Full transcript below
Joan: Hi, all. Welcome to Energy In 30. We'll use the next 30 minutes to explore how utilities and the industry are reacting to forces that are shaping new offerings for customers in order to meet decarbonization goals.
David: If you're a utility manager, consultant, technology provider, or just curious about energy, we hope to push your thinking about the changes that are happening in the energy industry with me, David Meisegeier.
Joan: And me, Joan Collins.
David: So Joan, how you doing?
Joan: I'm doing well. How are you?
David: I'm doing good. I am excited that we've got some cooler weather, and I will be off next week on a cruise, so I'm really looking forward to that.
Joan: That sounds wonderful. And I'm off to Santa Fe the following week. So should we get to it?
David: Let's jump into it.
David: So we are honored to have with us today the co-authors of “The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy of 2050,” Mike Lenox and Becky Duff.
Joan: Mike is a special advisor for the dean and professor of business administration at UVA [University of Virginia] Darden School of Business, with focused areas of expertise in business strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship, digital transformation, and business in sustainability. His research has appeared in over 30 academic publications, and he's been cited in a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, the Financial Times, and The Economist. And now we're adding him to Energy in 30.
David: Awesome. And Becky is the director of thought leadership at the Batten Institute, a center of excellence that supports Darden students and faculty through research on topics that impact business practices and policy, entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology. She has more than 20 years of experience conducting industry and technology research, with a particular focus on product development, emerging technologies, and policy and market interventions. And as a side note, Becky and I are former colleagues and worked together for many years supporting the growth of ENERGY STAR®. So, welcome, Mike and Becky.
Mike: Thank you so much for having us.
Becky: Thanks for having me. It's so great to be back with ICF.
The need to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change
Joan: So great to have you both on. We're really looking forward to digging in. And speaking of that, let's talk about the beginning of this book. I just felt like it was such a powerful start to your book to talk about the debate around adapting versus mitigation. And I think what really kind of pulled me in was that we need both, right? We really need to underscore how important adapting is for resiliency and disaster recovery, but also mitigating is absolutely imperative. And we were curious about that start to the book and wondered if, Mike, Becky, if you could tell us about that and what drove the two of you to write the book?
Mike: Yeah, sometimes, when we look at the breadth of the climate crisis we face, we might throw up our hands and say, "All we can do now is just try to adapt to the impacts that we're going to see." I think that's already occurring and will need to continue to occur. But, what the climate scientists tell us is that if we continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts that we're going to see could exponentially increase with every degree-Celsius warming. And what it basically tells us is we can't escape the mitigation problem; we can't escape the problem of trying to address our burning of fossil fuels and, basically, to decarbonize our global economy.
So, our starting premise from the book was just to kind of take that question on: What would it really take to decarbonize the global economy by 2050? And specifically: What does it look like on an industry-by-industry basis there to really break the problem down into its constituent parts, and hopefully have a better sense of what could be done to get us there?
David: I love that you did break it down by sector. What do you see as the biggest challenge, sector related, to hitting decarbonization by 2050?
Mike: Well, let me hit the big part, and then I'm going to let Becky take—which I know we both agree—what is probably the sector that we're most concerned about.
A lot of, I think, the vision that people have for how we decarbonize actually centers around electrification. There are industries and sectors where we can electrify such as electric vehicles or converting our built environment. And with the use of fossil fuels, for things like heating and the use in cooking, we could look at electrification as core. And then you've got to decarbonize electrical generation, right? So, the core activity then becomes that electrical decarbonization. Those sectors, I think, we'll dive into more.
But Becky, what do you think? What is the sector that I haven't mentioned that is arguably maybe the hardest to decarbonize?
Becky: I think we'll agree that agriculture is.
Mike: There you go.
