Impressions from Fortune Brainstorm-E conference

The tagline of this conference was “Where Energy, Technology, and Sustainability Meet.”  It was organized by Fortune magazine, and participants included top-level executives (mostly Presidents and CEOs) from different sectors including major corporations, investors, startups, utilities, consultancies, government agencies like DOE EERE, and academics.

The program included subtopics such as climate change, energy, water, food, and finance, all considered from a business perspective.

One remarkable thing about this conference was the way that the conference producers were able to capture, and keep the attention of, this high-octane audience. There was rockstar music accompanying the entrance of each new speaker, the stage was set with a brightly colored backsplash, and everything happened in short, fast-paced conversations, which never allowed for any dull moments.  This is very different from the industry and technical conferences this author is used to, where the environmental message tends to be accompanied by drab colors, people urging each other to behave more altruistically, and eye-glazing technical jargon.  The team at Fortune was really able to set the tone right in an impressive way, making the solving of today’s hardest problems seem glamorous, highlighting leaders as heroes, and communicating the messaging with simple language, quick transitions, and banter that was full of pop and zing.

It was great to see several big companies highlighting their internal corporate sustainability practices (IKEA, Walmart, Coca Cola to name a few). There are many companies aiming for 100 percent renewable power lately, and Steve Howard from IKEA made sure to emphasize their leadership position among them.  Kathleen McLaughlin of Walmart highlighted Walmart’s ban on incandescent and fluorescent lightbulbs, in favor of the more efficient LEDs.  Bea Perez from Coca Cola highlighted water efficiency practices, and Coca Cola also asked the question: how sustainable can we get with our packaging?

Bill Ford spoke of Ford Motor Company’s “circular economy” initiative, in which they have figured out how to recapture CO2 from manufacturing, and sequester that carbon in polymer foam, which foam is then used to make seats in the car.

In a panel on climate change, Dr Steven Chu spoke of sea level rise, indicating that with 10 meters sea level rise (this could occur within the next hundred years), 10 percent of the world’s population would be affected.  [Author’s note: this could be very expensive, if we take the tiny village of Newtok in Alaska as an example.  In Newtok, the cost of relocating 63 houses was estimated at $130 million. source]

Overall the tone of the discussion among these high level executives and influential businesspeople was, at least for one day, moving towards taking climate change seriously.  The audience was full of the influential decision-makers, understanding the message that, even if every country successfully meets their pledges from the Paris climate accord, still the net effect will fall short of preventing global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius.  In the climate change panel, the speakers had some fun with the audience, quizzing to see how many could convert that to Fahrenheit.

I tried to tweet a stream of notes and observations from the unfolding of the day here.

Here is a short summary of condensed highlights:

On the USEPA’s Clean Power Plan, Hal Harvey mentioned his new favorite phrase: “accidental compliance.” Some states opposing the clean power plan will accidentally comply anyway, because the targets are so similar to business as usual in many cases.

On India’s growing energy demand, Tk Kurien noted that in 2030, India will be the largest consumer of coal in the world, adding on the order of ~600 GW.  [Author’s note: Most of my day job for the last five  years has been working with California’s state agencies, forging a path towards the state’s 2030 renewable energy goals (10-20 GW).  These are some of the biggest renewable energy targets in the US.  Suddenly California’s challenge seems small; the anticipated new coal capacity in India is about forty times larger.]

On clean air in India, Tk Kurien noted that the Supreme Court in India has banned diesel cars in Delhi.  [Author’s note: this caught my attention because I am an owner of a not-so-clean diesel car, a 2012 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, and I had been wondering what Volkswagen will do with the polluting cars after the massive buyback plan is implemented.  Apparently they will not be re-selling these dirty cars in Delhi, an outcome that had been seeming possible.]

On sustainable agriculture, Jeremy Grantham made a pithy note: We’ve had agriculture for 12,000 yrs, and yet it’s coming to 100 yrs where the whole ballgame is playing out. He noted that agricultural topsoil has been eroding at a rate of about 1 percent per year since the agricultural revolution, and highlighted some of his efforts to reverse this trend.

In a discussion on cleantech investment, the familiar old argument about whether we will ever get a price on carbon came up, and the argument was quickly put to bed when Chris Buddin reminded us all that “Almost 35% of US GDP has a price on carbon already – California and the Northeast.”

On smart cities, Eric Speigel described Siemens’ new software designed to calculate a sustainability score for cities across the US.  One finding from this tool: in Minneapolis, this tool estimates electric vehicles to have a stronger impact on greening the city than electric grid upgrades.

On corporate sustainability, Brendan Bechtel indicated that Bechtel is planning to launch voluntary enterprise sustainability targets next year.

 Thanks to Women in Cleantech and Sustainability for bringing this event to my attention.



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