Reflections on the Conference on Energy and Climate at the Peking University Stanford Center

October 27, 2016

Last Thursday, I scored an invite to the Conference on Energy and Climate at the Peking University Stanford Center. Donning a mask, I walked over through the smoggy air with a small group of Schwarzman Scholars. My Air Quality Index app read 300, “heavily polluted” (most US cities have an AQI 0-50). As I entered the bright conference room and pulled off my mask, the taste of pollution-tinged air reinforced the importance of this conference.

After two panels and a coffee break, it was time for the keynote address from Steve Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist and US Secretary of Energy from 2009-2013. He stood casually before us as an excited quiet fell over the small group of 50. We fumbled with our simultaneous-translation headsets (a necessity at these global conferences that switch fluidly between Chinese and English) and readied our pens. Steve Chu launched into his talk:

“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Beginning with this quote from Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Yamani, Dr. Chu stressed the importance of making alternative energy cheaper than fossil fuels. “If not,” he continued, “those billions of dollars of assets are coming out of the ground, and no one can stop it.” I’ll highlight some of Dr. Chu’s points here:

  1. Don’t trust climate models? No problem. We can look to the past for some answers. When the temperature was 1⁰C (or 1.8⁰F) warmer (130,000 years ago during the last interglacial period), sea levels were 20-30 ft higher. We should note that it will take our oceans hundreds of years to fully respond to an increased temperature.
  2. We currently have the highest levels of CO2 in the atmosphere for the past 3 million years. 65% of that CO2 was added after 1950.
  3. 40% of world energy is used in buildings, and this number will only increase as air conditioning spreads.
  4. We cannot rely on 100% wind/solar energy due to intermittency, times when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. We can fix this problem with more nuclear energy standing ready to fill in the gaps. Better batteries and transmission lines will also help.
  5. Don’t forget about the original battery: a wind mill and water tank. When there is excess wind energy, it is used to pump water into a tank. When there is not enough wind energy, the water is allowed to flow out of the tank to turn a wheel and generate energy. Lithium-ion is not the only option.
  6. Better transmission lines will help spread clean energy. For example, solar energy from New Mexico could be used in more of the country. China leads the world with high voltage transmission lines: where Chinese transmission lines lose 5% of the energy carried, US lines would lose 85%
  7. New carbon capture methods are cooling the carbon dioxide to form dry-ice that can be trucked away more easily than the gas itself (or better, sold!)

After his clear and comprehensive, whirl-wind tour of global warming and the developing technology, Steve Chu ended with a Native American saying:

“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

I left the talk a bit dazzled, feeling that I had witnessed a great man talk about his passion. I felt the gravity of the problem, but also optimistic in the quest for fewer emissions. As I listened to a quartet from the Chinese National Orchestra and sipped wine in the courtyard at the post-conference reception, I was able to approach Dr. Chu for a brief conversation. I told him I wanted to work on exactly these issues. “We’re all depending on you,” he said.