Leaders who embrace an infinite mindset will lead us into an energy future that provides clean, affordable, reliable, and safe electricity for every human being on the planet. In the words of Simon Sinek, that’s a Just Cause – “a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist.”

Just Causes must meet five standards and so far in this series of articles I’ve looked at three of those standards:

The fourth characteristic of a Just Cause is that it must be Resilient. By that Simon means that it must be able to withstand political, technological, and cultural change. When it comes to energy…and clean energy in particular…politics, technology, and culture have become so intertwined I will look at them together.

Recently I came across an article describing a vote taken by the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board on a rulemaking process that would be necessary for that state to join 10 other Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The article included this disheartening commentary: “The EQB vote on Tuesday was only an initial step, but observers say it is also a good indication of how the process may look going forward: increasingly political, and with angry debate at every step.”

The partisan divide in this country deepens every day and no matter what your Just Cause is, hyper-partisan political discussions and angry debates don’t serve to advance it.

The Just Cause of clean, affordable, reliable, and safe energy is far too important to leave in the hands of politicians – whether they wax romantically about the virtues of coal or ignore the laws of physics and make fanciful but totally unrealistic assumptions about solar, wind, and storage.

We are in desperate need of data and civil discourse in the equation for clean, affordable, reliable, and safe electricity…and we are in equally desperate need to keep partisan politics out of it. Expressed as a simple equation, that construct would look like this: Data + Civil Discourse – Partisan Politics = Progress.

Data and data analysis were important to my political scientist father and if I close my eyes I can remember exactly what the computer lab at The Citadel looked like in 1966. I see the card punchers and the card sorters and the tape machines and I can hear the cards being fed into the computers for processing. The lab probably looked a lot like its counterpart a couple of hundred miles away at NC State – although I doubt The Citadel’s computing center had the formidable computing power of a $3M IBM 7090 with its blazing clock speed of 0.5MHz and its seemingly boundless 0.2MB of memory. For those of you familiar with the history of SAS, 1966 was the year when the Statistical Analysis System became a reality thanks to the confluence of the University Statisticians Southern Experiment Stations (a consortium of eight universities), a grant from the National Institutes of Health, large amounts of agricultural data, the IBM 7090 in the computer center, and two faculty project managers including Dr. Jim Goodnight.

Data is an important part of the process of forming constructs. My work in the area of Supply Chain Risk 15 years ago introduced me to one of the experts in this field – Dr. Kevin McCormack – and he in turn introduced me to one of the alternate definitions of the term “construct.” He told me that once you form a construct (regardless of whether it is a simple construct or a complex one) sometimes you wonder why it took you so long to put the pieces together.

For me, my data construct as it pertains to the Just Cause of clean, affordable, reliable, and safe energy was formed at an event in Raleigh in September 2019. It was a Community Forum sponsored by the News & Observer (Raleigh’s daily newspaper) and was titled “Hurricane Alley: How should North Carolina cope with more frequent and more powerful hurricanes?” It featured a host of distinguished speakers including Greg Fishel (the chair of the North Carolina State Climate Office Advisory Committee), Hans Paerl (Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City), Jessica Whitehead (head of what was at the time the newly-formed North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency), and Spencer Rogers (a Coastal Construction and Erosion Specialist at NC Sea Grant).

I went to the event primarily to hear Greg Fishel. Beyond his accomplishment of being a serious, dedicated, and passionate television meteorologist in a field increasingly populated with entertainers, he had achieved a degree of prominence globally as a result of changing his stance on climate change.

Greg opened the evening by apologizing to the moderator saying that he was going to have to differ with the title of the program. He said that the most powerful hurricanes to hit the US were in the period 1950-1959 and he proceeded to show data that clearly backed up his statement. However, he said that it was clear that the amount of rain per hurricane has clearly increased over time and once again he showed the data that corroborated his statement. Greg didn’t have a political point to make – he just presented the data.

As the program continued, I learned from Spencer Rogers that an inch of rain falling on an acre of ground produces over 27,000 gallons of water. There’s nothing political about those numbers and there’s no agenda behind them. But when you understand the data then you see why runoff from storms in highly developed urban areas can be such a problem…not just because of impermeable surfaces but also because of stormwater systems that carry large amounts of water to streams and lakes.

