Takeaways from World Energy Congress in Montreal

1. When it comes to a global energy future we can all agree to, the path forward involves huge geopolitical, economic and environmental constraints. This means the range of available options is narrow, and none are without drawbacks. It is likely to be a long, untidy journey that involves a mix of technological innovation, mitigation of environmental impacts, systems adaptation, intergovernmental cooperation and behavioral change. Many different interests will need to be brokered (or broker themselves) in the process. It is a massive design challenge. That is the stark (bland?) reality of it.

2. There are at least two moral dimensions to the challenge, and they seem in many ways inextricable: (1) ensure that all people in the world have access to energy (or, in short, eliminate energy poverty, and (2) ensure that our global energy system does not impact the environment in unacceptable ways.

3. Some technologies are promising, in particular, hydrogen fuel cells, superconductors (both of which have immediate applications and many potential applications) and nuclear fusion (which is a long way off, but in the works).

4. At the same time, I did not hear a lot of “breakthrough thinking” or fresh ideas at the conference. It is hard to completely reimagine our global energy system because of its scale. It is unlikely that anything (with the possible exception of, god forbid, world war) will change the game over night.

5. The overwhelming consensus among energy leaders of all stripes is that hydrocarbons will be with us for decades to come. As a result, many believe we need to emphasize carbon capture and sequestration efforts in addition to increasing supply from renewables and changing human behavior.

6. The electric car is about to arrive, possibly with a vengeance.

7. Localized production will become increasingly important, and is seen by many to offer great advantages over centralized production when and where it makes sense economically.

8. Our existing transmission grids are a joke and we need to make them smarter.

9. Our ability to process and store nuclear waste has improved dramatically over the last 20 years, but there are still challenges – in particular, cooperation between governments about where and how to store it.

10. Sustainability does not mean the same thing in the developed world as it does in the under-developed world. This is because they each emphasize different moral aspects of sustainability (as noted in point 2). Essentially, if you don’t have energy, you’re more willing to make environmental compromises in order to get it.

11. Our electricity system is increasingly becoming intertwined with our broadband system: this is a phenomenon that is loaded with its own set of challenges and opportunities.

12. Photovoltaics have potential, if we could make them economic.

13. China is a paradox. But who doesn’t love a good paradox?

14. My personal impression after listening to many government leaders speak, is that our current political systems are ill equipped to deal with the challenges we face in the future, including the energy challenge.

And a few notes on Montreal…

1. Two great restaurants I will go back to are Saloon (in the gay village) and Barroco.

2. Smoked meat sandwiches – what is the big deal?

3. Traffic lanes mean nothing; they are “rules of thumb” at best. Someone told me that driving in a straight line is “very Anglo.” Also, nobody signals to change lanes.

4. Everything is underground: the gyms, nightclubs, supermarkets, are often 2 or 3 stories below ground.

5. People are beautiful, wine is good, food is incred, cheeses are divine, and there is no shortage of style. I have been told this before, but didn’t really expect it to be as refreshing as it is.

6. One exception to the above: all the smokers. Ick.