New York Energy Week: The Surprising Things

First principles are important. Rooting New York Energy Week in the priorities established by a community of volunteers, participants, sponsors and advisors paid off in the second iteration of the event series last month with panels of exceptional insight, unusually impactful networking and deserved attention for an industry that too often flies under the radar in the country's largest city.

The energy business has traditionally been a centralized affair, and large energy events have had their content dictated by central groups of organizers. But the business itself is going through a transition to a model of distribution generation, origination and engagement and New York Energy Week's highly unusual model of distributed leadership and its broad net for ideas is emblematic of that shift.

A distributed system can be hard to manage, but experience, systemization and clarity of purpose are remarkably effective in getting the benefits of a large organization without the cost of wasted time, effort and overhead. New York Energy Week's second year was an excellent example of how compelling ideas, clear communication and defined task sets can set free creativity in solving problems and ultimately result in events so reflective of multiple forms of expertise that they overshadow the outcome of traditional command-and-control management approaches.

As such, it was as surprising to me, despite my very close involvement with New York Energy Week this year, exactly what emerged as priorities for the energy industry generally and the energy community in New York specifically.

First Surprise

We are living through the aftershocks of a remarkable set of revolutions in supply side economics in energy. Natural gas is cheaper than ever, oil supply dynamics are shifting rapidly, solar and wind generation costs are collapsing, and new technology is aiming data analytics and materials innovation at the heart of the utility and transport industries.

The shift from a time of supply side dislocation to one of demand side reevaluation was palpable at New York Energy Week. The revolution is moving from the production site inside the home, office and factory, and will begin to have very real impacts on the way people pay for, use and think about energy.

Energy has for many years defied the economics of abundance that have recast other sectors: there has always been not enough of energy, rather than too much. Scarcity of everything from resource and infrastructure to information is what we are used to. Our policies and our industries have remained rooted in responses to scarcity, and a resultant overpaying for excess capacity in a bid for reliability.

We face an increasingly abundant future; sadly perhaps, that abundance doesn't free us from choice. As the supply side revolution works its way into the economy, new decisions about how to socially organize and prioritize energy issues will need to be made.

Second Surprise

The biggest surprise for the New York energy community during the week was the broad acceptance of the role of oil and natural gas as players in the 21st century energy economy. The politics of energy can seem as bifurcated and divisive as any other form of politics in today's America, but, as is so often the case, real people generally respond in more complex and nuanced ways.

There were informed discussions about the risks of hydraulic fracturing, about the ways that oil, gas and renewables can work together, and a clear acknowledgment that more thoughtful leadership on climate change and resiliency is desired. But from utility regulators to solar project developers to commodities bankers a focus on clear-eyed policy frameworks, in which market actors can solve problems, emerged again and again.

In large part, New York's energy community has avoided the temptations of dogmatic thinking about energy sources and energy politics, and is poised to engage with the rest of the country on how markets and technology can solve problems that seem increasingly self-evident.

One of the purposes of the first New York Energy Week was to identify the New York energy community, and to give it a common voice. My hope for the second iteration was for that community to begin to prioritize issues of importance and emerge into a constituency with clear goals. It is clear now that New York Energy Week has an important place in the state, regional and national conversation, and that its community is focused on solutions, not rehashed political talking points.

In eight hours during Hurricane Sandy, National Grid president Ken Daly said his company's system saw more impact than in the preceding 100 years of operations. As change moves at a hurricane pace through the energy business, only a flexible, distributed system of leadership can surface ideas and solutions fast enough to respond to challenges. New York Energy Week proved again this year that such a system is possible, and I'm proud again to have been involved.

Peter Gardett is a founding board member of New York Energy Week, adjunct fellow in the energy and environmental security program at the Center for a New American Security and entrepreneur in residence at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.