The challenge of adopting clean technology and changing consumer behaviors
Becky: I would say industrials also worry me. And I think in doing research for this book, it became very clear that there was no silver-bullet solution that could be implemented across sectors and get us to where we need to be. And so when you look at each of the individual sectors, you see that they have their own unique challenges, and there are different levers needed to advance clean tech adoption in those sectors. For industrials, for some of the processes—namely cement, petrochemicals, and steel—the very manufacturing uses a ton of energy. How can you provide that amount of energy with renewables? It's almost impossible in many instances right now, although you could look at what they're doing around concentrated solar and other ways to do it.
And the materials themselves and the processes, especially in cement, emit carbon emissions. So now we're talking about having alternatives to those products, and petrochemicals is one that gives me a lot of pause of whether we can do it because now you're telling people not to buy plastics, and plastics are everywhere, right? And I don't even think people understand the amount of energy and fossil fuels that go into plastics manufacturing. And I think that's one thing that I really love about this book going into it. I didn't know anything about these sectors. My background, as you said, David, was in energy efficiency, and that's still very important, but we've got these big sectors that need a ton of investment in terms of technology support.
And also changing consumer behavior, which is so hard. And that gets me to ag [agriculture]. Food and ag—because again, I just don't think people think about where their food is coming in, how much emissions come from eating livestock and using the soil to grow crops. And so then you're thinking about changing consumer behavior and what they buy in the grocery stores, and you're also trying to get to thousands of farmers. I mean, there's a lot of talk about regenerative farming; I think that's great, but how do you change behavior, especially in other countries where those populations are growing? And lots of challenges for those, too.
Replacing established tech norms within industries
Joan: And what was so interesting is how you layered in the technology disruption that's happening within each of these sectors in such a clear and concise way. I think it was in ag that you had something called the wild card disruptor, which kind of blew my mind really. Like you said, sometimes we focus on the same aspects all the time, but I felt like this book pulls out a lot of these innovations that maybe we don't hear about a lot.
Mike: Yeah. And I think that's really central to our argument, that if we're going to be serious about climate change, we really are thinking about technology disruptions. We're talking about transforming whole industries from kind of one dominant technology to another—whether it be internal combustion engines to electric vehicles, natural gas turbines to renewable energy in the electrical sector, or as Becky was talking about portland-based cement to some type of green alternative. Each one of these sectors needs significant innovation and then transformation and adoption for us to truly address the emissions that we have.
Market-driven approaches to technology and innovation
David: I want to stray a little bit from the book for half a second here. I was engaged in a conversation not too long ago, and the person brought up what's happening in China and India and other parts of the world. You can look at the U.K. now with their reversal on climate stance. And the challenge that they posed was why should we do all this stuff if other parts of the world that have as big of an impact, or bigger, are not doing anything? Why should it be incumbent on us?
Mike: I mean, I think this is, in part, why we're pushing what one might call a market narrative. And to be very clear, we're not viewing the market as a panacea here that will just automatically solve the climate crisis for us. But the beauty of technology and innovation is that when these technologies become “market viable” and even “market preferred,” adoption actually happens quite naturally. I think we're seeing that with electric vehicles and the way prices have come down, and that we basically have seen a doubling in the percentage of new-car sales that are EVs over the last five years, every year are doubling.
We're seeing in the U.S. especially that basically all new installations of electrical generation are renewables at this point. And this is being driven by the economics that the cost of wind and solar have come down to a point where utilities are making the low-cost adoption decision. Again, I don't want to suggest this is just a panacea, that this will just occur naturally, but it avoids some of those geopolitical issues that you lay out there, David. Dare I say, the Conference of Parties and the efforts by the U.N. to achieve global consensus on climate change—a lot of those targets don't seem to be causing much action on the ground, but yet we're seeing these trends in certain sectors that give us at least some hope that we could still get there.
Climate change is everyone’s problem to fix
Becky: And I would add: this is a global issue, right? So, we can stick our head in the sand and say, "We're doing just fine. These other countries are growing and polluting more and they're going to be part of the problem." But it becomes all of our problem, right? I mean, climate change is global, it's a global issue. And I think in the U.S. and other developed countries have a real opportunity here to invest in undeveloped countries and help bring them along more quickly, leapfrog some of the technologies that we had early on in industrial times, and we've come around to renewables, leapfrog those technologies and go straight to renewables, take some of our learnings and research and help prop up those systems overseas. And I just think that it is a role that we need to play in the U.S.
