Speech Bubbles

Ken Smith, President and CEO of Ever-Green Energy answers GPI’s “Eight Questions on Energy,” sharing his insights about maximizing the productivity of our energy system, decarbonizing the economy, and pursuing practical and economical solutions.

1. What is the most under-used word or term in energy?

“Energy productivity” is a term that is under-used. Simply put, it is a measure of the amount of economic output generated per unit of energy input. It can be used for an industrial plant, an industry, or an economy. Emphasizing energy productivity would cause a shift in focus to more holistic thinking and generate creative solutions that eliminate energy waste and maximize economic value.

2. What is the most over-used word or term in energy?

There is an increasing trend in using the term, “electrification.” There is a wide variation of what is meant by this concept, mostly driven by an interest in carbon reduction through renewable electricity. Electric vehicles are a good example of smart electrification, shifting the transportation sector to renewable and local energy sources.  As an electrical engineer who has been involved in many infrastructure projects, I see a risk in overemphasizing electrification as a primary means to expand the use of renewables to decarbonize the economy. This approach could result in overbuilding elements of our energy infrastructure, and under-investing in others. I also want to see us emphasize pairing technology or fuel solutions that fit our goals of a more efficient and lower carbon energy system. This requires us to effectively use a diverse mix of energy options, recycle and reuse energy to the extent possible, and match electricity and thermal energy to the right applications to maximize the productivity of our energy system. This approach will help us reach decarbonization goals in a financially and technically viable manner.

3. What is on your energy bucket list? For example, an energy facility, research center, etc. that you’d like to visit.

I have had the good fortune of visiting many energy facilities and integrated energy systems in communities small and large around the globe. I would like to spend time in China, exploring the technology solutions they are testing and implementing. They clearly have major challenges to address greenhouse gas emission and air pollution reductions, while still driving their economy and meeting the needs of growing affluence in their population.

4. If you could have a dinner party with four people who have been thought leaders in energy, past or present, who would you invite?

Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Elon Musk.

5. If you had a crystal ball, what do you think the energy system will look like in 25 years? Pick a level (in daily life, in cities, the actual electric or transportation system, etc.).

In 25 years, many communities will have achieved net zero carbon, and others will be well on their way.

  • Renewable energy will provide the majority of the energy for the electric grid and I am optimistic that we will have developed more solutions to decarbonize the gas grid and thermal energy delivery.
  • Within the efforts to achieve net zero, reducing demand in buildings will be critical. I would expect we will see reductions in building energy use by 50 percent or more and largely eliminating the use of natural gas for heating buildings through the use of biogas, thermal energy from renewables and recovered waste heat, and the use of heat pumps.
  • “Circular economy” principles will have been integrated into the planning and design process for buildings and infrastructure systems, making cross-sector energy recycling and reuse commonplace. I think we will continue to see the business sector driving this change as part of maximizing efficiency and environmental stewardship in their companies and operations.

6. If you could increase key decision-makers’ understanding of one energy-related technology, policy, or scientific topic, what would it be and why? What resource(s) would you point them to?

According to U.S. Department of Energy data, in 1970 the U.S. economy wasted approximately 50 percent of all of the primary sources of energy (fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables). Today the U.S. economy wastes over 60 percent!  We must do better and can do so practically and economically. Policy needs to focus on increasing system productivity, not just the efficiency of end-use devices (lighting, motors, appliances, etc.). This will propel investment in more creative and holistic solutions that capture additional economic value from recycling and reusing energy.

7. Can you name a book, article, talk, or an other resource that changed your worldview on energy or climate issues? How did it change your worldview?

Several years ago, I heard NASA scientist, Jim Hansen, speak about the growing concentration of greenhouse gas emissions and the threat it posed to the climate.  He reviewed the data in detail and urged the audience to examine it for themselves, which I subsequently did. He also shared how he had been reviled by politicians and the scientific community as he began to call attention to the issue. It caused me to increase my sense of urgency to work on practical and economical solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

8. What makes you most optimistic about the future of energy?

I have long promoted the transformation of the energy system from the local level. It is clear that a fundamental shift has occurred in the marketplace toward increased energy efficiency and use of cleaner and more renewable forms of energy. States, cities, community partners, and businesses are leading the way and the momentum is building.


About Ken Smith: Ken Smith, PE, MBA is the president and CEO of Ever-Green Energy and its affiliate District Energy St. Paul. A recognized leader in community and campus scale energy systems, Ken is actively engaged in industry, policy, and academic forums addressing the energy future. He is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and is regularly requested to brief energy planners, policy makers and regulators. Over the past five years, Smith has participated in an energy policy exchange between Germany and the State of Minnesota.

Smith currently serves as vice president of the Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System Board of Directors (M-RETS); executive board member of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce; and is a Fellow of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE). From 2014-2015 he served as Chair of the International District Energy Association board of directors. He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from North Dakota State University and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, MN, and is a registered professional engineer in several U.S. states.

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