Global Energy Trends and Innovations for the Future

First Republic Private Wealth Management
October 22, 2021

The worldwide energy sector is going through dramatic shifts in energy demand and energy sources. Our energy and information sectors are merging to form smarter energy systems and more energy-intensive information systems. In this session, Dr. Michael Webber, who is the Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin and CTO of Energy Impact Partners, will provide an overview of global energy trends and offer a unique perspective on the future of energy production and consumption. In conversation with Bob Thornton, President of First Republic Private Wealth Management, Dr. Webber will share how research and technology innovations can help us prepare for the path ahead.

Read below for a full transcript of the conversation. 

Bob Thornton - Maybe we could take a few minutes first and just tell us a little bit about how you spend your time and how you became passionate about climate and energy.

Dr. Michael Webber- That's great. So thanks so much for having me as part of the conversation. It's great to great to be here and I look forward to some of the interactivity with the participants in the audience. So I'm a professor at the University of Texas, as you heard, I'm in my office at mechanical engineering. So I've got all the books I'm supposed to have read and papers I haven't gotten to yet behind me, a piece of art by my wife of the state capitol and flag behind me. So I'm a Texas guy and a University of Texas professor and I spend my time teaching classes like entrepreneurship, which is what I'm teaching this semester, thermodynamics, thermodynamics is a core engineering class and then my graduate energy class, which is for MBA students, business students, policy students and engineers. So I spend time teaching on energy and entrepreneurship and innovation and I also do a lot of research on energy systems, trying to make them more reliable, available, accessible, affordable and sustainable. So that's kind of my world of research and education. And then I also have this role with Energy Impact Partners, a VC fund looking at deep decarbonization and clean energy opportunities of which there are starting to be many, which is very exciting. So I'm partly on the investment side, partly on the analysis side, partly on the teaching side. And for the last three years, I was in Paris, France, headquartered at NG as chief science and technology officer. I took a three-year leave from university to work at NG. I like to say NG is the world's largest energy company that no one's ever heard of, had about 170,000 employees in 70 countries doing about $75 billion a year of revenue and I had a perimeter of research in innovation about 450 people looking at that. So I was sort of the C-level executive in charge of research innovation at this multinational electric and gas utility and I became passionate about energy for a variety of reasons. I identified early in my academic career as a student, as a freshmen, taking classes on the history of the early church and early society, understanding of the role of resources as an enabler for modern civilization and really keyed in on energy and water as those foundations we need for our modern society.

So I've been interested for a long time, but I was actually an aerospace engineering student taking these liberal arts classes and at aerospace engineering, I was interested in propulsion, propulsion for space exploration or high speed air travel or something like that. And I ended up getting a couple internships at NASA, NASA Ames Research Center there in the Bay area at Moffett Field in Mountain View, spent a couple summers there working on a high-speed propulsion system, so a scramjet system, supersonic combustion ram jet engine. So I was an engineer doing engineering work at NASA for high speed travel. And in the process learned about burning things for propulsion, burning jet fuel or rocket fuel, and then bumped into some Stanford students that were working on it, ended up going to Stanford for my PhD in mechanical engineering working on combustion at the heart of our system for propulsion and also for transportation in our cars. And so I learned how to burn stuff and combustion's important because it's 85% of the world's energies from burning something, cow dung, wood, straw, oil, gas, coal, that kind of thing, and it also produces CO2 or carbon dioxide as the emissions from a complete combustion reaction. So I learned about combustion because of my interest in space travel and NASA and combustion's at the heart of the energy system. And if you learn about combustion or burning things, you learn about polluting. So I developed some CO2 sensors to measure the pollution and control the combustion and then I just got onto CO2 and climate change and all this kind of thing. But really I got there from my interest in space travel, which got me to energy, which got me to combustion which got me to pollution, which got me to think about energy and climate. Energy is the thing we need for society, we've climate as the constraint within which we need to operate. So in my view, climate change is the most important and urgent priority we need to solve in this century while also doing so in a way that doesn't mess up all the financial systems and that kind of thing. So that's kind of my background.

It's not a traditional background for an energy guy, but I'm now working on it and looking at combustion still, but also looking at other forms of energy, such as renewables, like wind and solar or geothermal, looking at energy storage, looking at data, all the ways they piece together. And the way I see it, there's a two-sided challenge, which is there are still a billion people in the world that don't have access to modern forms of energy, like electricity or propane or gasoline, but there are seven billion of us with access who need to reduce our impacts. So we need to increase access for those billion, decrease impacts for the seven billion. This is a two-sided challenge. This is what we need to do as investors, analysts, experts, researchers, that kind of thing. So that's kind of my winding story as for how I got there.

Bob - No, it's fascinating. And two of my goals today in chatting with you is one to help people walk away and be able to talk about this a bit with themselves, with their colleagues and their friends. And second, I'm sure many of our listeners want to know what can they do to help the world and help improve the climate. So you talked about burning things. So let me ask you a fairly pedestrian question, which are the worst things that we can burn, the worst things that pollute and most negatively impact climate change today, and what would be the best thing in terms of the way we generate energy?

Dr. Webber - In terms of burning, so if you want to burn fuels and if you're worried about carbon dioxide emissions, the dirtiest fuel in terms of carbon dioxide intensity per unit of energy that you get that's useful, coal's the worst, then oil, then gas, gas being methane, natural gas. And then you get to the cleaner fuels, like hydrogen's down here. Hydrogen is just H2. When you burn it, it does not make a CO2, does not make a carbon dioxide and so hydrogen's cleaner. Biofuels are interesting because you can burn a liquid biofuel, like ethanol from corn or wood is a biofuel, you can burn that and it produces CO2. However, it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere to grow. So on life cycle, the biofuels are lower CO2, but it actually might be dirtier on the other pollutants. So you can argue that the biofuels are above oil or up there with coal or down near hydrogen, depending on whether you include the lifecycle emissions. And I would say that there are different types that are cleaner than others. And so we should think about that. However, the dirtier things like coal tend to be cheaper or less volatile. Natural gas prices are like six bucks today and they were two bucks a few months ago. So gas prices are very volatile. And by gas, I mean natural gas, not gasoline. Coal prices are more stable and cheaper. And so there is some economic benefit to coal, even though it might have an environmental disbenefit. So that's in terms of the fuels that we burn, but there are other ways to make energy or make energy into a form that's more useful. We can take fallen water with the hydroelectric power plant electricity, we can take photons, convert them to electrons with solar panels, flowing air, we can use a wind turbine to convert that into electricity as well. And we can use nuclear materials, use the heat from the nuclear to boil water to get steam, that steam can spin a turbine, which can spin magnets to give us electricity as well. So there are other ways to get useful forms of energy like electricity without burning something and that tends to be a lot cleaner, though they have their own downside impacts. Nuclear has the uranium mining or the waste disposal or the risks to sort of-

Bob - Well, I was going to ask you about that because in California, I think the last nuclear facility is really be due to shut down in about 2025 or 2026, it's a tight deadline. Has nuclear pretty much gone out of favor at this point or is that a California issue?

