It takes courage for an oil and gas company to sponsor a speaker whose agenda ultimately runs contrary to its raison d’etre.
The ConocoPhillips IRIS Seminar Series underwrites seminars at the University of Calgary that push the boundaries on conventional thinking. The fact it’s willing to sponsor speakers to challenge convention, not to mention the longevity of their business, is to be applauded.
What’s not done well these days is intellectualizing a different view, which can lead to a better understanding of important issues and, ultimately, more informed decision making. That includes wrestling with the issue of carbon and climate change.
The most recent series event occurred Tuesday at the Haskayne School of Business, where the featured speaker was Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute and author of a number of publications on energy use and conservation.
Lovins’ most recent book, Reinventing Fire, published in 2011, lays out how the United States can be coal and oil free by 2050. Like so many aspirational ideas, some make sense while others don’t.
The goal to increase the energy efficiency of buildings is undeniably practical, as is the shift away from coal to natural gas and renewables and the move to design and manufacture vehicles that use less gasoline or run longer on an electric charge.
As Lovins says, energy efficiency, at its very core, is what isn’t used.
Yet it’s hard to buy into Lovins’ notion the U.S. could be oil free by 2050. Not only is there the issue of how cities are designed, a lack of adequate public transportation infrastructure and the fact nothing has been found to replace the energy density of a molecule of gasoline or the efficiency of a combustion engine, all suggest a comprehensive change to the transportation matrix is highly unlikely.
That said, the nibbling that continues around the edges through the emergence of ride-sharing companies and other transportation options does suggest a decrease — over time — of vehicular traffic and presumably, a drop in gasoline consumption. But to think gasoline use will be eliminated entirely by 2050 is unrealistic.
Lovins reminded his audience of a comment made by the late oilman and diplomat Maurice Strong: Not all the fossils are in the fuels.
And while he’s committed to the need to eliminate energy poverty in the developing world, he believes renewables can fulfil goals like those of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who wants to deliver electricity to every household in that country by 2020.
To illustrate his point, Lovins pulled a gadget, called a Waka Waka, from his pocket. The device, which can be recharged through solar power, comes in two models. One functions as a flashlight while the other is a flashlight and recharger. It takes a day to recharge the device; two if it’s cloudy.
But it’s not about to replace kerosene or other carbon intensive and polluting fuel options used for cooking and heating in the developing world.
And while no one can dispute the potential of renewable power becoming part of the energy mix for electricity generation, the idea it can replace baseload power generated using natural gas — or coal, for now — is unrealistic.
To realize this goal, renewable power will need to support the world’s vast industrial complex. Even with huge advances in battery technology, that’s unlikely to happen.
Lovins draws parallels between the use of kerosene, which he says will be completely eliminated with developments such as the Waka Waka, and a decline in the use of oil and natural gas due to efficiency measures and the emergence of disruptive options such as the Tesla car.
Peter Tertzakian, who attended Lovins’ seminar, said if kerosene is about to disappear as a fuel source, the process took about 155 years.
In other words, an industry valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars and backed by significant intellectual horsepower is unlikely to roll over and relinquish its businesses and markets.
They will fight like hell to remain relevant — and profitable.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric warning of stranded energy assets that’s being heard with increasing frequency will result in some unintended consequences.
As the energy sector adjusts to the dramatic drop in oil and natural gas prices, the lack of investment that’s already accompanied the low price outlook is setting up for a decrease in supply as not enough is being re-invested to replace decline rates and growing demand.
This could be further exacerbated by companies and investors fearful of making investment commitments, even as improving economics may warrant such a decision.
There is room for Lovins to make the case for the need to transition to a greener energy future. The Paris climate talks proved this, as has the federal government’s commitment to decrease emissions in Canada.
Whether it all results in the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels weaning itself off them — even with a 30-year runway to get there — seems unlikely.
But given that Lovins has been tilting at windmills, so to speak, since 1976, he’s not about to stop trying to convince the naysayers of his logic and calculations.
And if you take the time to listen, there is a chance the mild-mannered, professorial-type, whose pens are stuffed into his shirt pocket will at the very least convince you the energy transformation happening within the global industrial complex built on carbon molecules is both fundamental and elemental.
It’s tough to argue with that no matter how skeptical one might be.