David: Yeah, my answer by the way was the serenity prayer. You can't control everything. So, it is outside of our control what other countries do, but it is in our control as to what we as individuals do. And as you said, Becky, if you believe that this is a real issue—and not everybody does—you as an individual can play a part in making a difference. Every little bit we do has an impact, and I cited that CO2, while not the most potent greenhouse gas, is one of the longest living; it stays in the atmosphere for 200 years or more. And so even if we were to go completely carbon-free today, over the next 200 years, our generations are going to be living with the implications of what we've emitted thus far. So, anything we do to reduce our personal emissions today will have a lasting impact.
Mike: We put 2050 in the title of the book mainly because that's what many people kind of agree is at least the date in which we really need to decarbonize. But the fact is that every year that goes by that we don't significantly decrease emissions—and actually are increasing emissions, which is still the case—that date actually gets shorter and shorter. And there are scientists who believe that we might have already overshot the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Accords there. And going back to Joan, your original question, it doesn't take away the fact that we still need to figure this out. We still need to decarbonize, we still need to reduce these emissions, and the sooner the better. There is a timeliness to this that's just really critical.
David: Yeah, so we were joking before we started recording about mitigation versus migration, but I do think that migration is going to be part of our future. With sea level rise, we have many parts of the world that are going to have to migrate to higher ground, and it's not just developing countries, it's Miami and New York City and Los Angeles—the list goes on and on. How do you balance, I guess, all of these huge, big needs? I mean, adaptation, mitigation, migration, the cost of all of these superstorms that just keep increasing, everything that we're talking about—is costly. Where do we place our investments to best go forward and into the future?
Mike: I think I would observe that while this is absolutely the ultimate commons problem, right? This is a global issue and the emissions that go into the atmosphere affect the whole globe. So, you can't separate it out. It's interesting to note that the impacts of climate change will likely be very lumpy. I think about some of the extreme weather events that we see, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, those can often be incredibly localized to the point that the home next door is destroyed by a tornado, but my home is still standing. Or the hurricane comes in with sea level rise that washes away one home and not another. Or the same with forest fires and the like.
And I think that becomes very hard for us as individuals or even collectively as society to truly assess risk and how this will play out. And again, I think I go back to where we started of why trying to get at the underlying problem, which is ultimately the emission of greenhouse gases that are creating the global warming phenomenon and then climate change, it's going to be critical here. Because for better or for worse, I think the impacts are going to be unevenly distributed around the world.
So, let's talk about migration. That's probably my greatest fear with climate change in terms of its impact on society and the world, that we're going to probably have a major refugee crisis. One could argue we're already seeing that in some of the refugee crises we already see in various parts of the world. How will different nation states react to that? How will it destabilize different countries, lead to the rise of authoritarian regimes, countries basically putting up borders and trying to protect themselves at the risk, and maybe at the detriment of other countries and peoples? That I think is a likely future for us in a globally warming world. So again, I just come back to first principles here. We've got to address the underlying problem because the implications could be quite severe.
How do we invest to create the most significant impact for a successful future?
Becky: Yeah. And I think about where to invest in terms of the sectors, right? Where do we invest our most time and energy and dollars in? And you could argue that electric vehicles, for example, is almost a hands-off approach at this point, right? I mean, things are moving very quickly. I don't think we need incentives anymore to get people interested in electric vehicles because the cost has come down. There's not a “range anxiety” anymore as these cars are hitting 300, 400 miles. Maybe there's a little bit to invest in terms of supporting infrastructure.
But again, looking at those sectors that are really behind and deciding how much to invest in those sectors—like industrials and agriculture—where will those investments have the biggest bang for the buck? Or, are we looking at just putting those investments into carbon capture or something else? So again, it's a sector-by-sector approach. Energy—I mean very near and dear to your guys’ heart—I think it's clear renewable prices come down. It's where it needs to be in terms of shifting markets, but then you need long-duration energy storage, and you need to figure out permitting and other challenges.
