I am so pleased to announce that Aimée Christensen, founder and executive director of the Sun Valley Institute, CEO of Christensen Global Strategies, and globally respected clean energy innovator, investor, and advocate, will be a keynote speaker at Groundwork’s Michigan Clean Energy Conference, May 17–19, in Traverse City.
Christensen’s career includes developing Google’s early climate and energy strategy for philanthropy and investments, curating the program for the World Climate Summit 2010 and 2011 and serving as master of ceremonies, and advising corporate, multilateral, and non-profit clients regarding climate change and energy.
In advance of her conference appearance in May, we asked Christensen to share thoughts on what we need to speed the clean energy transformation.
We see a big disparity between government inaction on a clean energy transformation and the private sector moving forward and gaining momentum. How plausible is it to think that the private sector can get to 100% clean energy without big government support?
There’s no question in my mind that the transition will happen. Even without government support it is well underway. But what is so concerning is that we are just not on the timeline that we need to be to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Also, by moving too slowly, we are failing to tap into the greatest opportunities that a clean energy future provides. If we had the regulatory support that would accelerate the transition to where we need to be to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But also to create thousands and thousands of jobs, save us money on our power bills, give us more resilience, and have an energy system that is more reliable. This transformation is so positive. It’s all positive. And of course we need to be smart about a just transition for the communities that relied on the jobs that fossil fuel provided. Fortunately we are seeing some people be really smart about just transition.
Greta Thunberg has put the voice of youth front and center in the climate movement. You have been involved with youth and climate since your early days of climate advocacy. How is today’s youth movement different? How is it the same?
Having been part of a youth movement back in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio, there were about 30 of us—we called ourselves U.S. Youth at Rio—and we organized, we showed up. We raised our voices to our government, which we felt at the time was not moving quickly enough to protect the global environment. So when I see the youth movement now, I compare it to my own experience.
The youth movement I was part of, we had the same passion, the same conviction, the same call for urgent and moral leadership that we hear today, but what’s so exciting for today’s youth is they do not have to meet all at one place, the way we did at Rio. We found each other at the youth tent at the global forum, which was the NGO gathering alongside the government gathering. We found each other, and we organized, and we demanded a meeting with the congressional delegation that Al Gore led. And we had a conversation with them about leadership in Congress. We had to do all of that in place, quickly, over the days that we were together.
Whereas now, for the youth movement, it is so empowering how fast information can be shared, and strategies can be activated, including information in how to make the local difference. In your school, in your community, it’s all so accessible so quickly that it gives me real hope for how quickly they can make change happen. The speed and effectiveness now, with the support of technology is a game-changer. I feel like we had a fearlessness back then.
But what I also see now, with someone like Greta is she is so clear about her right position. There is no wavering there. There is no standing down. There is no apology for being young. Her voice is as valuable if not more valuable than the adults in the room who haven’t been getting it right. She’s walking the walk and getting it right every day, not just through her voice but through her actions and consistent behavior.
I think the key, what’s missing for that movement to be as successful as it must be for all of us, is turnout, voter turnout. We need them to not just protest. To not just raise their voices. To not just demand action in their schools. We need them for turnout at the polls. I see incredible leaders, junior high school age, high school age, whose actions are powerful and clear. But I feel we have a drop off in which people are not showing up to vote once they hit their 20s. We’ve got to change that. We need them so badly. It is everything. Who is in power is everything in our ability to tackle this crisis.
So much clean energy investment has happened on America's coasts. What needs to happen to bring big projects and big investment to middle America?
I think it’s a combination of local and regional investors getting on board, as well as the coastal investors realizing the huge opportunity there is in middle America. I think project finance is a particularly exciting opportunity, like large scale wind projects and large scale solar projects. We have the resources from the Intermountain West through the Midwest.
I think what’s most exciting to me is a lot of the large banks who do a lot of the project finance are now seeing these are low risk and relatively high return investments. They are financing large scale renewables, utility scale renewables, and they are moving in with their major capital. So, funds at the earlier stage, venture funds, like the Rise of the Rest Fund that Steve Case stood up—he did that with the author of Hillbilly Elegy—they’ve been investing in companies in the rest of the country, because those places have been largely ignored.
Having leaders like that demonstrate the success of their portfolio when they go to different places is the way to get some of the laggards who haven’t yet seen the opportunities in these regions. So having more and more proof points is critical. We have got to show that addressing climate is a profit-making enterprise. And we need more of the stories coming out of these places. Investors need to understand how there is way less competition when you come to these other places.