Dr. Webber - It's partly a California issue, but California is not the only place shutting down nuclear. Japan shut some down, Germany shut some down, other states are shutting down either because they've hit the end of the useful life, they're getting kind of expensive. The California ones are kind of old, they take some money to retrofit. So California said, "Well, let's just retire it and go with solar and wind." But solar and wind don't generate energy with the same profile as nuclear, not with the same reliability, although they're very clean and they're abundant, this kind of thing. And so it's partly a California phenomenon, but it's happening in other states. And there are a couple reasons. In California, it's because they tend to be coastal, they're using coastal water and there's worries about impacts on marine life, animals getting sucked into the cooling water loops and giving impingement or entrainment, that kind of thing. But it's happening in Germany, it's happening in other places as well. And this is difficult because if you're Californian, you care a lot about a low carbon future, but you're shutting down very large low carbon sources, you just made your job more difficult because you have to build a lot more stuff not only to replace oil and gas and coal, but you have to replace the nuclear now. And if you replace that nuclear with gas it gets worse.

Bob - Yeah, let me ask you, again, macrodefinition, when you look at energy and that being a source of climate issues, how much of big picture, how much is that really transportation-related versus other forms of energy?

Dr. Webber - If we look at the energy system, and there are, in terms of climate change, in terms of climate gases or global warming gases, there are three main causes of it. Energy is the biggest cause, land use is another, and then agriculture is a third. And there's either a comment or question about that where energy is like two-thirds or so of the emissions, land use, meaning like cutting down a forest to pave it to build a strip mall or something like that or a parking lot, that releases CO2 into the atmosphere and also takes away the trees are Felicia to take it up. And then agriculture has a lot of initiatives as well. Energy is the biggest part of it, but energy is not all of that. Within energy, there's a power sector, there's natural gas for heating and home cooking and this kind of thing and the transportation. Transportation is the biggest part of energy. Energy is the biggest part of the overall greenhouse gas profile. Transportation's the dirtiest sector in America from carbon dioxide emissions, but that's a relatively recent phenomenon. It was the power sector making electricity because we use so much coal in electricity and coal is dirtier than gasoline. As we cleaned up the power sector by shutting down coal and building gas plants and wind and solar, the power sector has gotten much cleaner in the last decade or so. Transportation continues to grow because we have more people driving more cars more miles and so transportation is the number one source of CO2 emissions in America. So what we drive, what fuel is in the car or not, whether it's electric or biofuel or natural gas or gasoline, and how far we drive is the biggest determinant of our carbon footprint in general. And for you, that'd be, like usually your choices around transit and transportation are the biggest lever you have in your life in terms of emissions.

Bob - So let's go from the macro to specific. Let's talk about ride sharing, Uber, Lyft and the like, is that a positive or a negative and why?

Dr. Webber - Ride sharing is a positive and a negative, and a lot of it, there was a great op-ed, just I want to say yesterday in The New York Times about how ride sharing, these sort of taxi and chauffeured limousine services that we share with Uber and Lyft have made a lot of promises to reduce traffic congestion, to reduce miles traveled, to get us more efficient cars and do all, bring on autonomous cars and EVs and all these things, but they haven't lived up to their promises. And there's a lot of reasons why we think Uber and Lyft and mobility services should be good. One is if we don't have to park, we can rip out parking garages and parking spots and have more lanes of traffic and that should reduce congestion. If we rip out parking garages, we can have more buildings that are residential commercial in the city center. So people can walk to work or scooter to work instead of drive and that kind of thing. So removing the need for parking is one upside potential benefit for Uber and Lyft, but it hasn't happened yet. Another one is as you use Uber and Lyft cars, they might drive those cars 50 to 100,000 miles a year, you might drive your car 10 to 15,000 miles per year. So as you have mobility services, they'll retire the cars faster, get more fleet turnover to get better cars. And a lot of that just hasn't happened yet because what's happening is actually those drivers are deadheading, which means they're driving around with no passengers trying to get the next passenger. And so there's actually more congestion and more traffic. Now, some of that gets conflated with COVID and this kind of thing, but so far mobility services haven't improved things. They've actually competed with mass transit, where people like the idea of having private space in a car that's air conditioned, where they have a few cubic feet to themselves, maybe there's a driver, but the driver might not talk as opposed to mass transit. So the mobility services have not helped, but there's still a couple of ways they might help in the long run, but they're not there yet.

Bob - So let me go to a very sobering question, which is, and this may be, this is obviously beyond energy, but when you look at climate and the damage to our climate that's been caused through burning things and all the other causes of climate change, what's the reason, what's the likely prognosis for when we can minimize what we do to the Earth and then how long will it take us to kind of clean up after that?

