Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, recently wrote an article on the changing energy system and the future needs of energy businesses. Liebreich argues that the energy system is complex and interconnected, like an ecosystem, such that the value and promise of any one technology is dependent on many other technologies and policies: “The value of a solar rooftop in a world of electric vehicles is very different from the value of the same solar rooftop in a world without. The value of demand response is negligible in a world optimised around ‘baseload-plus-peak’ generating capacity. The value of energy efficiency is negligible in a world of fuel subsidies.”
Liebreich believes that energy companies and systems need to increasingly focus on three values going forward. These are:
- Resilience: Develop energy systems that can adapt to policy changes, technology changes (both in one’s own and competing technologies), and climate change-related damages.
- Optionality: Energy companies should see themselves as providers of energy as a service to meet a need, rather than defining themselves as operators of specific technologies or wedding themselves to specific business models.
- Intelligence: Energy companies need good data about technology and price trends, customer energy use, and computer modeling results to help them make intelligent choices.
It is a strong article, which correctly highlights many of the challenges facing energy businesses due to uncertainty in prices, the rate of technological development, regulation, and climate damages. Liebreich’s three values should indeed be key considerations of players in the energy industry.
However, there is one way in which Liebreich could have gone further. He presents all of the challenges facing energy companies as exogenous variables, to which they must respond, but which they cannot influence. On its face, this seems reasonable. After all, the energy system is very large (globally, in the trillions of dollars per year), so the extent to which any single company can shift the industry is small. However, Liebreich is writing not to a single company, but to a broad audience of industry leaders, policymakers, NGOs, scientists, and others. These are the people whose work and decisions will shape the future of energy, in the U.S. and abroad.
Change in the energy sector may appear unpredictable when looking at short-term price trends, but over the long term, the sector is driven by the policy and investment decisions of government and industry. The American Energy Innovation Council’s recent case study of technologies for the extraction of unconventional natural gas provides an excellent example: we did not unpredictably or randomly acquire the technologies that enabled the shale gas boom. We developed these technologies through decades of directed effort by government and the private sector, working together.
In the future, we would love to see Liebreich’s insights into how energy leaders (in industry, government, and elsewhere) can be proactive and work to bring about a sustainable, clean, and prosperous energy future. If everyone acts as though someone else is driving the car, then nobody is at the wheel. Resilience, options, and intelligence will put companies in a position to adapt and survive changes in the energy system. Those are great things. But we cannot stop there: we must use smart policies, investments, and business strategies to take control of our energy system and guide it in the direction we want to go.