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Sunshine and Skepticism on Energy Issues at AEF

Day Two at the Aspen Environment Forum was filled with thought-provoking discussion, incisive questions, and thankfully, warm sunshine. The clear sky and 70-degree temperatures were welcome after the jarring snow flurries and chill that greeted conference-goers upon arrival at the Aspen Institute Monday.

Ironically, I spent the period following the “Great Energy Challenge” plenary searching for an outlet to recharge my laptop battery. Many times on Tuesday’s panels, it was pointed out that there is no ideal solution to this problem or that — and powering one’s electronic devices at a conference, even when it’s at the Aspen Environment Forum, is no exception.

Perhaps Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, put it best during the “Great Energy Challenge” discussion: “I’m going to break your heart: There is no perfect solution to generating electricity.”

Fair enough. But there were plenty of ideas on how to improve the process of producing and distributing energy — and plenty of counterbalancing viewpoints on the hurdles involved. Moderator David Owen of The New Yorker solicited thoughts from Rogers, Russ Ford of Shell, Dan Kammen of the World Bank and Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

Probably the most re-Tweeted comment during this discussion was Kammen’s observation that “We have not seen the ‘go to the moon’ speech yet on clean energy.” Part of his point was that, both governmentally and culturally, we do not yet have an overarching, systems-oriented view of energy problems. For example, Kammen noted, there are policies that focus on energy generation, but not transmission; there are clean cookstove initiatives that never concern themselves with how the wood for those stoves can be sustainably sourced. What’s needed is a holistic approach to such problems.

At the same time, Sen. Bingaman noted that lawmakers in Washington would do a lot better if they focused on energy via individual issues “rather than as some big energy challenge.”

But indeed, we do face “some big energy challenge,” and there was not always agreement on how to meet that challenge. While Shell’s Ford expressed enthusiasm about ample supply of natural gas, Rogers noted the unknowns in terms of environmental impact and concluded, “I have serious reservations about being too dependent on [natural] gas.”

Distribution of resources was another key issue raised. Rogers noted that it’s much harder to build a transmission line for power than to build a plant of any kind. The same people who support wind power, he noted, are against the eminent domain rights that would be necessary to create a viable distribution network.

During the Q&A period after the session, The New York TimesAndrew Revkin raised the critical, and controversial, topic of subsidies. Sen. Bingaman said, “The only way we’re going to have a fresh start on subsidies … would be through some kind of comprehensive tax reform, which clearly isn’t going to happen this year.” He also made the point that, while subsidies for oil and natural gas are permanent law, those for renewables are subject to expire in the short term. (See the 1-hour mark on video above.) Rogers added, “I would be very comfortable with going to zero subsidies and starting all over,” which earned applause.

What do you think is our best opportunity in terms of answering global energy needs? You can follow the discussion at the forum on Twitter @natgeogreen and by searching for the hashtag #aef2011, check out Aspen highlights at the hub page, and follow energy issues at the GreatEnergyChallenge.com.