[As I often do, I am sharing here my Forward from the Report on the 2018 Aspen Institute Clean Energy Innovation Forum I Co-Chair with Jim Connaughton]
At the dawn of the internet, no one saw Facebook coming, and certainly no one submitted a resource development and deployment plan that pledged “Facebook by 2010”. With relatively few regulatory constraints and with no incumbent economic or physical legacy systems to overcome, innovation occurred in a non-linear fashion. While we certainly recognize the limits of this analogy, The Aspen Institute Clean Energy Innovation Forum continues to be the place where the tough questions are asked about how we can more fully empower innovation to modernize our energy system. Our mantra in exploring the potential for an energy system that is cleaner, smarter, and better is to eschew the mindset of “no, because” in favor of “yes, if”.
Innovation in the face of the constraints posed by our legacy energy system is our ongoing theme. We don’t come up with all the answers, but we seek to ask all the tough questions. And again in 2018, we convened some of the brightest minds and most influential players to engage in the discussion.
Questions we explored included: Can we really do “long-term planning” in the electricity sector in an age of rapid innovation and low to zero marginal cost electricity? What are the regulatory and business model impediments to innovation? Is the road to “deep decarbonization” just a long trip on the same road that leads first to “shallow” decarbonization — or do we need to make hard choices now? Are utilities really an obstacle or do we just need to rethink how to better allow them to innovate? What functions really should be assigned to monopolies? Is it realistic to expect utilities to replace their capital investments with third party services? Is there necessarily a conflict between core obligations under the social compact and innovation? Should the tradition permission-based regulatory model of FERC/utility commissions be replaced (or joined with) more of a Federal Trade Commission-type regulatory model whereby consumer protections/climate protections are the sideboards within which industry innovates and competes? By what metrics do we plan the electricity system in the age of innovation? Do we “plan” for – or even mandate — low carbon outcomes – and let energy transitions, innovation and financing develop in service of that end? Do important concerns about reliability, resiliency and cybersecurity cut against some otherwise attractive innovation pathways? And so forth.
As can be seen in this report of our 2018 Forum, we dove deep into these issues. We sought to look around the corner to identify change already baked into the system and to contemplate changes that can be made today to get to a better future.
Few discussions on virtually any aspect of the economy today avoid Blockchain; we were no different. Some have gone as far to say that Blockchain could pose an existential threat to the regulated utility model. We came to no conclusion, but transactive energy markets at the end-user level do seem to have the potential for efficiencies and great optionality for customers and almost certainly could benefit clean energy access.