Dr. Webber - This is a great question. And there's sort of a rush because the problems are both important and urgent. Meaning every year we delay action is one more year of accumulated pollution in the atmosphere we have to cleanup, plus all the prior decades of accumulated pollution. And so the sooner we get going, the easier it gets. And that urgency means we better get going, better have ambitious goals. And that's why there are goals for like net zero in the United States by 2050 or President Biden's agenda. He's also saying we should be net zero in the power sector by 2035, the power sector is just one part of it and so there are starting to be goals. Companies are having goals. Chevron just announced yesterday their climate goals and getting to be net zero for scope one to scope two emissions in the next decade or something like that, and ambitious goals for 2050. So there are starting to be these net zero goals and the feeling is we better hurry. And there are two things to this. One is we should stop making the problem worse as soon as possible. In a rich, technologically capable country like the United States, we should be able to get to net zero by 2050. That doesn't mean we get to zero emissions. We might have emissions over here, but then we take them out of the atmosphere over here. So we have some offsets or some carbon scrubbing or carbon removal, something like that. So it'd be net zero. It wouldn't be zero emissions, but net zero is a step in the right direction. So we'll quit making the problem worse by 2050 is the hope, but then I would argue, we need to go carbon negative after that and scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere because by the time we get to 2050, we will have had 200 years of CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution of 1850. So we'll have 200 years of pollution we need to go clean up. So when you go reclaim the atmosphere, take CO2 back out, put it into the soils or below ground or into products or fuels or something so that we can return the atmosphere as much as possible to where it was at a preindustrial level. So that's what I think we need to do. And by the way, we've done that with waterways. We used to pollute and put sewage into waterways and then we said, you can't do that anymore. And not only did we put out in the sewage to the waterways, we actually went back and cleaned the water up. We did that with landfills, where we used to just throw trash in the front yard or in the back creek, wherever, now you have to put it in the landfill. Now we actually reclaim some of it and recycle those materials. I think we'll do the same thing with CO2. And we have to hurry.

Now that's the American story I just told you, but for other countries that are just developing, they have a bigger problem, which is getting access to energy. They're not worried about the CO2 emissions because lifting people out of poverty is a more pressing, urgent concern and access to energy is a way to let people out of poverty. So they are trying to increase their access to energy, they're actually trying to increase their emissions because that would be a proxy or indicator of some of their economic activity. We have to make sure whatever we do will accommodate and allow for that and then help clean that up later as well. So there's a lot we have to do. The problem is, and I think you heard from climate scientists already, you said there is a lag time. You emit the CO2 today, but the warming doesn't happen for decades, it happens later. The warming we feel today is from emissions quite a ways ago, awhile ago in the pesto. So if we stop emitting today, we still have this built in thermal lag time as the oceans and atmosphere warm up, that will be a problem we need to deal with. So the weather we're feeling today is probably the coolest year we're going to have in our future, generally speaking. And it's the hottest we've had in recent human history. So this hottest is the new coolest, which is a challenge.

Bob - One of our audience members posed a question, which is effectively, is there a consensus or what is the consensus on the rise in sea levels over the next 10, 20, 30 years?

Dr. Webber - That is a great question. I don't have that consensus answer. There's not an easy consensus, but there is consensus that sea levels will rise. The sea level rise will happen for two reasons. One is because of more fresh water flow into the oceans for melting glaciers and snow caps and that kind of thing. So water will move from ice form to liquid form and when it's liquid form, it makes its way to the oceans. That will cause the oceans to rise. But also, the oceans have thermal expansion. As oceans get hot, they expand, like hot things get bigger. And so about half the ocean rise so far is from thermal expansion, just warmer oceans are bigger and then we're adding water to it from the melting ice and solids and that kind of thing. And it should be several feet and this kind of thing over the coming centuries, who knows over the next 10, 20, 30 years, but we're already having problems with king tides in Miami and this kind of thing, we're already having problems with salt water intrusion for our aquifers near the coast. So it is already an issue frankly, and people think, oh, what's an inch here or there? But if you have a one foot sea level rise and you have an eight foot swell from a storm, but you only have an eight foot seawall, you overtop the seawall, it becomes like a binary critical damage kind of thing. And the other thing is the sea level rise is only part of it. The warmer oceans is part of it because warmer oceans drive more powerful storms. The hot ocean is like the engine or the fuel for these big hurricanes coming through the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. And so you will get bigger surges and swells, so to speak, storm surges on top of a higher baseline. And so this gives a compounding effect that's really risky for Houston, Miami, you name the coastal location, we have a lot of population along the coast, so this is a real risk.

Bob - So one other very specific questions from our audience member I want to pose to you before I go to some more general questions. Question is what are the pros and cons of longer duration flow batteries for wind solar balancing, especially the basic arm, water and air systems? Now you may have to explain to our audience a little bit what a longer duration flow battery is.

Dr. Webber - There's also like iron water air chemistry's, but there's also like vanadium, there's other materials. So a battery you're familiar with like an alkaline battery you might've put it in your flashlight when you were a kid, now it might be a lithium ion battery. There's nickel metal hydride batteries, there's different batteries you might've had in your car or your electronics. My iPhone here has a lithium ion battery, and this is driving down the cost, these portable electronics for our cars and that kind of thing. So there's different kinds of batteries, and they're usually solid state, they're electrochemical systems, energy stored in the chemical state and it's released as a form of electricity, which is really great. But these batteries tend to have a low cycle life. If you cycle them too many times, they degrade. So your car that's an electric vehicle might last 15 years, but the battery might only be guaranteed for 10 years because the cycle life is a real challenge for it and you get degradation as you cycle more. We've seen that with our laptop. If you have a laptop, you probably had to replace it after a few years, partly because of battery life, although the apps and the operating systems also die after a few years. And so this cycling is a real problem. Pardon me, for this phone call coming in. And so this cycling life can be a real problem in the value of flow batteries, which is you don't have the solid state system inside, your flowing things through, you can recharge and discharge the battery without the degradation. So you get a full capacity battery with a flowing liquid system. It feels more like a fuel cell or something. You don't get degradation. You get almost like infinite cycle life, not really even a cycle life, but you get really good cycle life so it lasts longer in years without degrading, but also you can get deeper charge and discharge and bigger capacity. So for California, which has a lot of wind and solar, there's a mandate to get some batteries on the grid, about 1.2 gigawatts, and those are four hour storage, they're going towards long duration energy storage which is like eight hours. But with flow batteries, we can start to talk about dozens of hours or even days without degradation at larger scale. So flow batteries are pretty exciting.

The supply chain is not super mature yet. There are a lot of designs coming out. At NG, we had a lab outside of Brussels that we're testing, and I got to visit the lab working on fire safety and all this kind of stuff. They're coming and I think they're going to compete with lithium ion batteries for the grid because for a grid asset, meaning something not for your car, but for the power system, you want it to last like 25 years because a solar farm lasts 25 years and a wind farm lasts 25 years and a coal plant lasts 40 years and a new class 60 years. So you want batteries that last longer than 10 years. And so flow batteries are very appealing for that and they can use some more basic materials, they don't have the exotic, rare earth elements that like lithium-ion or other batteries will have. So they're very exciting. I think they're coming along and I think there's a lot of investment activity in that space because they hold out so much promise.