And so, you really need to look at this as a sector-by-sector problems and solutions to move things forward. I think we've got a lot of people spending most of their time within one sector. That's important because you need that concentrated push in that sector. But I think you also need people that are looking across sectors, like policymakers and others that say, ”Okay, where do we need to put the most investment? Where might we need regulation? Where might we need incentives to help move things forward?” And I think that's why this book is so appealing is that it takes that sector-by-sector approach.
Mike: I just want to take a quick second to kind of deep-dive on what Becky just mentioned with the electric utility sector and the electrical generation. We know that as we get more and more renewables on the grid, it creates problems. The intermittency is real, and the solution will likely be a combination of massive storage—maybe battery-based, maybe otherwise—but probably also the need to build out a much more distributed grid, where we've gone from a few thousand-point sources of electrical generation in the U.S. to literally millions of potential point sources with different solar panels on residential and commercial buildings and the like. And that puts additional stress on the grid. It needs additional lines; it needs a kind of smart-grid technology and IoT [Internet of Things] devices to be able to manage such a highly distributed grid. Even things like pricing are going to be infinitely more complex in the grid we're moving towards, from where we are today.
And while again, the private sector is helping drive some of these technologies forward where they're becoming increasingly market viable, there's going to need to be investment and some of that's going to fall in the public sector, in terms of infrastructure and the like, to be able to make this transition possible. In the same way, by the way, there was a massive investment to make the infrastructure we have today work when we were first starting off and using fossil fuels and the like. So again, as Becky said, that kind of sector-by-sector approach allows you to start to see the roadblocks to making these transitions, and where we need both private and public interventions to make it happen.
David: Yeah. And that's one of the things that I found really interesting about the book is, you pull that apart and it feels more manageable when you start to look at it in that level of detail.
Joan: Definitely. I'm wondering too, what's the most interesting piece of information you've gotten back from people who have read the book, or when you've discussed it on the podcast?
Industrial policies help accelerate the decarbonization transition
Mike: I'll say the thing that maybe has been the most exciting and maybe even a little surprising is when we wrote the book, we were advocating for broad technology and industrial policy. And we wanted readers to think more broadly about the levers that the government has available to try to encourage transitions—measures that put a price on carbon, which you often hear from economists.
With the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, it's fascinating to see industrial policies back. People are talking about it actively on all sides of the political spectrum. And clearly, it has become viewed as a tool available to help push the transition. I think where we're getting now, which I think is a good conversation to have, is what elements of industrial policy, or if we want to call it technology policy, are going to be contributing and helping us solve this crisis? And what elements of it might undermine it? Dare I say, some of the protectionism and the lack in faith of global markets could end up being detrimental to the transitions we need to see as David, as you were talking about earlier, that need to go across the globe.
So, lots of competing interests, lots of different pressures that are seen in the public sphere, but at the very least, it's great to see that we're kind of opening up the potential toolkit available to try to bring about these transitions.
Joan: That's great.
Becky: And this has been years now when you talk about these new technologies, renewables or others, and you always get the person that says, "Well, what about the battery waste? And what about this and what about that?" And I think, “Yes, we need to be thinking about that, but let's focus on our most urgent need right now.” We have got to slow down climate change, and we've got to slow down the amount of greenhouse gases we're emitting. And so, it's a “Yes, and,” right? With a new technology, you get people saying, "Well, there's going to be a waste at the end of it." Yes, of course. And that's where I get really excited about the circular economy, but that's another podcast, because that is some really cool stuff to think about.
And so I think where we are today is because maybe we innovated without thinking about the implications of those innovations longer term. I think moving forward we do need to be more mindful about our innovations and we need to think about not just the technology at hand, but also maybe the end-of-life implications. But that's not to stop us going down that road. I think you need to take that into consideration.