It’s a wide open field of opportunity and they can bring in co-investors from that region to bring that localized expertise. It’s not just your tech bros on the coast. It’s a more diverse community of innovators, where people are innovative in the more traditional sense. There is nobody more innovative than a farmer. He has to innovate constantly, dealing with weather changes and soil changes and market changes and commodities. What I see in Idaho are incredible innovations by farmers who are now growing multiple crops. They are doing solar to power their water pumping. They are finding solutions in new technologies and strategies. And they are the ones we need to be learning from, and we need to be funding their transitions as quickly as possible.
What nation today is most doing it right on clean energy transformation? What can we borrow from their approach to propel our own clean energy transformation?
There are a few of them. I am inspired by the women leaders in New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland. They’re a powerful trifecta of women who are calling for well-being metrics. Looking beyond a short-term economic return and to a broader concept of well-being. What are we building toward? What are we building for? They are making well-being budgets. Well-being policies. And they’ll have supporting goals of 100% renewable energy.
Scotland is a rock star of wind power, and they’ve been overproducing their energy needs with wind power. Iceland and New Zealand have huge geothermal resources. And for a long time have been modeled as source of inspiration for geothermal ideas and strategies. We need to determine how to build what’s best for our country, to understand how to tap into the local natural assets that we have. Not everyone has geothermal. But we have wind. We have solar. We have biomass. What does our nation need? What does our world need?
That’s the same conversation I have with corporations I collaborate with: Here’s what the world needs. I have the same conversation with philanthropists and investors: Here’s what the world needs. Here’s what your assets are. Here’s what the culture of your company speaks to.
What makes you most optimistic about the United States clean energy future?
I’m made most optimistic by what I see in the sheer numbers of people and companies and cities and communities and farmers and Native Americans and so the numbers and diversity of people who attracted to clean energy as a core strategy for economic development to job creation, to moral leadership on climate. I always say there is every reason to act on climate. It’s good for the economy, and it’s good for security, and it’s good for our health. It’s good for equity and opportunity. And people are finally figuring that out with clean energy.
Now you have millions and millions of people working on clean energy. And you have innovators and diversity of people who are taking it on and scaling it up. We’re at a time when I feel like working on these issues is a rollercoaster, and those are the upswings.
In the last few years, we are seeing some broad bipartisan support—a growing belief that climate change is a real problem that we need to address. What we have to do is translate that knowledge into political power. And we have to get our federal leaders to feel accountability to do what the American people want. The American people want them to be addressing these issues. They realize it’s a challenge to us globally. We are not leading in renewable energy. If we are spending too much on energy because we don’t have the most advanced generation technologies or energy efficiency technologies it undermines our global competitiveness. We will not have the top innovative companies.
Americans want them to lead on this and they want us to lead for moral reasons and they want us to lead for economic reasons, for security reasons, for health. The public is with us. The challenge is politicians who are being swayed by the money that is coming into their coffers from the legacy industries who don’t want to let go and diversify and change. That’s what upsets me the most. I see our democracy being undermined by money.
We must get voter turnout levels up and overwhelm the financial forces that are slowing action on climate change. We need the people power to overwhelm the power of money. We have to turn out better and more until we can change this system.
Also, the utility needs to innovate or die. I feel the same way about the oil and gas and coal industries. The transition is inevitable. And they’re holding on for too long and it’s not good for shareholders, and it’s not good for any of them. If they would just develop their plans on a faster basis and be more open to collaborating with the innovators, the new technologies and customers, then we could all move much more quickly.
What makes you most doubtful about the United State clean energy future?
The monied interests holding onto their old ways of doing things because it was so comfortable for so long. Wanting to continue to have that easy money come in even though the planet can’t sustain it. Our community health can’t sustain it. Our economy can’t sustain it. It is not the best in public interest. They are holding on to this old way of doing it for so long and what frustrates me so much is that if they would just get on board and start investing and diversifying into clean energy. Whether it’s the oil and gas industry, the coal industry, utilities, holding onto their old ways, their old mix, an wanting to keep operating those facilities far beyond when they are cost effective to operate. If they would leap into the future with these new technologies, they would make as much money if not more. They just have to be a little bit innovative about new business models. Giving customers what they want, and customers want renewable energy. They want energy efficiency. They want Nest thermostats. They want energy independence. The utility needs to innovate or die. I feel same way about oil and gas and coal industries. The transition is inevitable. And they’re holding on for too long and it’s not good for shareholders and it’s not good for any of them. If they would just develop their plans on a faster basis and collaborate with other innovators to help get there be more open to collaborate with the innovators, the new technologies and customers then we could all move much more quickly. What gives me hope is low oil prices and low battery prices, because people have gone solar, and if the utility takes away net metering, and you have low battery prices, those people can put batteries in place and finance their solar and go off the grid but then you have a dying utility on your hands. I don’t want to see that. I want to see a collaborative, smart transformation, just on a much faster pace.