Bob - I want to return to what you said with respect to the rest of the world and some developing nations needing forms of energy and looking for emissions. But is it fair to say that for the first to make the most progress, the more developed parts of the world have to largely be in agreement? For example, I just saw there was some announcement I think today or yesterday, Putin's now acknowledged they need to move to some standard by 2060. How important is the world acts together on this and in what ways?

Dr. Webber - I think it always goes better if we're all rowing the same direction, then if we're rowing in different directions, otherwise you just go in circles and it feels like that's what we're doing. So it's better if we all go together. It's better if the developed world leads on this, because we have more money and we have a mature energy system and we can then export the technologies at a lower price to countries that maybe can't pay the full price or can't pay the full price today. So I think there's a role for leadership and there's also a role for collaboration. And it just gets better if we're not fighting each other. Russia has had kind of a mixed view on this over the last 15 years. Russia, a Northern cold climate, kind of didn't mind global warming because that would make for more comfortable things. It improves access to warm water ports. There are a lot of good things out of it for Russia, but they're also having epic wildfires and droughts and agriculture productivity strain, and this has air quality problems and other issues with pollution so Russia is taking it seriously. But even if Russia doesn't take it seriously, Russia knows its customers take it seriously. And Russia has a major exporter role in gas and refined fuels and nuclear really would like some clarity on this. And I think all of us would benefit from some clarity, like what are the rules of the road, what do the customers want? That's always better for markets. Maybe certain investors deal well with the uncertainty of volatility, but for the most part, people prefer certainty, especially if you're going to build long lived assets, things that will last 20 to 80 years, it'd be better to know what the rules are going to be 20 years from now. If the rules change every year, every couple of years, as they do in America, that makes it more difficult and creates a more uncertain investment climate. So I do think there's room for collaboration, if nothing else for clarity for the investment environment and certainty would help. But also, it's just better to work together towards a goal rather than work against each other. You make more progress more swiftly. And right now in the United States, we haven't even achieved consensus in the United States that climate science and climate change are a problem. We still have political divides on this, we have regional divides, we have generational divides, and I think it'd be good if we had more consensus in the United States and other countries had consensus and then we had consensus about collaborating rather than purely competing.

That was one of the intents of the Paris Agreements. The United States pulled out under President Trump. Joe Biden's saying we're coming back. But even though despite the Paris Agreements, a lot of countries who agreed to reduce CO2 didn't. The United States didn't agree, but reduced our CO2 anyway. So there's a lot of like unexpected things that happen here around consensus, but generally speaking, consensus and collaboration are better than say lack of consensus and working against each other.

Bob - If you look back over the last five years, because I think climate change has gone from something that, I don't want to say it was on the fringes, but it was not as much on the minds or the voices of the average American. It's become more prevalent. What's been the most positive development in the last five years relative to climate change and energy?

Dr. Webber - There are two things that give me a lot of optimism that we will solve this problem quickly and with greater, like some sort of guarantee than other things I would've thought for years ago. One is just the students, students under 25, students under 30, they're pretty serious about this. For them, this is their cold war, this is their multi-decade challenge. They got to solve it, it's their future on the line so they'll solve it, that gives me hope. That's given me hope already for the last 15 years I've been a professor, but I just more and more think yeah, as they take leadership positions, they're going to get us on this path. The other thing that gives me hope that's really different is ESG capital, ESG investing. You will know this better than I do, but I think like a third of the capital out there is ESG money or something like that. So a large fraction of the investments out there have ESG requirements or environmental social governance requirements, which requires companies to act in ethical transparent way, they've got good labor practices, but they also have sustainability in mind. And that means they have a low carbon footprint or they're doing things that are good for the environment or avoid CO2 and that kind of thing. And that investment capital is really driving a lot of the conversation because a lot of companies that can't get money for a coal mine can get money to build something that might be cleaner. And a lot of oil and gas companies can't get the money they need to drill for oil and gas so instead they'll do a hydrogen project. And a lot of the people, they're just good engineers and want to do energy projects. And if they say, oh, you won't give me money for this, but you will give me money for that, okay, I'll do money for that one. It's cleaner and more expensive, well, whatever I can get the capital for it. And ESG capital is driving down the cost of money for the cleaner projects and driving up the cost for the dirtier projects and that will steer our decision making. That's happened very quickly. I first really became aware of ESG capital around 2017. I was just kind of like aware of it and now I'm like, wow, that's driving a lot of decisions. And these additional criteria are not purely financial, but like how clean are you and how financially sound you are. That that is driving everything because when the investors and shareholders say, do this, don't do that, those of us who need to get money for our things, will do that pathway.

The other thing that's happening, it's not just the investors and shareholders, it's also divestment campaigns and that kind of stuff. A lot of the divestment campaigns are performative, they're for show and tell, they're not real, but it does have an effect on stock price, which makes it harder for companies to get the money they need for certain types of projects. But also now the customers are demanding it and the employees are demanding it. Employees at companies are saying, "Hey, what's our sustainability plan?", this kind of thing. So I feel like everything's changed, but ESG capital's really driving a lot of that and the returns haven't been horrible. In fact, oil and gas returns have not been great for the last decade. So ESG is looking better and better as time goes on and I think that will really change the world.

Bob - From an industry outlook, if you are a, if I was your next door neighbor, would you tell me to keep or divest my fossil fuel company stocks?

