Over the last year, GPI celebrated our 20th anniversary as an organization dedicated to transforming the energy system to benefit the economy and environment. As GPI staff, partners, and supporters reflect on the progress we’ve made together and look ahead to future opportunities for even greater impact in 2019 and beyond, we’re sharing a Q&A series we’ve created with our CEO and program leadership team.
This Q&A is with GPI’s President and CEO Rolf Nordstrom.
1. What do you consider to be the most significant transformation in our energy system over the last 20 years in your area of work?
If I had to pick (there have been several), it would be the decline in cost for renewable energy paired with the emergence of incredibly inexpensive natural gas. Those two market realities have reshaped the energy system. And the impact of those in combination will continue to transform the mix of energy sources.
Those two things—affordable, renewable energy combined with cheaper natural gas—and energy storage soon to follow, have put incredible market pressure on existing coal and nuclear fleets (which, along with natural gas, have been our major sources energy). As a result, you see utility after utility in the US announcing coal plant retirements and setting goals for decarbonizing their electricity production, like the recent announcement by Xcel Energy to achieve zero-carbon electricity by 2050.
In addition to the declining costs of renewables and natural gas, it is also important to note the speed with which energy storage is becoming increasingly affordable and being deployed more rapidly at a grid scale. There are still gaps to address for energy storage; we don’t have a solution for long-term storage—what we have is measured in minutes or days or hours. While there is still a great deal of work to do on energy storage, we’re energized by the progress that has been made and are working to increase the role of energy storage as a key resource in an increasingly decarbonized energy system.
2. The US has experienced major shifts—politically, economically, culturally—over the last 20 years and, throughout, GPI has continued to increase its impact. What has made our approach effective over the years?
I would highlight three main things about our approach.
First, we often begin with a set of questions to answer about a complex energy topic that needs to be solved vs. starting with our own set of solutions. That approach creates an opening to crowdsource the best ideas and develop a deep understanding of an issue. In the end, this approach has enabled us to come up with solutions that are substantively better and more politically and economically durable than they otherwise would have been.
Second, we approach every issue with a genuine interest in and an open mind to ideas from people with very different interests, backgrounds, and worldviews. We meet people where they are as opposed to insisting that people come to the table for the same reasons.
Third, we take an opportunity-oriented approach. We are working to solve big problems; transforming the energy system is a massive undertaking. There’s a temptation to focus only on the problems, and we’ve succeeded in reframing those problems as opportunities. It’s important to figure out how various interests can work together to identify and support solutions, even if they agree to do so for different reasons.
3. From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge we face in transforming the energy system that is also surmountable?
Virtually all of the ingredients necessary to transform the energy system are present or close at hand; the main challenges are social and political. It’s not that there aren’t technical and economic challenges as well, but the primary barriers are social and political, which is one of the reasons why our work is so important.
GPI’s approach is really well-suited to address those institutional barriers. I know from our experience that it is possible, and achievable, to help diverse interests with different things at stake to find a path and develop solutions they wouldn’t have come to on their own.
We all have a confirmation bias—we tend to let in information that confirms what we already believe to be true. Only later and under the best circumstances do we evaluate things from a more objective standpoint. Creating the conditions for people to understand an issue, and one another, in a deeper way while traveling a learning curve together based on a common set of facts is GPI’s sweet spot. That breaks down the natural impulse we all have to hold on to how we already view the world.
Doing that with complex energy topics has led to transformative energy solutions. Getting to know one another and building trust opens up the range of possibilities for what the solution set looks like. Trust is crucial to advancing solutions that can really be implemented and have broad public support.
4. What is the role of collaboration, a core GPI value, in achieving the speed and scale necessary to transform the energy system? Has its importance evolved over time?
Collaboration is essential. We need people from all political and socio-economic backgrounds to not just support, but also engage in, the transformation of the energy system or it won’t happen. Achieving this level of buy-in translates into consumer behavior, support for policies, and more.
Collaboration has always been important, but it has become more so. We have little time to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to scale up the technologies that are already available, from energy efficiency to renewables to carbon capture—we already know what to do.
What can give speed and scale to these solutions is this broad level of engagement and social license. It’s never been more important to engage people, organizations, businesses, and communities in finding opportunities to scale up the solutions that we know are achievable today. And that can happen faster, and bring greater benefits earlier, if we work together.
5. What makes you most optimistic about the future of energy?
First, there’s so much sheer momentum in the marketplace toward a lower carbon—and eventually decarbonized—energy system. The marketplace pull is coming from individual households, cities in large numbers, big companies, and from states and communities. And in some ways, it is coming from those interests faster than it is from some nation-states.
Second, the increasing improvement and cost reductions in lower-carbon, and even carbon negative, energy technologies. For example, people think of wind as a mature technology, but it continues to improve. Wind, solar, energy storage, the electrification of transportation—they are all seeing major improvements. And then there is the emergence of carbon capture as a new economic sector that holds enormous promise.
Third, the demographic changes we see—the up-and-coming generations increasingly want, and expect, a decarbonized energy system. Just as they’re transforming all kinds of markets, they will transform the energy market too, as consumers and professionals in all walks of life.
6. Anything else you’d like to add?
Transforming the system is not something that any one organization, government, or company can do alone; and a hallmark of our work has been to work in close partnership with others. It’s why two of our core values are collaboration and shared leadership. We can’t do this alone. For anyone who wants to be part of this essential and global transformation of our energy system, I would invite them to join us. We have no time to waste!