainable energy future in this world, and any number of studies also point to the fact that there is no more important contributor to the health and well-being of people than the supply of energy.

In future columns, I’d like to discuss in detail these technologies and how they are so important to a sustainable future. But what is energy sustainability, and how can it be viewed globally?

Energy sustainability would seem on the surface to be a very complicated topic, but I would argue it is really quite simple — as it gets to the very basics of humans and behavior. What can get muddled by one’s own perspective, or even ideology, about energy becomes clear when we consider three sustaining principles — in a linear and hierarchical order — that are in play anywhere in the world at any given time. Viewed through this three-pronged lens, one can get a clear picture of energy sustainability.

1. Access to Energy

Accessibility is the first and most important principle, and would seem to us in North America to be almost a given — as we are blessed with abundance. The facts are that today there are nearly 2 billion people on the earth without access to energy. Over the next 40 years, the global demand for energy will double, and another 2 billion people will be added to our population. Ninety percent of that growth will occur in developing nations, where accessibility to energy is far from a given. So how will this energy be supplied?

The geopolitical stability of our world will also be driven by accessibility. In many parts of the world, nations rely often solely on the supply of energy from other nations, which may not necessarily be friendly. That is not an intelligent all-in bet for future sustainable supply.

Developing nations have people that need access to energy to improve their way of life. Developed countries cannot be placed in precarious positions of supply interruption. Any government will not be in position to maintain power if access is not achieved and maintained. It has been and remains Principle No.1.

2. Affordability

With supply secured and the ability to establish and maintain a portfolio of supply options in place, the next guiding principle is cost to the consumer. Global industry competitiveness, the affordability to the general population for health and well-being, and the ability of a nation to grow and prosper are all driven by a low-cost, competitively advantaged portfolio of secure energy.

Developing nations will be driven to access the most abundant and lowest-cost options to enable their economies to grow. Often countries will artificially subsidize energy costs to consumers to provide a better life for citizens, and it can become a political tool that may not be purely market driven. Ultimately, the cost and competitiveness of a nation’s energy supply will be the global measurement of a growing or stagnant country.

Principle No.2 says that if I have a secure supply, then I will optimize for value and cost and create the most sustainable portfolio of choices.

3. Responsibility

This leads us to Principle No.3 and the responsible care of our natural resources — air, water and land. Responsibility is an environmental term for sure, but also recognition that true long-term sustainability requires a responsibility for the limited supply of resources and the world we live in.

I would argue this is the third-order principle that we in North America and other parts of the developed world have the luxury of considering. If the first and second principles are satisfied, then there is an obligation to be responsible and to drive transformative technology to achieve a fully developed, sustainable cycle of energy —satisfying all three principles. Global leadership is demonstrated by the development of this technology and the ability to deploy and utilize technologies that do not compromise the first and second principles and creates a truly transformative technology portfolio to enable making our world a better place.

Great technology enables Principle No.3 to be achieved. Great technology also enables Principles No.1 and No.2 as well, so it is not a zero sum game — it’s additive. And great technology is what the rest of the world wants and counts on from the U.S. to really lead with science, innovation and engineering. The world doesn’t want lectures from our politicians about what is “morally right” in terms of energy use and how to “follow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)” when the world can see that compromising our own Principles No.1 and No.2 is not true pursuit of sustainability.

Let’s lead and set high standards and expectations of ourselves. The rest of the world cannot wait for our involvement, engagement and leadership, and we cannot afford to pursue it for our own benefit as well as global impact.

In the coming months, I look forward to discussing transformations in offshore deep-water subsea technology, carbon capture utilization and storage, water technologies, fracking and other related technologies in fossil energy. Over 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and in 40 years when we double the world’s demand for energy, it will remain more than 80 percent supplied by fossil fuels. At Rice, our Energy and Environment Initiative is driving technologies for energy sustainability with relevance and impact as the guiding principles. Transformative technologies are of utmost relevance and impact, and we are happy to be part of the effort.

The Honorable Charles McConnell is Executive Director, Rice University Energy and Environment Initiative. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy.

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