Experts discuss sustainable energy’s future at the Irving Institute’s inaugural symposium

The symposium’s attendees included Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Rob Portman ’78 and Rep. Annie Kuster ’78.

by Soleil Gaylord | 5/7/21 2:00am

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by Caroline Kramer / The Dartmouth

From May 3 to May 5, the Irving Institute for Energy and Society hosted a symposium, titled “Investing in Our Energy Futures,” on the topic of energy access and sustainability. The three-day event featured members of Congress, scientists, engineers and public policy and finance experts. 

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Sen. Rob Portman ’78, R-O.H., began the symposium on Monday with a discussion of several recent bipartisan energy initiatives, including carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency and developing a market for carbon dioxide.

Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed the importance of both domestic and foreign climate policy initiatives. Shaheen is a sponsor of the United States Climate Leadership in International Mitigation, Adaptation and Technology Enhancement (CLIMATE) Act — a bill that would make combating climate change a central focus of U.S. diplomacy.

“We have to ensure that we are working with other countries to get things done,” Shaheen said. “It is not just in domestic policy that we are looking, but in foreign policy.”

Shaheen and Portman also spoke to the need to pursue domestic energy efficiency — energy use reductions in homes and businesses — which Shaheen called the cheapest way to deal with energy needs. 

She also noted that New Hampshire has recently worked to advance renewable energy projects, including developing plans for several offshore wind projects.

Shaheen mentioned the importance of establishing a carbon market — a system that caps total carbon emissions and allows polluters to buy and sell emissions “credits” — citing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as a successful example. RGGI is a market-based carbon reduction program among the Northeastern states, including New Hampshire.

Portman spoke to the importance of advancing carbon capture and storage methods, as well as a recent bill, the “Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Reauthorization Act of 2020,” which acts as a “debt-for-nature swap.” The legislation, introduced by Portman, would relieve eligible developing countries of debt obligations to the U.S. in exchange for commitments to protecting coral reefs and forests.

“This is an opportunity to preserve tropical forests and ensure we are doing our best to protect our environment and the economies of these countries,” Portman said. 

In a Wednesday discussion featuring Rep. Anne Kuster ’78, D-N.H., panelists discussed the policies needed to reach zero emissions by 2030, a major focus of the Biden administration.

One panelist, head of sustainability and climate policy at Google Marsden Hanna, said that state-level clean energy standards have been “crucial” in moving towards decarbonization — the process of reducing carbon dioxide output per unit of electricity produced — and also noted the importance of competitive electricity markets in lowering prices, both for companies and consumers.

“Not only do these [competitive markets] have the potential to help save customers money, but they can bring on zero-carbon resources,” Hanna said.  

Kuster spoke about several policies central to decarbonization, including maintaining current clean energy sources, expanding nuclear energy sources and improving energy efficiency. Kuster also mentioned the importance of retrofitting dams to produce hydroelectric power, particularly in the state of New Hampshire, where the average dam is nearly a century old.

Kuster also described innovations in atmospheric carbon dioxide removal — also known as carbon capture —  as a component of decarbonization. Last year, Kuster sponsored the CREATE Act, a bill that supported the development of these technologies.

“I think [carbon dioxide removal] shouldn’t be left out of the discussion if we are genuinely talking about zero-carbon emissions and decarbonization,” Kuster said. 

At the local level, Kuster noted the Town of Hanover’s efforts to decarbonize.

“I rolled out my green energy plan with [Hanover], and they’ve got great public-private partnerships and a lot of conversation on how they can decarbonize,” Kuster said. 

Prominent Dartmouth alumni, including New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer ’03 and head of the global power, utilities and renewables group at Bank of America Ray Wood ’84, were among the other panelists featured at the symposium.

The symposium also featured discussion between non-governmental organization leaders from American Rivers, the Mawazo Institute and Ceres on strategies to implement sustainable energy systems around the world, as well as a group of Dartmouth students who presented their work on solutions to energy challenges. The symposium also included discussions on social and environmental justice.

Irving marketing and communications lead Melissa Weinstein said planning for the symposium began in the summer of 2019, with the intention that it would be in person. 

Weinstein said the event’s name, the plural “energy futures,” speaks to the importance of convening stakeholders from across sectors to discuss the future of energy, which she said will look different for different people and places around the world. 

“The reality is that we’re really at a transition point in terms of climate urgency and equity, so those are the topics that we’re trying to address from different angles in the conference,” Weinstein said. “We are really aiming to always be interdisciplinary — we always need to think about energy in the context of society.”

Weinstein added that the virtual format enabled more panelists to speak who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend the event in person. 

Emma Doherty ’21, a student speaker at the “Investing in the Next Generation of Energy Leaders” panel, said she was excited to attend the symposium to hear about global innovations in energy.

“Hearing from people who are actually on the ground, trying to make a difference is really cool,” Doherty said. “We really need people from all corners of the world to be working on this for it to work.”

During the student panel, Doherty presented her engineering capstone project, a solar-powered mobile research station for ecology and forest researchers at the Second College Grant.

Samuel Lefkofsky ’21, another student presenter at the panel, worked on a project to upgrade the new Irving Institute’s cafeteria appliances to meet Energy Star qualifications. Lefkofsky said the Irving Institute building will be the most energy efficient on campus, complete with a solar photovoltaic system, natural ventilation, natural lighting and high efficiency heating. Lefkofsky’s project, he said, will save 30 kwH per day.

Lefkofsky added that the event was an opportunity to bring diverse individuals from different sectors to discuss issues and innovation in the energy sector. 

“I think it was a great example of how Dartmouth can remain bipartisan and bring people from both sides of the aisle together to talk about big issues,” Lefkofsky said.