By Kiersten Hackman and CJ Nwafor
Last Wednesday, November 9th, 2022, was a Community Day for underclassmen and a mental health day for juniors and seniors, but to many in the Environmental Sustainability in Action class, it was an unprecedented opportunity to learn and engage with the greatest issue of our era: climate change.
What: 14th annual Duke Energy Conference
When: 9 am-3 pm
Where: Fuqua School of Business at Duke University
That morning, we took a minibus to the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University to attend the 14th annual Duke University Energy Conference. It was a global energy conversation focused on addressing the energy transition and grid decarbonization (reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy usage). We encountered a wide diversity of people working every day in an incredible variety of careers to innovate and create tangible solutions to the climate crisis.
Despite our initial hesitation of being the only high schoolers in a room full of master’s students and academics, this conference ended up being accessible and introduced us to a new perspective on what it really means to be working in the green energy field today. Through various panels focusing on energy grid optimization, renewable innovations, and the intricacies of financing these efforts, we gained a broader understanding of the realities behind an issue that is often talked about in the abstract. We met the people and companies actively designing efforts to improve the energy system we all rely on.
ENERGY GRID OPTIMIZATION
In this panel of the conference, 4 presenters from various companies (including Durham-based Smart Wires, represented by Haroon Inam) spoke about their involvement in modernizing the energy grid. In short, they broke the topic down into the 2 most important ideas:
- Improving transmission technology
- Transmission is one of the most important sections of renewable energy integration. It connects the end users (the general public) to the energy being generated. In order to fully take advantage of renewable energies such as solar and wind, the transmission system needs to be developed in such a way that it maximizes the amount of energy generated, and can consistently be reliable when variable sources of renewable energy are not generating a lot of electricity.
- However, we learned that we cannot solely build new transmission infrastrucre because issues such as land use are a concern. Instead, it was mentionned that optimizing our current infrastructure while installing the odd, new transmission lines is the best way forward. Furthermore, developing technology that compresses a higher amount of power into a smaller space was another idea mentionned.
- Decentralizing the grid
- The second point is related to the decentralization of the grid. This means to have micro grids around the country rather than having all end users connected to one centralized system. While those connected to decentralized grids may be separated from the main grid, the presenters stressed the importance of getting some form of the grid in touch with everyone.
NEXT GENERATION VENTURES
The second panel included Next Generation Ventures or projects in conjunction with renewable energy that would play a vital role in future generation and storage of energy. They started with the trilema of “clean, affordable, and reliable” stating that projects in this field must be done according to these values.
The three ventures that were spoken about:
- Form Energy, a company producing an iron-air battery capable of storing electricity for 100 hours at system costs competitive with legacy power plants.
- Terra Power, a company working with nuclear energy as a form of clean energy. Most notably, the company has created Natrium Reactor that features a cost-competitive sodium fast reactor combined with a molten salt energy storage system.
- NET Power, a company that is changing the stigma attributed to natural gas, has devised a way to convert natural and renewable gas into zero-emissions power and capture the emissions, lowering the price of energy.
Every single one of these companies is contributing to the push towards net-zero following the motto, “clean, affordable, and reliable”.
FINANCING THE ENERGY TRANSITION
Perhaps the most difficult panel for us to understand, Financing the Energy Transition was for some the most informative. We learned that investing in renewable energy was an “inflation hedge”, an investment that protects investors from the declining purchasing power of money due to inflation. The panel also taught us that we can’t just throw money at the problem, but must make strategic investments and decisions that will help us now and also build toward the future. Lastly, and perhaps the most exciting for future renewable energy prospects, was the amount of jobs that are possible in this field. In fact, several presenters described a shortage of personnel, so if you are interested there is most definitely a demand and a need for you to be involved.
TAKEAWAYS AND IMPACT
We were surprised by the overall comprehensibility of the concepts discussed, and we took away some really important lessons. One was the incredible diversity of careers and people that are involved in climate action as a whole. It was eye-opening to see just how many vastly different career paths were tied to the climate crisis and, in fact, just how necessary it was to understand and implement that diversity to solve climate issues facing the world today! Climate change is so multidimensional and can often seem very overwhelming, but this conference showed us that we aren’t doing this alone—there are many talented and creative people already actively working on the wide set of issues facing the climate action community, from financial investors to solar entrepreneurs to major electric companies!
Another really interesting part of the conference was this graphic that was shown during the opening keynote speech.
It shows that expert projections are always an underestimate of our true performance. For example, 2020 projections for the amount of solar that we’d have by 2030 were already surpassed just one year later! When we genuinely put in the effort and create an environment conducive to innovation and green technology, we are able to do incredible things, and if we continue to keep this mindset and adjust policy and employment, a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius is not out of reach!
And speaking of creating that environment, one large theme that we noticed throughout this conference was the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is a big deal in the energy industry right now. Despite its name, the IRA is mostly about measures to protect and restore the environment. And environmental impacts it has!
With the IRA:
- solar sector: highly incentivized with credits and subsidies while fossil fuels are decentivized, making solar more economical in just a few decades
- infrastructure: improvements planned to mitigate the impacts of climate change which will disproportionately affect minorities and low-income areas with poor infrastructure
- carbon capture: also incentivized through tax credits for both larger and smaller companies that capture their carbon emissions
- electric vehicles: incentivized and production of their batteries was limited to the US, Mexico, and Canada, increasing the likelihood that they will be made sustainably
Because of this act’s investments, the US is on track to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 2005 levels in 2030—keeping up with President Biden’s climate goals of cutting greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.
A final takeaway for us was how active the industry is. While we often talk about climate change in very abstract terms, this conference allowed us to see the people fighting against this huge issue right up close and understand the tangible steps they have been taking to increase green energy and reduce carbon emissions every day! At one point, a set of panelists was asked for career advice for young people looking to go into green technology or environmental startups. Their advice was simply: “Call me! I’m here to recruit!”
Overall, we discovered that there was a ton of optimism and opportunity in this field that is too often overlooked in conversations about environmental activism. People are needed for the environmental movement from all facets, backgrounds, and perspectives. If you want to pursue a career in any way connected to climate action, there is incredible necessity and possibility!