The facts that were shared by Greg Fishel, Spencer Rogers, and the other speakers at the Community Forum that evening helped me form a simple construct that the best discussions about the future of energy are based on facts drawn from data – not on assertions or feelings or emotions or wishes.

On the topic of civil discourse, I consider myself fortunate to know a number of people who can have spirited but entirely respectful and courteous discussions about electricity, green energy, carbon, and climate change. David Owens (the former Executive Vice President of the Edison Electric Institute) and Ralph Cavanaugh (NRDC’s Energy Co-Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program) are at the top of that list.

When I attended the University of Idaho’s Energy Executive Course in 2012 I witnessed a debate between David and Ralph that was unlike any other I had ever heard or seen. They were both incredibly passionate about their facts – and their opinions – but they were also incredibly respectful of each other. It was one of the most impactful sessions of the three week course and since then I’ve had a number of opportunities to hear David and Ralph at the Energy Executive Summit (another outstanding University of Idaho Executive Education program timed to overlap with the last day of the Energy Executive Course). The topics that David and Ralph discussed at the Summit changed from year to year but what didn’t change was the way they modeled civil discourse.

An October 2016 workshop titled “The Future of the Electricity Sector in the Southeast” and sponsored by the Duke University Energy Initiative and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions was another venue where I witnessed unusually civil discourse on the topic of energy. According to the invitation to the event, it promised to “bring together experts on the electricity sector in the Southeast – including electric utilities, other market participants, NGOs, and energy and environmental regulators – to discuss key factors affecting the future of the region’s electricity sector. Discussion topics will include the uncertainty surrounding future demand, how technology innovation could affect business models and regulatory structures, and the role of nuclear energy in the Southeast’s electricity future.”

Nuclear energy can be a very emotionally charged topic and all sides were represented in the room that day including all of the nuclear operators in the Southeast and numerous environmental groups. Despite the fact that the event was held just weeks before the 2016 Presidential election, partisan politics never played a part in the discussions.

A summary of the workshop included top issues for future consideration and two of them are especially relevant in the context of data and civil discourse:

  • Quantifying Risk-Risk Tradeoffs: “…participants voiced interest in efforts to better define and quantify the risk-risk tradeoffs inherent in energy decision making. As the discussion of nuclear power’s future revealed, there are many risks and costs associated with investment decisions in long-term energy infrastructure. Efforts to better understand and balance these risks could allow utilities and regulators to improve their investment decisions and integrated resource planning processes.”
  • Data for Innovation: “As decision makers face new sources of uncertainty and rapid rates of change, the need for more sophisticated models and forecasting tools has grown. These tools have the potential to help utilities quantify the bounds of uncertainty under different policy- and technology-adoption scenarios, and they require robust data to be effective. The demand for these analytical services is high, both among utilities and among regulatory and third-party groups, and it stands out as an area in which universities and third party researchers can contribute meaningfully to the understanding of the potential future impacts of technological innovation.”

A third example of discourse without partisan politics comes from Llewellyn King. I had the pleasure of meeting Llewellyn at CMG’s Digital Summit 360 at Texas State University in San Marcos last year (thank you Andres Carvallo). For over 20 years Llewellyn has hosted White House Chronicle which runs on over 200 PBS and public, educational and governmental access stations. As the White House Chronicle website states “From politics to satire and sartorial critique: nothing escapes the discerning eye of his lucid prose.”

In one example of that lucid prose, Llewellyn calls out the mayors of New York and London for posturing on climate change:

  • “Politicians are out of their depths and dangerous when they prescribe a solution not a destination. If a government, say that of the City of New York, declares it wants more and more of the electricity generated in the city to be carbon-free, it should stick to that goal. It should not tell the market – and the industry — which kinds of carbon-free electricity meet the goal. The goal should be the aim, not the plays that will get the ball there.”

Partisan politics make it difficult – if not impossible – to achieve progress toward the Just Cause of providing clean, affordable, reliable, and safe electricity to every human on the planet. Removing it from the equation is increasingly hard but I’ve seen it modeled by Greg Fishel, David Owens, Ralph Cavanaugh, the participants in the Future of the Electricity Sector in the Southeast workshop, and Llewellyn King.

Data + Civil Discourse – Partisan Politics = Progress.

The fifth characteristic of a Just Cause is that it must be Idealistic…big, bold, and ultimately unachievable. I’ll share some thoughts on that in the next (and last) article in this Infinite Game series.