At last week’s World Energy Engineering Congress (WEEC), I had the opportunity to interview former President Bill Clinton – both on stage and backstage – on a variety of energy topics. Clinton has a deep understanding of global energy matters, in part from the work of the Clinton Climate Initiative.
On the conference stage, we talked about energy policy, success stories, financing, and the future of energy. Clinton believes – as I do – that green energy is near a tipping point.
Clinton said that we are on the verge of a major economic shift in energy, which he likened to the cell phone’s displacement of the land-line phone. Based purely on economics, renewable energy can become the default choice. But we must adjust our 100-year-old approach to specifying and building fossil-fueled power plants. Instead of “why do renewable energy?,” the question should be ”why not?” With numerous data points, Clinton reinforced this point.
New Financial Approach Needed
We also need to adjust our financial approach to implement clean energy. For example, solar energy plants have a similar finance model as hydro-electric dams – the upfront cost is high but the long-term operating costs are low and the fuel is essentially free (and green). As many of energy managers know, the upfront costs can be financed to create net-positive cash flow. Other countries are implementing this model for solar because it makes sense and does not force the stakeholders to purchase fossil fuels (and possibly carbon credits/taxes). If U.S. utilities don’t get on board with the new way of thinking, we will fall further behind.
Clinton and I talked about a wide variety of support initiatives and how investment firms are finally getting seriously interested in the 15% to 30% ROIs that are consistently available from energy efficiency projects. Clinton mentioned that great transformations are needed to help the system adjust to the new and better way of evaluating and installing projects. For example, performance contracting, on-bill repayment, and other solutions not only make environmental sense, but also are cash flow positive. Some of these business models are very similar to the way many people pay for their cell phone via financing/leasing over a two-year contract.
We talked about how his success with the Clinton Foundation could be modeled and replicated to bear fruit for energy management. Clinton has been able to get people to debate and develop mutually beneficial solutions that have helped over 435 million people in 150 countries. That means his foundation has affected about 1 in 14 people on the planet.
However, for the cooperation model to work, we energy managers – the “how to” crowd, according to Clinton – must make it simple for people to see the benefits of green energy. Energy managers need to be better communicators and listeners in order to get more efficiency projects approved.
I asked the President how we can de-politicize energy and environmental issues in the U.S. Clinton answered my question with this point: “We must remember that all people share 99.5% of the same DNA, yet we spend most of our time debating about how we are different.” If we can recognize that we (Democrats and Republicans) are very much the same, perhaps we can work through the energy-environmental issues towards a healthier planet.
In his autobiography, Clinton wrote that his most important job was to be a father, so naturally my final question was about how it felt to be a grandfather. He was quite emotional in his response about his increased commitment to make the world a better place and to inspire many to take a step further. He feels lucky to have lived long enough to meet his granddaughter, in particular because he never got the privilege to meet his biological father, a World War II veteran who drowned in a car accident three months before the president was born.
Backstage, before our conference session, I talked with Clinton for a few minutes. I’ve had the privilege to interview Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and T. Boone Pickens but I found Clinton’s charisma and intellect to be rare. I started the conversation by thanking him for his student loan policies that enabled my wife to go to college (where we met). He was instantly able to recall specific details about the basketball coach at the college at that time, whom he knew, and recalled precisely when the coach’s wife had passed away.
My interview with Clinton, and my recent induction into the Energy Manager Hall of Fame, have reinforced for me an insight that I would like to share: Seek and surround yourself with good mentors and listen to them.