Toward a new energy landscape: PopTech’s Energy Disruptors salon


As demand for energy continues to grow across the globe, it has become clear that we cannot incrementally tweak the system to meet that exponentially increasing demand, but instead, that we must transform the system altogether. This transformation was the impetus that brought together energy thought leaders from the public, private and academic sectors at Energy Disruptors: Transforming the System, a PopTech salon held at Thomson Reuters yesterday.  To examine what’s being done right now to disrupt the energy status quo, how it’s being accomplished, and why it’s necessary to take immediate action, PopTech convened this thoughtful and lively discussion.

Dr. Arun Majumdar, Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) Program described the ways in which the agency was investing in clean energy technology so that America could the make the sort of “quantum leaps” that defined the last century.  “How do we win the future?” he asked. “We invent affordable clean energy technology, make it locally, and sell it globally. That’s how we secure America’s future.” The pace and scale of innovation from 1900 to 2000 is almost impossible to comprehend – from the first car to the Internet to thin film solar technology.  “Now imagine all of that happening in clean energy in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Dr. Jay Keasling (PopTech 2007), CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute, guided the conversation with an explanation of breakthrough technologies with synthetic biology that can be used to create synthetic diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel. He framed his talk by stating that the U.S. produces 1.3 billion tons of biomass, or biological material from living or formerly living organisms, per year. “If we could convert that biomass into transportation biofuel, it could replace half of the oil we import. We’d make the Midwest into the new Mid-East.”

Johanna Wellington, Advanced Technology Leader – Sustainable Energy for GE Global Research is responsible for identifying and fostering next-generation clean energy technologies. Wellington has a “recipe” for innovation: Good ideas come from everywhere. Innovation is best played as a team sport. The tougher the technological challenge, the more effective the final solution will be. Eliminate the silos – taking technologies from one place and applying them to another can yield unexpected results.  And, finally, don’t be afraid to fail. “I’m not doing my job correctly if everything succeeds,” she said. “The important thing is to figure out quickly what has a chance to be successful and what needs to be recycled.”

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, expressed her deep concern about the future of energy security. She posed the question, “How do we innovate and how do we educate people who innovate?” Not only is strategic focus and continuous idea generation critical to maintaining our energy ecosystem, but so is preparing young people to be energy leaders of the future. “We need to mash people up in new and different and interdisciplinary ways and elevate the conversation nationally and globally. That’s how we’ll have energy security.”

We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation about technologies that can alter the existing energy landscape at future PopTech Salons and at PopTech 2011: The World Rebalancing.

Special thanks to our event partners: KAPSARC, Thomson Reuters, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment.

Additional reporting from Kiley Lambert.
Images: Brennan Vance for PopTech

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