Dr. Webber - I would divest probably in six to 18 months because oil and gas prices are high. They're going to get one last squeeze of profit and then think about getting that out of them into something else. Having said that, Google is still appreciating 20% a year. Like Google stock is still a better bet than oil and gas. And so I do feel like there's, we're at a high commodity price point and that will generate more profits for oil and gas. That will self-correct, nothing corrects for high prices like high prices and nothing corrects low prices quite like low prices. As high prices recur, the low investment in oil and gas production will makes the profits, that'll bring the price down. So maybe divest, but maybe you don't need to invest immediately, but then you have to put your money somewhere. And is it going to be the data companies still, the Google's and the Facebook's of the world and that kind of thing or other technology companies? There are more family offices and funds getting into earlier stage venture capital, which is what we're active in right now with Energy Impact Partners. And there is more and more stock to invest in that looks reasonable at the early stage. There's also more competition to invest in it. I feel like there's more money chasing projects than there are projects chasing money. And so that has its own risk. So I think there, I would consider diversifying away from oil and gas. Oil and gas doesn't go away tomorrow. It doesn't go away even in three decades, but it might have sort of diminishing returns. It doesn't seem like the industry that's going to boom. And it doesn't seem like whether it be high profits.

Bob - So I have a very exciting moment for you. You've just been appointed the us energy czar with sweeping powers and the ability to affect changes you think would both be most impactful and practical helping the climate. What would be the two things as the czar you would announce next week?

Dr. Webber - Okay that's funny because two weeks ago I had dinner with Ernie Moniz, former secretary of energy. He and I had a three hour one-on-one dinner in Austin. I've known him for a long time because he was-

Bob - I was sitting at the next table, that's how I picked up this question.

Dr. Webber - Yeah and we started out, this conversation, it was three hours, started with gin and ended with scotch, it was a very good evening. And the question like, okay, what would you do if you were secretary of energy again? And we know what he did when he was secretary of energy before and what would I do? And this is on my mind. And there are a couple of things that I think would be useful. And if your energy czar which is more powerful than secretary of energy, secretary of energy runs the labs and the nuclear stockpiles and the R&D budgets and a little bit of deployment money, but can't really drive what DOD, the Department of Defense does, or USDA, the Department of Agriculture. But I would say if I were energy czar, I would just beat the table over and over again, repeat the mantra that we will get richer in a low carbon future, because there's a lot of hesitation that decarbonizing means diminishing the economy, that we have a very good quality of life and a lot of wealth and we got there by emitting a lot of CO2. Therefore, in people's minds, especially in the mind of oil and gas and coal companies, if we reduce the CO2 emissions, we will reduce our economic prosperity. And you have to say that is not the case. Like we have new analysis at UT in my group coming out just for Texas. If Texas decarbonizes, Texas, the most carbon intensive state in America, we're as a carbon intensive as Canada in Germany just to put it on a global scale, if we decarbonize, it is net economically beneficial and a job creator. You lose some oil and gas jobs, but you gain wind, solar and hydrogen jobs. It is a big job creator and a big moneymaker and I would repeat that message over and over again that decarbonizing opens up the economy because it triggers and requires investment, it requires jobs and better jobs. And these jobs don't have the same kind of price volatility, that's one thing I would do. Second thing I would do is ramp up on research budgets. I'm a researcher, I like research, and this is one of my biases. I think that research is good and that research, it primes the pump of the American innovation ecosystem, still the best innovation ecosystem in the world, but we can lose that to Singapore or Europe or other places if we're not careful. Let's keep priming the pump of research. And I like research as a policy because the worst downside of a pro research agenda is you waste money. And wasting money as a downside's not that bad because you could consider it a high dollar jobs program.

But the upside is you change the world. And there are some policies that actually lead to people dying or you pollute the environment. So as a downside, research is you waste money, as an upside, you change the world. The third thing I would do is focus on deployment because as much as I love research where you really get the learning, where you really get the benefits is from deployment, build a bunch of stuff. If you look at what's happening with wind and solar and batteries, their prices have dropped like 90% in the last decade. They didn't drop 90% because of research. They dropped 90% because of deployment. We built a lot of this stuff. And as we built a lot of the stuff, the supply chains got better and more efficient and we got better at it, we had technological learning. And I would say that just start building and we'll learn as we build, build first, learn second. And research is learning. Research takes decades. We can do that in parallel. Let's get building and then we might waste some money, it might not be perfect. We'll drive the costs down and the expense of the mistakes will be overwhelmed by the cost savings and benefits of the cheap stuff we get to in a decade or so. So I really do a bully pulpit, we're going to get rich in a low carbon future, research is the Lord's work and it drives down cost and improves innovation and let's do deployment, let's just get better at it, let's get going, which is what we did with our defense buildup, it's what we did with the space program, it's what we did with interstate highways, it's what we did with World War II. At some point, you just got to get going. You can't wait until you have the perfect answer.

Bob - I'm going to get back to some audience questions. One is given the close alignment between environmental sustainability and social justice, what are the best ways for investment to support both of these efforts?

Dr. Webber - This is a great question. Social justice is tied in with environmental justice is also tied in with like labor justice. And this is an issue, like as we go through energy transitions, it's disruptive, which could be good or bad for justice concerns and you need to be mindful of that. So today, we have a certain labor mix across America, 80,000 coal miners, I actually think it's down to 60,000 coal miners. We have oil and gas workers by the hundreds of thousands. We have rising wind and solar utility labor, that kind of thing. And as we shift from oil and gas and coal to utilities, we'll have job loss in coal mining or oil and gas production, and we'll have job gains in wind and solar. Now this is a good news story that you have job creation, but those jobs are not the same skillsets and not in the same location. It's not in West Virginia necessarily, it might be west Texas or Kansas. And west Texas or Kansas loves that job growth, but the towns in West Virginia or Illinois where the coal mines shut down, a huge problem for Wyoming right now, what are they going to do? So they need to either make hydrogen or do something else. So we have to worry about the labor justice. And this is where policy can play a role, where policy makers can help societies prepare for the future. Say, here's the future that's coming, we would like to help you so it doesn't destroy your town or destroy those families or those companies. Let's think about job retraining, labor justice programs, all sorts of things we can do on that. So that labor justice is a big part of it. It will be disruptive. Those disruptions have already happened and are happening. Coal mining peaked in 1927 or something like that with over 800,000 miners. It's down 90%, it's still happening. The coal employment fell through the Reagan administration and Bush and Clinton and Bush and Obama. It doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or Republican, coal mining jobs disappear. Oil and gas is bumpy. We laid off 60,000 oil and gas workers in Houston alone last year, for example. So I think we have to deal with labor justice. And we can solve this, but it does require solving. It doesn't solve itself very elegantly. I mean it will solve itself, but it can be really bumpy for people. The environmental justice issues are really important too. You have a lot of marginalized and vulnerable communities who live at the fence line at power plants or they live on the busy traffic thoroughfares, they get the air pollution, they have the higher incidences of asthma and missing school or work because of the air pollution.

