By Hemant Taneja (@htaneja)
Sandy has moved on and many people are coping with its effects, but the debate over what it should mean has just begun. Recently my Advanced Energy Economy co-founder Tom Steyer found himself in a dust-up on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” over whether Sandy proves that extreme weather – brought on by human actions – is now part of our reality. That conversation will no doubt continue, particularly following Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of President Obama for his climate change policies.
Whether this sparks a productive conversation about climate is yet to be seen. If not, inconclusive posturing, a hallmark of the debate thus far, does us no good. We need to look at it instead from a contingency planning perspective. If severe storms like Sandy are becoming a part of life, it just makes business sense to be better safe than sorry. These precautions can in turn grow our economy and make us more competitive on a global stage.
Sandy has shown how far we’ve come and how far we can still go. Thanks to technology and better modeling, we had warning about the severity of the storm. And thanks to social media and advanced communications, we could alert people and find out where help was needed. But we can do a lot more. We need to invest in advanced energy – the technologies, systems and energy sources that are developing – to be more capable of mitigating and recovering from severe weather damage. There’s absolutely no reason we need to suffer a $50 billion plus recovery each time, and we certainly don’t need businesses hamstrung for days afterwards because of fragile power grids.
First off, we can limit the damage by investing in distributed and modular advanced energy systems such as microgrids. The failure of our regional grids is still affecting a huge swath of people – millions are still without power in the Northeast. Sophisticated advanced energy systems will let us greatly reduce the duration and scope of down time, enabling our businesses, homes and critical infrastructure like hospitals to bounce back much faster. This is not some far-off fantasy. There are already 11,000 companies in America offering advanced energy solutions that employ roughly 700,000 Americans. Electric and plug-in hybrid cars, natural gas-fueled trucks, high-performance buildings, energy-saving industrial processes, high-capacity wind turbines, on-site solar power, and advanced nuclear power plants are all examples of advanced energy.
It is not hard to envision that in 20 years our ability to track, prepare and bounce back from a storm as powerful as Sandy will be much more effective, thanks to advances in technology and our ability to provide energy sources and systems more effectively.
If we accomplish that, it has a huge impact on America. First off, it makes our economy stronger and more self-sufficient. How many foreign policy decisions over the last five decades were made with foreign oil as a factor? Two, it addresses the ongoing issue of whether we can make our world healthier – not only the earth, but improving prospects for humans with a cleaner economy. And, finally, it improves America’s prospects. With energy demand worldwide expected to grow 40 percent or more the next two decades, it’s America’s business opportunity to seize – or watch as China takes it from us.
Most importantly, let’s not get stuck in the old debate over whether we need to save the earth at the expense of our economy. That debate was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. Sandy is merely a reminder that advanced energy is a way to keep our economy roaring and minimize disruptions in Americans’ daily lives come what may.
Author Bio: Hemant leads General Catalyst’s global energy practice and invests in early stage technology companies. In addition, Hemant co-founded Advanced Energy Economy, a business organization focused on catalyzing regional energy innovation clusters across America. The creation of AEE is modeled after the work he did in founding the New England Clean Energy Council, which received an award from the Department of Energy. He is also an entrepreneur in his own right; before joining General Catalyst in 2002, Hemant was founder and CEO of a mobile software company that was acquired. He is a graduate of MIT.