Executive Summary of the 2016 Aspen Institute Summer Energy Convenings

The energy world is changing, in both the US and around the globe. Renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould might have described this as the punctuation part of his evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, a long period of stagnation followed by rapid change. Any way you look at it, rapid change is afoot.

For decades the energy world remained much the same. Petroleum ran the transportation sector – with nearly all cars, trucks, ships, and planes operating on fossil fuels – and an ever changing combination of natural gas, nuclear energy, and, primarily, coal ran the electricity sector. Energy efficiency has improved over time in the US, as has energy intensity. But, even after the oil embargo of the early 1970’s and the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the direction and pattern of US energy production and delivery remained largely the same for decades.

The energy world is quite different now. In the US, non-hydro renewables made up more than 10% of power generation nationwide during the spring of 2016 for the first time ever, and clean energy (including renewables, hydroelectric, and nuclear power) now generates over a third of our electric power. Natural gas, a newly abundant unconventional resource in the US from low-permeability shale formations, has now overtaken coal as the top fuel source for electric power generation in the US for the first time ever. Though operators and regulators must continue to successfully cooperate with environmental organizations and local communities to contend with the risks arising from shale development, this abundant supply has altered the global energy security equation and will undoubtedly test the established market shares of current exporting nations. Meanwhile, rapidly decreasing costs of renewable energy technology and very low priced natural gas are putting stress on nuclear power plants, causing some to shut down entirely. In the transportation sector, though electric vehicles are still just beginning to penetrate the US car and light-truck market, hybrid vehicles are now commonplace and petroleum fueled vehicles now average 36 miles per gallon, up over 30% from two decades ago.

Serious challenges remain. The decarbonization and ‘keep it in the ground’ movements have gained some recognition in recent years spurred on by concerns about climate change, complicating the construction of critical energy infrastructure projects and encouraging some to focus on clean energy development alone. Without a doubt, the energy system must evolve and learn how to dispatch, integrate and store the rapid increase in available renewable energy and new forms of distributed energy resources and services as we strive to understand what the energy transitions means for the future of the utility system and contend with existing forms of greenhouse gas pollution.

This summary provides a snapshot of our changing energy world by highlighting ideas and observations from our 2016 energy convenings. For over 40 years the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program has consistently served as a preeminent, independent non-partisan venue for energy leaders and policy experts to gather and discuss the major issues in the energy world. The Program now convenes five separate energy-focused forums each summer that examine different aspects of the energy world: the power sector, global oil and gas, clean energy innovation, nuclear energy, and shale production and governance. The goal of all these convenings is the same – to encourage candor and the free exchange of ideas about our energy economy and the future. Change is perhaps the only real constant in the energy world, and we look forward to discussing the changes that occur over the next year at our 2017 forums.

David Monsma
Executive Director, Energy and Environment Program
The Aspen Institute