I had the opportunity and pleasure of attending the ECO:nomics conference put on by the Wall Street Journal last week in California. The event was focused on the future of Business and the Environment with heavy attention paid to energy, and if I had to sum it up in two words it would be these: Brain Food. It was fascinating and you had to pay attention. The speakers at the event were some of the heaviest hitters in business and politics, including Bill Gates, Robert McDonald (CEO of P&G), California Governor Jerry Brown, David Steiner (CEO of Waste Management), and the list went on and on…..and on.
Because there was entirely too much meat on this bone for me to give every topic its fair share of attention, here’s an overview in the form of snippets of important themes and insights I picked up over the three days of the conference.
- The place was packed with CEOs and VIPs, and they stayed the whole time, listened and were engaged. The speakers didn’t just stay before and after they spoke – they actively participated. You don’t see that at too many conferences. Just goes to show the importance of the topic.
- Natural Gas was the dominant focus of the event. Five years ago, we had no idea America was sitting on so much natural gas, and even though Fracking has people concerned, everyone pretty much agreed that this resource needs to be responsibly capitalized on. Why? Because five years ago we all thought the price of natural gas energy would be sky high….now it is already down to $2:30 kw/h and it doesn’t release as much carbon.
- Speaking of Carbon, the need to cut it was so basic that it didn’t necessitate discussion. There was one exception, however, that of former U.S. Senator Jim Talent who believes carbon “isn’t a pollutant anyway” [there was an audible gasp in the room]. What did warrant debate was the best way to achieve it given that a carbon tax isn’t likely. Speaking of Fracking. Although consensus is not a word I would use when describing the discussion on this topic, if there were two themes I would say they were: 1.) It is probably not as bad for the environment as is being portrayed (although there were some heated debates on this topic for good reason), and 2.) The industry is not doing a good enough job policing itself in order to be a good steward of the environment.
- Former Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania (where Fracking is huge), came down on the side that industry needs to do a much better job of addressing environmental concerns than they are. As a result they are losing the PR war and will continue to do so until they get out in front of it.
- Bob McDonald of P&G was VERY bullish on corporate sustainability. They have a serious effort underway to reduce water consumption throughout their operations, citing a statistic that on average a woman walks 7 kilometers a day to get water for her family. Sobering. They also have a goal of 100% zero waste to landfill. Think about that….P&G putting zero waste in landfills. Go Bob!
- Renewable energy received a fair amount of focus. There was discussion that it could reasonably generate 30% of U.S. energy needs by 2050 and up to 10-15% of global energy by mid-century. Although there is the concern that the low price of natural gas could undercut investments in renewables.
- Bill Gates was amazing. You can watch the video here. He (and others) discussed a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. and he is very bullish on Generation IV nuclear power solutions that take advantage of spent nuclear fuel and other technologies. He also focused on ways to help the poor gain energy security and lower costs. Not surprisingly he believes we need hundreds of “crazy entrepreneurs to develop solutions.” Impressive that he can be in a room of so many heavyweights and still come across (at least in my opinion) as the smartest guy in the room.
- Waste Management is doing some very cool things with landfills they own, including putting wind and solar farms on landfills they own in NJ. Great idea. Between that and capturing methane coming from the waste and turning that into energy, dumps might become renewable energy hotspots!
- David Rubenstein, the Managing Director of The Carlyle Group made it clear that they completely believe more sustainability equal more profits, more growth and higher investment returns. Together with EDF, they have come up with a detailed screening process to look at the sustainability profiles of companies they are considering investing in, and in their minds, sustainability wins.
- Amory Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, whose most recent book, Reinventing Fire, stresses the dramatic gains integrated design can yield, offered this simple advice for organizations – pay attention and create a culture of curiosity.
- Watch Gov. Jerry Brown. As the Governor of a state that has to have 1/3 of their energy come from renewables by 2020 (think about that!), his take on policy and energy is important. His theme – “Think Big and Think Long”
Net-net – I came away feeling more optimistic and positive than going in. With very few exceptions, there was thoughtful dialogue with a focus on solutions and paths forward from a global, non-homogenous group of business leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs and NGOs.
I’m still processing everything I learned, and of course, the to-do list waiting on my desk was a mile high when I got back to the office, so more things may spring to mind over the next couple of days. Let me know if any of you made it to the event. What were your takeaways? What do the rest of you see as the keys to the future of business and the environment?