The Beam interview series, edition 18: Steve Sawyer
To lighten up your week and give you even more energizing thoughts, we publish interviews from our partner The Beam twice a week.
The Beam takes a modern perspective on the energy transition, interviewing inspirational people from around the world that shape our sustainable energy future.
This week, Anne-Sophie Garrigou, journalist at The Beam, interviewed Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) since April 2007. The Global Wind Energy Council represents the major wind energy associations as well as the major companies involved in the global wind industry. At the GWEC, Steve Sawyer is focused on working with intergovernmental organizations to ensure that wind power takes its rightful place as a viable energy option for the future, and to open up new markets for the industry in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Here Steve Sawyer talks about how his experiences as a young man led him to work in renewables, as well as the GWEC’s missions.
The Beam: What is the main goal of the GWEC?
Steve Sawyer: GWEC’s goals are to maximize the spread of wind power globally. Specifically we are the global spokespersons for the industry, providing global statistics and projections, and represent the industry in major intergovernmental organizations such as IEA, IRENA, IPCC, UNFCCC, REN 21 and with various multilateral financial institutions.
You have worked in the energy and environment field since 1978, so what got you interested in renewable energies before they came to the forefront of important global issues?
At the end of 1972, after my father’s death, I needed to earn money so I ran a business which relied on driving my pickup truck about 200 km/day before school delivering newspapers to retail outlets and private customers over a large rural area covering five towns in southwestern New Hampshire.
When the first Arab oil embargo hit in the spring of 1973 and gasoline prices doubled in the course of a few weeks, I was directly impacted and my business was much less profitable. Further, taking over some of the family finances I was concerned that the public utility was charging us (a lot of money) in advance for the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power station, which was primarily for the benefit of large consumers in the neighbouring state of Massachusetts.
Both of these things grabbed my attention, and when I started working for Greenpeace more or less right out of college in 1978, energy issues were at the top of my agenda, and have been ever since. During time out from Greenpeace in late 1980 and early 1981, I worked for a small outfit called the Cambridge Alternative Power company, selling and installing solar hot water heaters, multi-fuel boilers, insulation materials, efficiency equipment, etc., taking advantage of the tail end of the Jimmy Carter Administration’s energy tax credit.
So you could say that I’ve been thinking about and dealing with the downside of fossil fuel dependency since I was 16.
What are the main challenges that society has faced since then and what are the future battles we are up against?
When I first became politically active in 1978, the great threat facing humanity was the prospect of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers, with a side issue of the eternal and ongoing conflict in the Middle East, which is about many things, but a significant part of it (especially given the formation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973 and the subsequent oil shock in 1979) was about the oil.
The equation of the power associated with energy and its political role was something that was clear to me from the beginning, as well as the strong connection in the United States and many other countries between the civil nuclear program and nuclear weaponry.
Due to the political upheaval in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, as well as the reduction of the threat of nuclear annihilation associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies in the former Soviet Union, this issue did not go away, and was rapidly overtaken by the emergence of the climate issue — I had my epiphany in May of 1988 — and it has been the major focus and preoccupation of my work ever since.
As a society we face a myriad of challenges, both political and environmental, but the climate issue is the most obviously existential one, i.e., if we don’t sort that out then human civilization will be severely threatened in my children’s lifetime. It’s certainly not the only threat, but in my opinion it is the largest and most dangerous one.
There are, of course, other ways that we can make the planet uninhabitable, but those seem less immediate. Although the spread of infectious diseases through the overuse of antibiotics sometimes keeps me up at night, I don’t work on it.
What technological breakthroughs will make a big change in the field of production and storage of renewable energy?
If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be in a different line of business. I think we have the technology solutions we need to address the climate issue in the power sector now, and they are all continuously improving (wind, solar, concentrated solar power, hydro, geothermal, etc.) and reducing their costs.
Battery storage seems to be moving in the right direction as well, which will help in many ways, not least in transport. If ‘breakthroughs’ come, they will undoubtedly help to make the transition faster and cheaper, but I would imagine that they would come on the usage side (smart grids, meters, appliances, the internet of energy, etc.) rather than on the supply side.
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