I was honoured to be presented with an ACEEE Champion of Energy Efficiency Award in Denver, Colorado on 17th August. Here are my remarks on accepting the Award at the ACEEE Industry Event.
Thank you very much for this award. It is a great honour to be given an award by the ACEEE as most of my work is outside the US and I am a big fan of the work of ACEEE. When I flew over for this I wasn’t expecting to have to make an acceptance speech so I was very surprised when I read in the programme “presentations by award winners”. When I asked Ethan for advice, he suggested talking about how I got into energy efficiency and something about the industry.
Well, it may not surprise you that when I was asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” as a child I did not say, I want to go into energy efficiency. I actually wanted to be an astronaut but growing up in UK in the 1970s that didn’t seem a viable career move. Then in 1974 in the U.K. we had something called the three day week. This meant that industry only got electricity three days a week, TV finished early, households had rolling power cuts, and even the pubs closed early. This was all due to a strike by coal miners, but it came on the back of the first oil crisis and the two combined seemed to foretell some dystopian future where energy was in short supply. I decided then that energy was a really important area to work on and particularly energy efficiency and renewable energy, which back then was called alternative energy. When I left school I took one of the first ever degrees focused on energy. Then after working a year as an energy auditor I was invited to do a PhD about the potential for energy efficiency in British industry. I have to tell you I had no intention of doing a PhD, but this was a unique opportunity as it was based in industry. Furthermore one of the industries I focused on was brewing. So I spent much of my PhD in breweries and in those days workers in breweries could drink at lunch time – something long gone because of Health and Safety rules. So all in all it was a hard PhD to turn down. It is worth noting that brewing has always been central to energy efficiency and thermodynamics – John Prescott Joule who did the early work on thermodynamics was the son of a wealthy brewer and his early work was all about saving money on energy costs – only later did he work on the theory.
So that is how I got into energy efficiency. I suppose the other question is why did I stay with it so long. There is a lot of talk of barriers in energy efficiency and I suppose I have banged my head against every one of them over the years. I was probably too pig headed or too stupid to stop banging my head against barriers. There is also a more subtle and important explanation and that is about purpose. I think that improving energy and resource efficiency or productivity is the key challenge of our times and a worthy purpose to pursue. We know that we need to generate much more wealth, that is the only way to resolve problems of poverty and ignorance, here in the US, in Europe and in every corner of the world. Fundamentally we have to make everyone rich. In the past of course, and the not too distant past when I was a student, the prevailing truth was that increasing GDP meant increasing energy usage. Since the industrial revolution, wealth creation has been based on extracting more and more resources with all of the negative impacts that brings. It is clear now that despite the views of some people in Washington that model is bankrupt. Incidentally I read yesterday that in Washington the administration is following a BAY policy – Business As Yesterday. Despite the views of the current administration it is clear that the next mega-wave of wealth creation is about increasing the efficiency of energy and resource use – decoupling GDP growth and energy and resource use – something we have started to see in energy use in Europe and the USA. Energy efficiency is clearly at the heart of that change.
What keeps energy efficiency interesting as a career is seeing how far can we go? When you have worked on the problem as long as I have you get a historical perspective. In 1976 Amory Lovins published “Energy strategy: the road not taken” in which he described “soft energy paths” and in the UK in 1979 Gerald Leach published “A low energy strategy for the UK”. Both of these were considered wildly optimistic at the time and widely panned by analysts, the energy industry and government agencies. History shows that they turned out to be more accurate than any official government or energy industry scenario. As I said in the title of a blog; “Surprise, you are living in a low energy future”. What is more, we achieved that low energy future without really trying, except perhaps for a ten year period starting in the mid-to late 1970s.
Being an optimist I think that the six powerful drivers of change; policy, economics, technology, the interest of institutional capital, new business models and market infrastructure will continue to drive advancements in energy efficiency, and over the next 30 to 40 years we will achieve a much more efficient future than we think possible. At the end of the day our level of energy efficiency is simply a matter of choice. Given all the global and local pressures choosing anything other than a very low energy future makes no sense. In fact when we consider the global environment a famous phrase from the space programme comes to mind, “failure is not an option”.
I want to finish with one more space related quote. When Apollo 11 was coming back from the moon the crew held a final in-flight press conference where they talked about the meaning of the moon landing. Michael Collins the Command Module Pilot, likened Apollo 11 to a submarine’s periscope – all you could see was the capsule and the crew but underneath that was a huge support structure that made it all possible. I often think that our careers are like that – all you see is the individual’s achievements but in fact they are supported by many, many people, some remembered, some forgotten – family, friends, teachers, mentors, bosses, team members, clients and many, many more. I would like to thank all those people who have contributed to my career, past, present and future.
Thank you again to the ACEEE for their great work and thank you very much for this award.
17th August 2017