by Julian Spector
October 01, 2019

CALGARY, LOS ANGELES, SALT LAKE CITY — One of the great privileges of journalism is the opportunity to move among interlocutors with different worldviews and motivations, and to seek meaning in the gaps.

Are oil and gas majors climate criminals deserving punishment or potential saviors of the earth? Does fighting climate change require a massive expansion of federal activity or further liberalization of competitive market behaviors?

I chased those questions over the last two weeks, jumping between radically different energy communities. First came the Energy Disruptors Unite conference in Calgary, notable for hosting Canada’s oil and gas industry and confronting them with data and entrepreneurial insights on the energy transition.

After flying back from the north, I walked a few blocks over to the Downtown Los Angeles Climate Strike on September 20 and immersed myself in the grassroots messaging on the climate crisis and the kinds of solutions needed. Then I hopped over to Salt Lake City for the clean energy industry’s biggest annual congregation, discovering a third distinct conversation around the future of energy.*

All these groups are assessing the need to shift from a fossil-fuel-dependent system to a lower-carbon one. They all have ideas about how to get there. But they vary in both style and substance, and the more that clean energy professionals understand about those differences, the better equipped they’ll be to navigate the tumultuous years to come.

The most polite oil and gas powerhouse you could ask for

Calgary lives and breathes oil and gas perhaps even more deeply than Houston, its analogue in the Alberta-Texas parallel.

The health of the city and province's economy depends to a large extent on the fortunes of those companies extracting the famous oil sands up north (you don't hear much about tar sands around there). Luckily for Calgary, the heavy industrial activities take place miles to the north as well, leaving the city tidy and the air crisp and clean.

Watching clean energy entrepreneurs address the oil and gas crowd revealed a truth that often gets lost at solar-only events: There are a lot of people working in oil and gas, and they like feeding their families and providing people with a means to heat themselves and travel around, and a transition to a different energy system needs some way to account for them.

The lopsided social capital that energy incumbents wield in Calgary amounted to a more extreme version of the dynamic that exists in much of the U.S., and anywhere that has traditionally produced conventional forms of energy.

Even the developer of the biggest solar plant in the province and country chose to reiterate his support for the home team. 

"We have some of the world’s most responsibly produced fossil fuels, and I think that we need to continue developing that industry and encouraging that industry," said Greengate Power CEO Dan Balaban, in an interview at his headquarters. "As long as the world is continuing to use oil, I think Alberta’s oil should be right near the top of the list."

That's a different approach to the biggest names in fossil fuels than the one taken by the climate marchers a few days later, which boiled down to "Lock 'em up!"

But Balaban is not holding back on clean energy just because he has nice things to say about the folks supplying much of the province's tax base. He's building the 600-megawatt (DC) Travers Plant, which will dwarf anything else in Canada and rank among the largest in the world. Alberta has a competitive energy market, and he sees the numbers lining up to handily beat gas-plant pricing on a merchant basis. He doesn't need to knock the gas producers rhetorically if he can beat them to market instead.

Elsewhere, energy storage developers are learning from the incumbents, too. Local developer Rocky Mountain Power (not to be confused with the U.S. utility of the same name) wants to translate the local practice of salt dome construction for fuel storage into underground compressed air storage plants for long-duration renewables shifting.

"Alberta is the best place to build compressed air in the world," Robert Stewart of Rocky Mountain Power told me. "It's a proven technology; it just hasn't been deployed for this purpose."

The approach has almost zero real-world examples as a grid storage technique, which works against compressed air in comparison to mass-produced lithium-ion. But Alberta already has more than 100 such caverns operating for traditional fuels, and the province's public data on wells and core samples offer detailed guidance on which sites would be best to excavate. The workforce knows how to do it. Suddenly, a 150-megawatt, 60-hour storage cave doesn't sound quite so outlandish.

This flow of skill and information is not unique to Alberta — just look at how offshore wind developed out of North Sea deepwater expertise. But the stance that oil and gas companies may be skilled energy players with something to bring to the table, as opposed to an enemy that solar will vanquish utterly (as soon as it grows beyond 2 percent of the grid), could lead to deeper and richer conversations without sacrificing the competition that cheap renewables are already asserting.

Keep the lights on with structural change

I felt like a bit of an interloper as I wove into the crowd snaking through the boulevards of L.A.’s Bunker Hill district, home to glitzy skyscrapers, top-tier law firms and the shimmering steel facade of the Disney Concert Hall.

People of all ages filled the streets in the march toward City Hall, and I couldn’t help thinking that if we had turned out like this when I was a youth, things could be very different now. The mass of bodies attested that climate crisis is no longer the realm of academics and wonks and GTM subscribers: It has developed mass appeal.

The crowd displayed considerable acumen at diagnosing the problem, but what comes next was hazier. There were many more calls to dismantle the capitalist system than to grow the markets for clean energy. The oil majors appeared as villains in effigy, not as potential or current investors in a lower-carbon system.

The most concrete policy proposal voiced at the event was to pass a Green New Deal; clean energy action items beyond that were hard to find.

Indeed, the Green New Deal’s totemic ability to stand for massive investment in clean energy proves extremely useful in moments like this. "Increase variable renewables and figure out daily and seasonal energy storage to make them dispatchable" would be hard to fit on a handwritten cardboard sign.

For better or worse, the people responsible for designing and building the clean energy tools to clean up the grid work at for-profit companies, publicly traded or venture-backed or acquired by incumbent energy providers. Conversely, the technicalities of integrating high penetrations of renewable generation or solving long-duration storage may never make compelling fodder for posters and chants in the street.

If the grassroots movement can apply pressure to enhance federal R&D investment, or push for more ambitious clean energy targets, it will create space for the industry to do what it does best. Bigger cleantech businesses, meanwhile, can support their industry groups to push the government from a different angle, said Lior Handelsman, founder and VP of marketing and product strategy at inverter powerhouse SolarEdge, when I caught up with him at Solar Power International.

“These are two parallel efforts that should exist in parallel,” he said.

The extension convention

At SPI, the organizers made very clear what their top action item is to extend the federal Investment Tax Credit.

Technically, they urged attendees to “DEFEND the ITC,” a choice of words and emphasis that somewhat obscures the fact that the stepdown was agreed to in the compromise that extended the ITC four years ago. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see the solar industry go on offense by bending language to serve its political goals, a true sign of a mature industry.

So, at the same time that thousands of protesters called for systemic change to decarbonize the economy, the assembled professionals who could carry out that transition sought a backdoor legislative deal to provide a few more years of beneficial tax status for their product. That’s also a hard slogan to paint on a sign.

When GTM caught up with Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, she offered a way to connect the two conversations.

“We provide a solution for what people are in the streets protesting about,” she said. “The answer is more clean energy. I can put that on a poster.”

SEIA has explored the art of targeting its message to distinct audiences. For the solar professionals at SPI, who all know the ITC and respect its contributions to their revenue, stickers about ITC protection do the trick. Meanwhile, the ITC extension offers legislators an easy way to tell constituents they’re doing something to accelerate clean energy, without having to tackle thorny questions like setting the right price on carbon.

“We actually have legislation that has been passed by a bipartisan Congress before, and we think it is a solution to the climate crisis,” Ross Hopper said.