Aspen Ideas Festival: Fueling incentives for renewable energy worldwide

Summary:The global population is supposed to increase by two billion people by 2050, so the clock is ticking on financing and producing new renewable energy models.

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ASPEN, COLO. -- Despite a surge in public interest a few years ago, governments worldwide have slowed down (some to a virtual standstill) with transitioning to renewable energy sources, according to some of the leading minds at research and government agencies.

During a panel discussion on Friday at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival, leaders from Thomson Reuters, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations attributed the drop in interest to the decline of gas prices and related incentives.

There's also the issue of getting governments, financial institutions and other sources of wealth and power just to invest.

That isn't to say all hope is lost.

I sat down with David Brown, head of the IP Solutions business at Thomson Reuters, and Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, on Saturday, who discussed the incentives being brainstormed and debated around the world.

Brown remarked that we are experiencing a "macro-level convergence" of technology, policy, and finance. The problem to be solved, he suggested, is getting those three levers to work together to produce successful renewable energy solutions and measures.

Naturally when dealing with newer technologies and infrastructures, there is no right answer -- at least not yet.

Brown said that each country is handling renewable energy in different ways, albeit with varying degrees of success.

He specified that the difference between the United States and foreign institutions is that the U.S. is more "short-term in nature" with a tax-credit driven approach. Other governments, he continued, are looking at energy policy with a 25 to 50-year viewpoint.

"When it comes to climate change, you need a shorter-term plan," Levi argued. "If we wait 200 years to deal with climate change, we're toast."

Still, a short-term approach might not being anything to shake one's head at.

"When it comes to climate change, you need a shorter-term plan," Levi argued. "If we wait 200 years to deal with climate change, we're toast."

"Literally," Brown quipped.

The simple answer might be that governments worldwide need to draft both short-term and long-term plans for renewable energy development.

Brown cited a Thomson Reuters forecast that the global population is expected to grow by another two billion or more by 2050. Thus, energy consumption would then increase that much more greatly.

Levi lamented that the sad reality is most of those two billion citizens won't have access to renewable energy resources, which is another development challenge.

As author of the recently published book The Power Surge about energy "revolutions" in the U.S., Levi asserted that the problem -- at least in the United States -- is that long-term planning often derives into a lot of backlash, and proponents end up with a lot less than what they wanted.

Then with funding, Levi described that five years ago, venture capitalists were "supposed to take us to next stage of renewable energy technology."

But reality hit when everyone realized they would need to wait anywhere between 10 to 20 years to actually make money on the investments.

"We had to establish a financing vehicle to promote that this is a worthwhile place to park cash for 15 to 20 years," Levi said, joking that it would "be great if you could invent a way to finance invention more effectively."

Then there's the debate over government versus private financing, or some hybrid business model. Levi listed a few examples of government agencies jointly funding renewable projects with private firms, notably in the United Kingdom as well as the state of Connecticut.

Levi said there is talk about such a model at the federal level. Using Tesla as an example because the electric vehicle maker paid its government loan back early, Levi posited that it would have been great if that return was redirected to another energy project that needed it rather than just being poured back into a general fund.

Nevertheless, Levi admitted he doesn't think we'll see a "green bank" any time soon.

Levi continued that this is a sector where we need to take risks (financially speaking), but private equity often won't take those risks either.

"We have to establish a financing vehicle to promote that this is a worthwhile place to park cash for 15 to 20 years," Levi said, adding that it would "be great if you could invent a way to finance invention more effectively."

Topics: Tech Industry, Government, Government : US, Legal, Start-Ups

About

Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for MainStreet.com, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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