Originally published July 20, 2015. There has been so much good news about business embracing renewable energy that I almost didn’t give it a second thought when a Harvard Business School report called “America’s Unconventional Energy Opportunity” landed on my desk. Subtitled “A Win-Win Plan for the Economy, the Environment, and a Lower-Carbon, Cleaner-Energy Future,” I assumed it was a plan to transform our energy resources to renewables like wind and solar. States are pushing renewables too: New York State just released its roadmap for getting to 50 percent renewable power by 2030 by focusing on distributed generation and renewable resources.
The lead author of the HBS report is Professor Michael Porter. He is not only a globally-recognized authority on competitive strategy, he’s also works tirelessly on just causes. He created the “Social Progress Index to look beyond GDP at social and environmental factors.”
Porter also co-founded FSG-Social Impact Advisors and co-developed its theory of “Shared Value” to help non-profits work with business to create social value. (Full disclosure: I am an HBS graduate and met with Porter and FSG staff.)
So it was disappointing to read that by “unconventional energy” the authors mean “…shale gas and oil resources …accessed and extracted through the process of hydraulic fracturing.”
Porter and his colleagues at HBS and management consulting firm BCG lay out their motivation:
Unconventional gas and oil resources are perhaps the single largest opportunity to improve the trajectory of the U.S. economy, at a time when the prospects for the average American are weaker than we have experienced in generations. America’s new energy abundance can not only help restore U.S. competitiveness but can also create geopolitical advantages for America. These benefits can be achieved while substantially mitigating local environmental impact and speeding up the transition to a cleaner-energy future that is both practical and affordable.
Their solution is to convert coal and oil based energy to natural gas and, when plants come to their natural end-of-life, we’ll replace natural gas with renewables. In the meantime, we’ll restore our economic supremacy by exporting cheap natural gas while reducing our own carbon emissions and energy costs. By 2060, we’d be generating zero carbon emissions from energy generation.
It’s not an easy sell. The first problem is cost. To develop our natural gas resources will require $900 billion in infrastructure investment, including new interstate pipelines, storage facilities, rail, marine and road upgrades, gathering and processing infrastructure, and export terminals. In other words we’d have to spend even more to transition to natural gas as we will spend to convert to renewables, which the report estimates at $750 billion. In the end, with Porter’s plan, we’d be stuck with all that decaying infrastructure and fracking waste. Why not put that money into renewables infrastructure starting now?
The report also calls for spending on training for higher paying jobs in natural gas. Again, why not spend money on renewable energy training instead of having to retrain workers later on? Porter’s argument is economic competitiveness — the GDP increases we would see if we push natural gas production. You can’t generate exports from wind or solar the way you can from natural gas, and ours is by far the cheapest in the world.
Many of the report’s recommendations read like a fossil fuel producers dream: in addition to some positive proposals such as imposing regulations and increasing transparency, it also advocates ending “outdated” restrictions on oil and gas exports and encouraging industry compliance with industry-led self-enforcement, even after some industry players have been seen to be systemically corrupt.
All that said, the plan has several positives that should not be overlooked. First, shifting from coal to natural gas can take about a quarter of the responsibility for the 15 percent carbon reduction between 2005 and 2013. It may be the only certain path to achieving the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and eliminating coal plants. Producing just half the greenhouse gases (GHG) as coal (methane aside), natural gas is, as Porter et al say,
“a crucial asset in making America’s energy transition both feasible and at a competitive cost across a range of carbon reduction scenarios, at least through 2030.”
And that transition is way faster than fossil fuel industry thought leaders like Shell.
As I discussed in a blog for CSRHub, Shell’s most recent future scenarios report advocates a transition to renewables by 2100. Porter’s assumes power grid alterations necessary for renewable energy will take 20-30 years, taking us to 2035-45, at which point renewables will be even more cost competitive than natural gas and will be completely phased out of power production before 2060. Working back from Shell’s prediction of 2100, that looks pretty good.
We’re all tempted to point fingers at a policy recommendation that will delay achieving a zero emissions future while bolstering fossil fuel and power businesses. Isn’t this just business as usual? Maybe, but at least this timeline is much faster than the fossil fuel industry’s. Porter’s report acknowledges that if solar and wind prices continue to fall below oil and gas prices as they have in some places like Austin, Texas, business will drive an even faster transition. It’s all about the money, and in this case, that could be a very good thing.