On February 24, the NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs held “The Energy Wise City” conference, bringing together experts in the fields of sustainability, cleantech, renewables, and government to discuss how to create more sustainable and resilient cities in the future.
The conference opened with a discussion between John Bradley, AVP of Sustainability at NYU, and Stephen Flynn, Founder of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University. These opening speakers set the tone for the conference noting the need to incorporate resilience and sustainability into urban development laws in the face of aging infrastructure and climate change.
The following panelists discussed challenges and opportunities of “big-data” with regard sustainability in cities. Led by moderator Constantine Kontokosta, Deputy Director of the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress, panelists David Gilford, Vice President at NYEDC, and Jurij Paraszczak, Former Director at IBM Research Industry Solutions, discussed how big data will enable transformational technologies such as smart grid and demand response and spur economic growth and sustainability in cities. However, Jurij also noted that much of our current data handling is “Dickensian” and there is an increasing need to curate data and streamline high quality data communication. Both Paraszczak and Gilford noted that the government could do much to support private industry efforts to tackle “big data” and sustainability.
A transportation discussion was next and panelists were similarly optimistic about the government’s role in promoting sustainable transit. The diverse group agreed that government has the ability to make city transit more sustainable through policies to support switching to public transit and adoption of alternative fuel vehicle through increased investments and pilot projects. Additionally, panelists were in agreement that different cities must create policies and plans suitable to their particular challenges, and were skeptical that a national transit sustainability policy could succeed if it did not recognize this fact.
Panelists in the second half of the program focused on the role of innovators and entrepreneurs in creating sustainable cities and how government and utilities will impact their efforts. Panelists representing government remarked they are actively creating supportive environments for cleantech development through incubators and purchasing goods and services from innovative startups. Donnel Baird, founder of Bloc Power, also discussed how startups have been very effective at creating new financing models to get cleantech into the hands of ordinary consumers and how companies – such as his – are using innovative financing to bring cleantech to many underserved customers.
Echoing comments about the tremendous success of cleantech companies, panelists discussing the future role of utilities painted a bleak picture for utilities that are unable to cope with business challenges posed by technologies such as demand response and off grid energy. In their assessment, efforts by utilities to prevent cleantech market entry have largely failed. Successful utilities of the future, in their opinions, would offer more value added services to customers, creating a diverse source of revenues. Robert Curry Jr., former commissioner of the NYS Public Service Commision, pointed to PSEG as an example of a utility that had successfully created such a diverse model.
Finally, the conference concluding with a rousing keynote address by Jigar Shah, Founder of SunEdison. Shah stated that innovations in cleantech and renewables financing, such as solar leasing, are the “fracking” of the sector, making previously uneconomical resources available en masse. In his opinion, such financial innovations will drive massive industry growth over the next decade and cause serious disruptions to the status quo of U.S. energy production and delivery.