They have higher problems of comorbidities with COVID. And as we clean up the mix, it will improve a lot of those environmental justice things. So in one case, one justice issue, the transition will make it worse unless we intervene. In another justice issue, environmental justice, it should make it better. And therefore we want to make sure we protect that, we keep that better stuff happening. So justice is really important. It can't be just cost and performance. We have to think about the humans who are affected at both ends of the value spectrum.

Bob - Another question, "What are the realistic uses for hydrogen?"

Dr. Webber - Hydrogen is a magical molecule. When you have it, you can use it as a fuel by burning it. You can use it in a fuel cell to make electricity. You can use it as a building block for materials. Hydrogen is really, it's like the perfect thing. If you can just have hydrogen, you can use it so many ways, as a feedstock fuel or a generator for electricity. But hydrogen is really hard to make, move and store. And this is the challenge of hydrogen is how do you make it and how are you going to move it and how are you going to store it? You could make hydrogen from steamed methane or foramen. You start with methane, you add steam, you have the right temperature and pressure, then you get hydrogen out, you get CO2 into the atmosphere. So steam methane or foramen for hydrogen's pretty cheap, we do it already, it's pretty efficient, but it's kind of dirty. You can do electrolysis for hydrogen where you add electricity to water and you get hydrogen out as well as oxygen. That's pretty clean, especially if you use clean electricity for it, but it's not very efficient. And so steam methane or foramen is efficient but dirty, electrolysis is inefficient, but clean. What are we going to do? We need some more ways to make the hydrogen. So this is a real challenge and a lot of the research goes into making hydrogen cleaner because once you have hydrogen, you can burn it in the engine, run it through a fuel cell or use it to make chemicals and pharmaceuticals and plastics and that kind of thing. The other challenge is moving hydrogen. It's a very small molecule, it has a very small cross section. Methane is like this and hydrogen's like this, and because it's a small, it can leak out of the pipes and O-rings and tanks and all that kind of stuff. And so it's hard to move without it leaking and it also reacts with the metals and can embrittle the pipelines. And so you can have pipeline embrittlement. which is a safety risk, so it's a real challenge to move it. So maybe you need to try some other form. And then storing it's also hard because it wants to leak and it's a very expansive molecule in terms of volume if you have a lot of it and so it takes a lot of volume. It's very light, but it takes a lot of volume to store. And so maybe you need to convert that hydrogen to ammonia or formic acid or methanol or methane or something that has like a hydrogen-

Bob - Do you see hydrogen being a significant factor or not?

Dr. Webber - I do. I mean I think hydrogen's hard for all the reasons I said to make, move and store, but it's so useful, it's so clean, it will become a significant part of the solution. And I'll tell you why, I think if you want to decarbonize society, step one is energy efficiency. Step two is electrification, electrify as much as you can and then use wind and solar and geothermal and nuclear for the electricity. The third is green fuels, those things that are hard to electrify, like aviation, chemicals, industrial heat, long haul shipping, we're going to need a clean fuel. And hydrogen is either the clean fuel or the thing with which you build the clean fuel, like ammonia say. And so hydrogen's going to have a role. Five to 25% of the economy will be green fuels. Hydrogen is a building block for them potentially. And so I think it replaces a lot of things we use fuels for today.

Bob - One of our guests poses the following question for you. "How do you reconcile the shift to renewables leading energy shortages in California, Texas and Europe? The energy transition needs to happen, but is it getting forced to quickly at the expense of affordable and reliable energy?"

Dr. Webber - That's fascinating. So energy shortages in Europe, Texas and California were all for different reasons. California, the primary problem is drought, hydroelectric, a former renewable, doesn't have as much water available so that's a big problem. You do have days in a row in California that are windless and cloudy. So if you have a windless, cloudy day with low hydro because of drought, that's a huge problem, especially if you're shutting down nuclear. And so California, the backstop is out of state power, hydro from the Pacific Northwest or like coal and gas and that kind of thing. The other short in California are really wildfire measures, preventative measures where they turn off the power to avoid sparking a fire. So that's partly a fuel shortage, partly a transmission risk system. And the way you get there is with longer-term storage or green fuels. I think replacing the coal and gas with hydrogen, that kind of thing, is a solution for California. In Texas, our energy shortage during winter storm Yuri in February, which I was a part of, I lost my power and had a boil water notification, and for my son, tragically, lost internet so he couldn't play video games for a little while. Texas, the most energy abundant spot in the world, had an energy shortage. Our primary problem was actually a natural gas shortage. The gas system froze up. We lost gas production by 50% from the cold weather and 85% of the Permian Basin, which is in west Texas. We primarily had a gas problem, but it was also a fairly windless storm. So we had a gas problem and a wind problem, but the gas problem was bigger than the wind problem. So in that case, renewables were not the cause, renewables are the solution to the problem. Europe, you have a problem with shutting down nuclear power plants. Depending on imports of gas, the geopolitical games from Vladimir Putin, who might be playing games on price and supply to get concessions on Nord Stream 2 and pipelines, a lack of storage because of use of gas from before, a lot of lack of investment in oil and gas production because of COVID.

Prices went negative a year and a half ago. We're feeling the high prices today as a result of those negative prices, which is less investment in production. So those shortages happen for different reasons and renewables might be part of the shortage, like the wind problems in Texas in February or the hydro problems in California from drought, but mostly they're gas problems. Gas shortages are a bigger issue still for us because gas is still a bigger part of the mix. And I would say renewables, therefore, are a hedge against that and part of the solution, not the problem.

Bob - So I want to make sure I ask this question as we head into the last part of our discussion, how can our listeners help the problem? What can they do? Should they buy electric cars? Should they go to the store less often? What can the average American do to help climate change, particularly as relating to energy?

