I made my way to the U.S. Center for a panel discussion titled, “The Development Agenda for Clean Energy and Transfer of Technologies.” Panelists included representatives from business, government, and international organizations in a discussion on how U.S. clean energy companies, using government policy and program initiatives, are working with developing countries to help them achieve their economic, environmental and energy objectives.
Although I was very nervous, I got up the nerve to ask a question: “Are there any sources of funding or incentives for private investors to fund projects that aim to provide sustainable development technologies at a minimum cost to those whose lives would be affected?” At first, the gentleman who responded to my question seemed a bit condescending when he explained that it is a bad idea to just give technologies away because they are often misused. I actually knew this, which is why I had said “at a minimum cost” rather than “for free.” Fortunately, another panelist jumped in to explain that all of the costs his organization had covered initially were eventually recovered, such that the project became profitable after a few years. He emphasized the need to enter in to an existing market or create a market for a particular good or service that will allow an individual or business owner to earn at least a little money on their investment.
The other panelists also added a few more thoughts, including an example where PV solar panels were installed in a village and villagers were trained about the maintenance and use of the system. To recover the cost of installing the panels, villagers were charged $3/month for electricity, a portion of which went to the people maintaining the system.
I stuck around the U.S. Center for the next panel discussion, “Mitigating Climate Change: Capturing Carbon Underground, in Soil and in Plants.” I find the idea of carbon sequestration to be potentially harmful (excuse to keep using coal and fossil fuels), or at least ineffective, but know little about the different means of capturing and storing CO2. I figured that perhaps it was time to learn something new! The session was actually hosted by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), including representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
First, one woman explained the process and effectiveness of using ecosystem restoration to store carbon in plant life and in the soil. This is called biological or terrestrial carbon sequestration. It’s actually really fascinating, can help to increase wildlife habitat and it works! (Read more about how it works here.) One thing I didn’t know: Wetlands may actually have more potential to sequester carbon dioxide than typical forests.
When the woman from USGS presented the geological carbon sequestration concept, explaining that some oil and gas companies have used injection wells to pump liquid CO2 down into oil wells in order to aid with oil extraction, I was not impressed. Oil companies use energy to capture, transport and pump this CO2 (which in most cases today comes from natural deposits, not the atmosphere) to the oil wells, so that they can pump more oil and emit more GHGs. How will this possibly help us move toward carbon neutrality? Of course, other locations are being considered for storing the liquid carbon dioxide, but it is up to the USGS to determine whether formations like saltwater aquifers are safe and will actually store the CO2 permanently. I asked her if there have been any studies done to evaluate the overall effect that this technology would have on the level of GHGs in the atmosphere. She said that at this time the amount of energy needed to sequester the carbon outweighs the atmospheric CO2 reduction that could theoretically be achieved. Determining whether or not this is a worthwhile technology for emissions reductions is up to the Department of Energy, she said, but the USGS is working to determine if and where the carbon could safely and successfully be stored if geological carbon sequestration is pursued into the future.
That evening, I decided to participate in the China+US Youth Workshop, “Our Shared Future”, on the University of Copenhagen campus. After wandering around for about 30 minutes trying to make sense of the directions I was given, I finally asked some students to help me out. Approaching the building, I noticed a room on the ground floor that was warmly lit and filled with over 50 Chinese and 50 American youth. Finally, I had arrived! I walked in cold and exhausted to find a buffet of Chinese-American food (as in the Chinese food we would get back in the States) up for the taking. Since I hadn’t eaten since much earlier in the day, I grabbed a plate of lo mein and egg rolls, and joined a small group in the process of introducing themselves and explaining how they had all come to be in Copenhagen.
Once we had all gotten to know each other a little better, we broke up into small groups and began talking about our work to promote clean energy and address climate change in our native countries. It seemed that while many of the efforts in China were top-down and done in collaboration with the Chinese government, U.S. efforts were largely grassroots initiatives demanding action from our government, often against incredible opposition from certain industries and corporations. We also began brainstorming ways in which we can work together, rather than in continual conflict with one another as our governments often do. Several valuable points were made, especially that cooperation between our countries will depend on increasing the mutual trust on both sides at all levels of society and government. In order to foster this trust, we entertained ideas ranging from setting up Facebook and Google groups so that we can all keep in touch and exchange information to organizing foreign exchange programs for sustainable development and social entrepreneurship in both of our countries.
I met a female student named Yuki studying mechanical engineering (my major when I was studying at Georgia Tech) in China who expressed interest in learning more about U.S. green building technologies. This brought up another great point, which is that while our governments may refuse to share information about certain technologies with each other, we are free to exchange this information as individuals (at least to the point where we aren’t violating any laws or patents). I got Yuki’s contact information and am planning to send her articles and information describing some of our best sustainable building practices. Here are some photos from the event.