Bringing Together the World’s Energy Ministers for Clean Power

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As I write this, the first Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) is getting underway in Washington, with opening remarks from Energy Secretary Steven Chu—apparently taking  a short break from uncovering problems in BP’s well capping procedures. (You can watch a live webcast of the meeting here.) The two-day meeting—yesterday’s session was closed to the public—brings together energy ministers from around the world, along with renewable energy experts and investors from the business sector, to talk about the technological leaps needed to power a low-carbon economy, and the national and international policies needed to accelerate that transformation.

The world isn’t short of climate change and clean energy meetings—beyond the ongoing (and often tortured) United Nations negotiations, plus the major economies meetings of the world’s biggest carbon emitters that former President George W. Bush began and which President Obama continued, and the G8 and G20 forums, which often include climate and energy talks, and the countless clean energy investment conferences held around the world. In short, a lot of hot air on hotter planet.

But the CEM could signal a welcome new addition. For all the focus put on the policies needed to move the world toward cleaner energy, the technological side—the research and development—can get short shrift. While there are renewable energy options that exist right now and can be sped into deployment—from better energy efficiency to mature options like utility-scale wind power—the scale of the energy and climate energy challenges facing the planet demands new, cheaper low-carbon technology. It’s going to demand innovation and a reinvestment in basic energy research, so often neglected over the past several decades. For all the focus we’re rightly putting on Congress’s agonizing over a carbon cap, the U.S. will just be a part of the overall global energy picture—according to the International Energy Agency, China just passed the U.S. as the top energy consumer in  the world. “The role of technological innovation is constantly underestimated,” Chu said in his opening speech this morning, talking about the impressive improvements in energy efficiency the world has seen in the past few decades. “Technology does remarkable things.”

That doesn’t mean policy isn’t important—especially when it comes to regulations or laws that can give businesses clear certainty as they invest in potentially risky clean energy. “The continuity around these policies can allow innovation to occur and reduce the uncertainty around the considerable expense of investing in new technologies,” says Thomas Connelly, DuPont’s Chief Innovation Officer, who is taking part in the meeting. But the ultimate change in the way we use energy will come first from the laboratories of scientists around the world—and the more attention and funding we can give them, the better.

Update: The Department of Energy just announced some of the initiatives that will be coming out of the meeting, including new plans on energy efficiency, the smart grid, wind and solar and others. Read about it here.)