Dr. Webber - I think, this is a great question. And Americans generally speaking, consume twice as much energy and emit twice as much carbon as Europeans. And Europeans are basically as rich. We're a little richer, but Europeans have longer lifespans and they're almost as rich. And so there might be room for us to reduce how much we consume, yet still be rich. And if you look at it, as energy consumption goes up, your wealth goes up, but at some point your energy consumption keeps going up, and your wealth starts to peak and actually drop because the pollution from the energy consumption works against you. It affects economic productivity, agricultural productivity, you have expensive damages from storms and that kind of thing. So I think the thing we should do is consider reducing our energy consumption. We consume so much, we drive big cars long distances, we have inefficient homes with old outdated air conditioners, and we eat a lot of meats that we throw away and all this kind of stuff. And so I think we can just consider doing a little less, have a more efficient home, more efficient car.

Bob - But does that come about through more regulation about your home? I mean the government's, the government's playing a role in that. I happen to know in California, if you're rebuilding a house or a garage, you have to put an electric car charge stand that could be hooked up. I mean there are ways the government's pushing this, but is it really more the individuals and driving less? Give us a couple of tangible examples.

Dr. Webber - It's individuals, behavioral decisions, markets, and policies, but they play different roles. So individuals, we can choose how much food we serve ourselves on the plate so we have less food waste. I mean, we waste a significant amount of food. Like 40% of our edible food, we throw away and food is like 10% of our energy and emissions. So four percent of our emissions are food we throw away. So let's reduce food waste, that's a behavioral thing, we can do that in America. Some of it's just markets, coming up with better technology. I think most of it's markets, better technologies, better solutions, better prices, putting a price on pollution, that kind of thing. Where policy shows up, you already touched on it, but where policy shows up in Europe is primarily in the built environment, building codes and mass transit, urban planning, that kind of thing. The European building codes and efficiency are so much more strict than almost every state in America, except for maybe California. California has very strict codes. In California, buildings are very efficient compared to other states. You also have a mild climate, which helps, but you've had energy efficiency codes in your buildings since the '70s and the rest of the nation is catching up. So the role for policies is on building codes and on urban layout, what you build where, whether you have mass transit, do you have bike lanes, that kind of thing? The market options are on the technologies, the solutions, the vendors, there's a lot of solutions there. And then the behavior is like maybe I don't need to go three times through the buffet if I'm not going to eat that third plate and reducing our waste. So we all have a role to play and it works best if behaviors, markets and policies are all aligned towards the same solution which is reducing emissions.

Bob - I want to ask another audience question. "Are you looking for pure play investments at any of the carbon reduction schemes?"

Dr. Webber - Yes, and there are a lot of carbon reduction schemes. There are things like scrubbers you can put in a tailpipe or a smoke stack to stop the CO2 from going into the atmosphere. There are carbon removal schemes where it actually takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it into the soil or trees or products or sequester it. And there's some sort of project finance opportunities there where it's a billion dollar project and it's not really a venture investment, but there's a project that maybe makes sense depending on where you are in the world. And then there are venturable technologies. Looking at a lot of it, haven't made any investments directly in it, at Energy Impact Partners, the VC fund, but we're looking at a lot of them. Some of them were just announced. So there's a big demo that was just released publicly five weeks ago in Iceland and I was there a week before, so I was just in Iceland six weeks ago. They have a carbon sequestration site where they inject CO2 below ground and it reacts with the basalt, they inject it like in a club soda form, club soda is like soda water with bubbles, right, CO2 bubbles. So they have a CO2 solution, they inject this club soda below ground, the water and CO2 reacts with the basalt, the CO2 mineralizes to form a calcium carbonate. It is geologically sequestered and it's there for millions of years and they're already doing that in Iceland. And now they have a direct air capture thing, like a big vacuum cleaner for the sky capturing CO2 to put it into the ground. So there's a lot of ideas out there and a lot of engineering and there are a lot of investible opportunities and we're starting to look at them, okay, where does the CO2 go, what's the price point, what's the technology? Is it there for enhanced oil recovery or is it to make something, like to grow fruits and vegetables in a greenhouse, that kind of thing? So there's some pretty awesome opportunities. Haven't pulled the trigger on any of those investments yet, but we're still looking.

Bob - Nuclear seems to be a popular question topic. So given your great facile knowledge of these areas, I'm going to give you both questions at once and you can answer. The first question is, "How can we encourage investment into and especially adoption of nuclear power? It seems like all our efforts will be for nothing if we can't find a realistic carbon neutral base for power supply? Nuclear seems to get a bad rap even though it's one of our best options." The companion question is, "I believe that small scale nuclear power plants sufficient to fully supply a basic electrical department are the easiest and best way to transform into a carbon-free energy supply. Please comment." So maybe take those two together.

Dr. Webber - You said the N word, nuclear. So nuclear is something that people love or hate. There seems to be no middle ground. I'm an engineer. Engineers tend to like nuclear. We see nuclear as clean, safe, reliable baseload power so I like nuclear. And if you look around the world, the countries with the decarbonized power sectors are Norway, Iceland, Costa Rica, and France. And they did it through nuclear, geothermal and hydro, those are the main baseload, low carbon forms of energy. And if you have the water and the altitude differences, hydro's great, like Iceland and Norway, although there's also like 25% of the power in Iceland is geothermal. Costa Rica has hydro and geothermal as well. In France, it was a nuclear decision to get off oil and gas from the '70s for security reasons, but it also has all these carbon benefits. I like nuclear and I think nuclear has these performance benefits and it's clean. In America, it's more expensive than say France for a variety of reasons. And the joke goes like this, in France, we have hundreds of types of cheeses, but one design for nuclear reactors. In America, it's the other way around, you have one cheese and 100 different reactor designs. So in America we have American cheese and not much else and then we have 100 nuclear reactors, each one basically a little bit different. In France, the fleet's half the size of the American fleet, but all the nuclear reactors are the same. And this is a little bit like Southwest Airlines only flies Boeing 737s. And they only fly Boeing 737s because they get learning across the fleet on maintenance and costs and everything else. So all the mechanics work on all the planes, all the pilots can fly all the planes, this kind of thing. And by having fleet homogeneity, they get better performance, less downtime, lower costs. And this is true with the French nuclear fleet as well. And if they have a problem with a valve or a weld or whatever it is at a site, they fix it, but they go ahead and preventatively fix it at the others. In America, each one's custom and that drives up the cost. We also have a more active-

Bob - Let me get to one critical thing you said at the beginning. In reality, in terms of wider spread nuclear adoption is it really more the logistics cost issues or is it more when people think nuclear, they think Chernobyl?

