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President's Message 2019 Winter Issue

By Robert Thornton posted 01-15-2019 17:32


Watching reports from the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24) in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, I was struck by the powerful candor of 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden. In addressing officials from nearly 200 countries, she said “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. … We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.” I fear she may be right. Speeches and platitudes are not solving the problem. The clock is ticking and time is not on our side.

I attended my first U.N. climate change conference at COP 15 in Copenhagen in December 2009, as part of an international delegation focused on district energy. While there, I met with then-U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and numerous members from the U.S. delegation. By most accounts, that conference was considered hopeful but less than successful, and absent a last-second “hail Mary” pass by President Obama committing China and India to collective action, the event might have scored a symbolic touchdown but a procedural fumble. In September 2014, I was invited to the U.N. Climate Summit in New York City by the U.N. Environment Programme’s District Energy in Cities Initiative and witnessed firsthand as 35 heads of state (and Leonardo DiCaprio) spoke on the floor of the General Assembly about the urgency of climate action. I recall vividly the thunderous standing ovation and being brought to tears by the poem delivered by Kathy Jetnil Kijiner during the opening ceremony.

In December 2015, along with Ahmad Bin Shafar of Empower, I participated in a side event at the U.N.’s COP 21 climate change conference in Paris, where 195 countries ratified the Paris Agreement and over 400 mayors assembled at Paris City Hall to pledge collective and individual action. The leadership of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pivotal in bringing forward the voice of cities, as mayors are ultimately accountable to their citizens in the face of extreme storms and impaired infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the impacts of climate pollution continue to mount. In 2017, the Trump administration declared its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. During 2017, the economic impact of climate change was widely felt across the U.S. with over $330 billion in extreme weather-related losses, including massive economic disruption from the likes of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. 2018 brought drought and devastating wildfires to California and across the West Coast. This past November, while flying into Long Beach, Calif., to attend Cogeneration Day, the smoke from nearby wildfires was clearly visible. The tragedy of these devastating fires was made even more real as I chatted with families finding refuge in the hotel while they watched as their homes – and their entire communities – were engulfed by flames on live TV.

According to the International Energy Agency, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 1.4 percent in 2017, reaching a historic high of 32.5 gigatonnes, an increase after three years of global emissions remaining flat. The increase in CO2 emissions, however, was not universal. While most major economies saw a rise, some others experienced declines, including the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan. The biggest decline came from the U.S., mainly due to higher deployment of renewables. 2018 marked both an increase in emissions and a rise in mean temperatures. It seems appropriate that we now find ourselves upbraided by a 15-year-old calling for action.


So while I worry about our legacy to our children, I am feeling less certain of a viable path forward. The scope of the challenge is
tremendous, and it feels like incrementalism will not suffice. As I read about cities pledging to move to “100 percent renewables,” I
remain skeptical that this is practical or attainable. Cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, or Paris may have a marginal chance at this
because their existing thermal networks already provide the majority of heating and cooling to connected buildings, using a range of low-carbon resources like biomass, biofuels, waste-to-energy, geothermal, renewable cooling, thermal storage and solar thermal. College campuses have shown real commitment to cutting carbon emissions through investments in efficiency and system renewal, but to make a real difference, so much more is required.

Our current model for U.S. energy infrastructure assumes largely private ownership and lacks sufficient policy signals to attract investment in decarbonizing assets. The acceleration of solar and wind has been positive but still falls far short of the necessary penetration to significantly curb emissions. From time to time, talk of a federal carbon tax bubbles up, but absent meaningful and substantial mobilization of capital, the effort to modernize our grid and decarbonize our economy will take decades, if not longer. I don’t believe the effort will require deprivation or even a decline in living standards, but I don’t know what will trigger real sustained action. As the Scandinavian economies have aptly demonstrated, economic health and carbon emissions are not inextricably linked. You can have economic growth without an increase in pollution. But what will activate momentum when even hellfire on our TV news seems more like a bad movie and less like our current reality?

I am also concerned about emerging policy headwinds that seem to portend a shift from common sense. There is talk of  electrifying everything. I am old enough to remember when nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” and therefore cannot support connecting everything to the electricity grid, putting all our eggs in the power basket. In the depth of winter and a howling blizzard, I would rather not rely on the coil of a toaster to warm my home. By the same token, in the extreme humidity of August, the costs for air conditioning can be exorbitant. Lacking a reasonable alternative, dependence on the grid will drive more brownouts and peak costs. Finally, while the U.S. electricity grid is generally quite reliable, I am concerned that adding significant load will hasten depreciation and potentially accelerate infrastructure decline, especially in our older cities.


Another troubling theme is the notion of a 100 percent renewable economy, which has been propagated by proponents like Stanford’s Mark Jacobson but soundly refuted by scientists from the National Academy of Sciences from 21 national laboratories in the June 23, 2017 issue of Scientific American. For more detail, please read the full PNAS paper (,
which is widely available and clearly written. What I find most troubling is that unrealistic policy prescriptions can set targets where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Well-meaning but overly idealistic voices challenge reasonable transitions framed around efficiency and lower-carbon solutions and will often denigrate achievable, meaningful infrastructure improvement as either a corporate sellout or short-sighted. Moreover, simplistic analyses based on invalid assessments dramatically underestimate the capital requirements and timelines involved, minimizing the magnitude of the economic task we face. You simply cannot produce 1,300 GW of hydropower where only 12 GW currently exists and ship it all over the country on private wires. Fairy tales do not help the cause at hand.

Now that I’ve shared my anxiety about the future, I would like to conclude with some optimism. I am encouraged that a new majority in Congress may undertake a Green New Deal and that discussion of critical energy infrastructure seems to be on the rise. I am hopeful that members of Congress will be receptive to the arguments for investing in district energy while we still await issuance of the Report to Congress on Energy Efficiency and Energy Security Benefits of District Energy. (At this time, the report has been released to the Office of Management and Budget.) At our recent DistrictCooling2018 conference in Dubai, IDEA recognized seven district cooling providers in conjunction with the Dubai Carbon Centre for Excellence for collectively generating 2 million metric tonnes of carbon emission reductions annually, equivalent to removing 430,000 cars from the road. This is a tremendous achievement and a critical lesson for emerging economies in warmer climates. And finally, IDEA continues to grow in membership, participation and engagement. While 2019 will mark the start of my 32nd year in the district energy industry and the 110th for IDEA, it feels like our challenge is only just beginning. Energy is one puzzle piece in the climate challenge, but it is up to all of us in IDEA to collaborate and show at least one 15-year-old that we are no longer ignoring them or our responsibilities. We will rise to the occasion.