A report from the Fifth Clean Energy Ministerial in Seoul, SK by Tom Catania, Erb Institute Executive in Residence.

I had the privilege of being invited by the US Department of Energy to moderate one the Roundtables at the Fifth Clean Energy Ministerial in Seoul earlier this week (May 12-13). I also had the opportunity  to participate in many other discussions, formal and informal, with energy policy officials from all over the world who were united in their desire to accelerate the movement toward a clean energy future.

Many of the sessions, including my Roundtable on Energy Efficient Cooling and Demand Response operated under Chatham House rules, so I will not be sharing specifically attributed statements beyond what is reported on the public record of the event.  This link to the official reporting site  goes into considerable detail, as does the Clean Energy Ministerial website.

Author Tom Catania (center) is flanked by the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz (with silver tie to his right); Odon de Buen, Director General, National Commission for the Efficient Use of Energy from Mexico (to the right of Mr. Moniz); Jan Vapaavuori, Minister of Employment from Finland (to Mr. Catania’s left) and Pradeep Kumar Sinha, Secretary, Minister of Power from India (left of Mr. Vapaavuori)

Instead, I will  explore the theme of cooperation and co-creation that defines this conference–as well as the “bows to reality” necessitated by recent events.

The first bow to reality is the new critical variable that enters into all conversations these days concerning energy policy—energy security. As events in the Ukraine continue to unfold, the importance of Ukrainian and European dependence on Russia’s natural gas is becoming crystal clear:  Germany, in spite of its commitment to renewable energy, was leading the effort to ensure that Russia’s fossil fuel spigot remained open.  In fact, Europe has become a gigantic market for coal from the US, which is needed less and less domestically.   When you hear the term “energy security” it usually means access to a reliable and cost effective source of fossil fuels.

The second energy security issue emerged around speculation that there was about to be a nuclear weapon test conducted by North Korea…happily, I have detected no shuddering of the ground during my visit so far.

And yet another emerging issue is the dispute between China and Vietnam over shipping lanes and fossil fuel resources in the South China Sea.  There are five countries that claim offshore rights to portions of these waters, and China is arguing for hegemony over nearly all of these shipping lanes through which flow about 14 million barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day to Asian nations.  The South China Sea floor also is believed to possess relatively substantial amounts of drillable oil and gas and everyone seems to want it in the name of ensuring energy and economic security.

And finally, at the closing Ministerial press conference, the world press and our own Wall Street Journal reported U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz remarking that multiple US agencies are studying and considering crude oil exports of the US’s new found bounty of desirable light sweet crude which doesn’t work well with US refineries designed for previously imported heavy crude.  Following these remarks there was a noticeable movement in global oil prices.   It is clear that fossil fuel resources remain sufficiently abundant and valued to be part of the global AND strategic equation for nations for the foreseeable future.

Despite massive increases in renewable capacity (especially in Asia) and substantial public and private investment; coal, oil and natural gas will continue to occupy the large slice of the electricity generation and transportation fuel global pie for decades.  The International Energy Agency opened the conference with lots of charts and graphs that made that very clear and no one disagreed.

So where does creativity come in to play? The light ahead is energy efficiency.   Energy efficiency can mitigate what would otherwise be an explosive growth in fossil fuel use, giving  time and space for the exciting new clean generation and transportation technologies to supplant currently  unsustainable methods.

The impact can be dramatic:  Without energy efficiency the expected growth in the need for residential room air conditioners alone between 2010 and 2020 is expected to consume half of all global solar and wind capacity added during that same period.  But, the new technologies, codes, standards and market transformation initiatives presented in our roundtable will substantially reduce the impact of this product category.  And, as an added bonus, the changes will result in a product  better adapted to a grid with much more renewable energy supply.

The combination of  low tech and high tech holistic approaches can drive the rate of increase in energy consumption down while maintaining comfort, economic prosperity and, dare I say it again, preserve energy security.  The numbers are impressive, you can view the Key Results and Impacts  document here.

One unique feature of the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) that might be of interest to to students was the Model CEM that took place in parallel and reported to the Plenary.  It consisted of University students throughout the world who each represented their own CEM member countries and explored ways to enhance International cooperation.  I was charged with reporting out to the plenary session for my Roundtable and concluded my own comments to the Ministers by urging the delegates to remember when they were University students themselves and believed anything was possible.  I hoped they would take that spirit back home.