Dr. Webber - So Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, right, the near miss of Three Mile Island, "The China Syndrome" movie which came out that week or two before Three Mile. And so this put a pall on nuclear in America, but also it's the cost overruns. We have some new nuclear in South Carolina and in the southern United States with Southern Company and there were huge cost overruns. In America, we're pretty cheap. We don't want to pay too much for power plants. So we have an issue with logistics, supply chain management, but it's also public opinion, which drives up the cost. So I would say the two things we need in America are more expedited permitting, streamlining the permitting so it doesn't take as long to build stuff, but also designs that are more systematic and robust, which is like the small modular reactors, SMRs, where it might be 150 to 250 megawatts instead of 1,300 megawatts like an existing nuclear power plant in Texas, those larger reactors. And by making it smaller, you can make it in a factory because if you can make it in a factory, you can make dozens of them that are the same. Therefore, get tighter quality control instead of custom onsite construction. You drive down the cost. You can include things like passive safety features and robot refueling and air cooling instead of water cooling. So I think with the better design that's repeatable and modular, you get better safety as well as better policy permitting and that's the way to get nuclear going in America again. And in France, they did it through repetition and they're starting to think about revamping their nuclear fleet as well. They're grappling with the same things.

Bob - How have your views, obviously you're spending your life doing this, how over the last three, four or five years, whatever period, how have you changed your views at all? What was something like boy I was just wrong or I never believed this would happen? Tell me something that was a surprise to you versus what you originally thought.

Dr. Webber - The things I said as a junior professor 15 years ago, words like that'll never happen or you can't do that, those are the sentences I regret the most. And the only times that's true is when it violates the laws of physics and thermodynamics. And there are people who propose it all the time, you can't do that, you're not going to violate the laws of thermodynamics, which is funny because I say that to policymakers, like well if it's a law, we can change the law and a lawyer can say, oh, we'll look for a loophole. But in physics and thermodynamics, the laws are permanently bound. But if it doesn't violate that, I think I didn't understand how ingenious people can be, how innovative they can be. So if it's not physically impossible, people could find a way to drive down costs of stuff. So the things I regret I've said are where I doubted human ingenuity. The specific examples were with hydrogen. I spent a decade as a critic of hydrogen, it's expensive to make, move and store, you heard me say it, it's great fuel once you have it, but how are you going to make it? The thermodynamics are against you, it's hard to move, it leaks a lot, I had all these problems. I had all these good reasons why I say it was hard, but it wasn't impossible. And what's happened now with the abundance of wind and solar and cheap electricity and new ways to make hydrogen and clever storage schemes and conversion to ammonia or whatever it is, hydrogen is looking more and more appealing and cost-effective. And so I was wrong. I spent a decade beating up on hydrogen. When President Bush gave his speech in 2003, saying, "Your child born today, their first car they drive will be a hydrogen car" and I laughed out loud. And then Toyota released the Mirai that runs on hydrogen a couple years ago so that could have been true. So hydro is one example where I was actively against it, thought it was stupid and I'm getting proved wrong on that. But the physics was on the side of hydrogen, it was just the economics that wasn't and I didn't see a pathway to it, but people are clever and they'll figure out a way to make it economic if it's not impossible and the markets are calling for it.

Bob - Well, I want to ask one more audience question but if you can answer it in 30 seconds or less, it'd be great because I have one big wrap-up question for you. So here's the question. "Not an energy creation question, but related to climate investments. Any promising trends in carbon sequestration?"

Dr. Webber - Promising trends on sequestration, the carbon mineralization I mentioned in Iceland is very interesting, that sequesters it for good. But I think in the long run, landfilling CO2 is not going to be the answer as much as recycling the CO2, taking that CO2, that carbon, and putting it into materials, plastics, graphite, rubber, new fabrics, fuels, soil amendments, something like that, food will be better. So I think the real exciting trends around carbon sequestration is actually around avoiding the sequestration and rather recycling. The carbon sequestration also will be necessary just to get the CO2 out of the sky. And I think carbon mineralization, turning it into rock is really exciting.

Bob - So one question I want to leave you with and then I'll wrap up, you've shared a lot of very fascinating and significant information with our audience today, a lot to absorb, a lot I'm sure many of us didn't know. If there were one thing for our listeners to walk away understanding about climate change, particularly related to energy, what would that one thing be?

Dr. Webber - The thing that I find myself hearing myself say a lot is climate change is urgent and important. It deserves our attention. It deserves our attention now. It is the thing that will change the world. It deserves our scrutiny and attention. We need to address it. But on the other hand, I am more optimistic than ever that we're going to solve it and we're going to solve it more affordably and quickly than we think because of the demands from the investors, the employees and the customers. And so what I would like to leave you with is not only can we solve it, but we should solve it. And in the process of solving it, we will improve our peace and prosperity because there are better options waiting for us when we get there. It's not going to be a degradation of our quality of life, but an improvement in our quality of life. And I've never been more clear-eyed or optimistic about that than I am now. And a lot of that is because I have the privilege and honor to work with students and the students are pretty serious, they're going to solve it. You and I might not, but they will and we'll be alive to benefit from that. So I'm pretty excited about that. That's like the idea I want to leave with you.

Bob - Well, you talked about your fascination with propulsion when you were growing up. If I got a seat for free on the next SpaceX, would you take a ride?

Dr. Webber - I would not and I'll tell you why, as much as I love space propulsion, I love the magic of it and the making of it, not an astronaut, don't like rollercoasters, I got bad eyesight, all this kind of stuff. So I always thought that I'd be in NASA someday, but not as an astronaut, but as an engineer for the program. But I know a lot of people would love to take that seat. So I would happily pass it onto them and I'll watch it from the ground, looking at them go up in the sky.

Bob - Fantastic. Well, listen, thank you very much and I want to thank everyone for attending our session today. I want to remind everyone that Gaye Erkan, our co-CEO and president will be meeting with Ian Bremmer next week on October 28th and that will be another fascinating dialogue with respect to climate and change. So thanks everyone for participating. The replay is available shortly if you want to relisten to some of today's information and hope everyone has a wonderful evening. Thanks much. Bye bye.

Dr. Webber- Thank you.

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