Mike: I think one of the core things that's at the heart of the way we have kind of looked at the world is what we might simply call learning curves. And this idea that there are technologies that today look like again, they're not viable in the market, they're too expensive, they don't have the quality that other existing technologies have, but this path to improvement is part and parcel of a market-based economy. And we see this over and over again. We're probably not going to Blockbuster video to rent a video or use our Blackberries to contact one another. This is natural.
So I am surprised when there are these reactions that almost want to deny economics, want to deny the market because they want to say, "Well, of course electric vehicles are more expensive and worse than internal combustion engines." And my message is like, "Well pay attention. Look at the data, see what's actually happening in these sectors." And again, I want to be very clear, I'm not suggesting this is just like some magic wand and everything gets solved, but you’ve got to think about those dynamics of the technology and the industry if you really want to be serious about transitions. And so again, I'm always amazed by people who are kind of resisting technologies as they come in and are actually favored by the market. Like I said, are you still using your Blackberry, and why not?
Becky: Yeah. And I think back to my ENERGY STAR® days and the importance of products that earn the ENERGY STAR® label to perform the same or better as the technology they're replacing. Same thing goes here with clean technologies. I don't think we're suggesting that you just adopt green technology for the sake of being green, although some people do that, but I think there's an importance here around performance, and we're seeing this with the electric vehicles, I think, where the performance is really driving these cars now. I think early adopters were green, but now they're looking at performance, and once that happens, then it's kind of unstoppable.
Joan: That's right. Well, I can't believe, but we are getting close to time here, so if it's okay, David, unless you had something else, I thought maybe I'd ask our last big question.
David: Go for it.
Joan: Okay, Becky, why don't we start with you. If there was one thing that you could change in the industry—no limits—what would it be?
Becky: So not surprisingly, I'm going to look at food and ag. It's my favorite industry. I think it's the one that has the most exciting innovations happening right now, and it's the one that's the most challenging. And I don't know, maybe I'm drawn to big life challenges. But I, myself, have not eaten beef for I guess three or four years now since I started doing the research and really understanding the environmental and greenhouse gas impact that beef has. So, if I could change something, I would change that industry. There's exciting things happening with alternative proteins and lab-grown meat, and so if I could have anything, it would be a world without beef.
Joan: Or clean beef, right?
Becky: Or clean beef. Yeah. Yeah, that's a big one.
Joan: Yeah. That's great. And what about you, Mike?
Mike: Well, since Becky took agriculture, I'm going to take the electric utility sector again.
Mike: I think if I could wave a magic wand, I think this full embracing and recognition that the future is most likely a very, very distributed grid connected with smart-grid technology with ample storage on it, and then making the investments and working towards that. Again, the underlying technologies of solar and wind are becoming very favorable, but that's not sufficient, necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get working on that kind of broader system investment to make this vision for a decarbonized electrical sector work.
I think one of the things that maybe is underappreciated is if we're able to achieve this, we're probably looking at a world of incredibly cheap electricity. While there are obviously significant capital costs to building this out, the marginal cost of producing solar and wind is very, very low. And that has huge implications for economic growth and a whole host of positive things on society, if we can really drive down the cost of producing electricity.
David: That's awesome.
Joan: Thank you so much.
David: Mike and Becky, we can't thank you both enough for joining us to discuss this road to 2050. Thank you.
Mike: Thank you for having us.
Becky: Thanks for having me.
David: I also want to call out that Mike has a new book that was just published in June called “Strategy in the Digital Age: Mastering Digital Transition.” It includes some compelling insights on GenAI [generative artificial intelligence], which you heard Joan and I discuss with our colleague Nick Lang on a recent episode. And, Mike hosts a podcast that Becky produces that you may also want to check out called “Good Disruption.”
If you've enjoyed this conversation, please let a colleague or friend know about it. It's one of the best ways for people to hear about this podcast, and we'd sure appreciate if you will also like, share, or even subscribe to our podcast.
Joan: And you might be interested in tuning in to our next episode where we dig into the art and reward of account-based marketing. And, have a great day. We'll catch you on our next Energy in 30.