Fortune Brainstorm E Day One: Problems

  • May 17, 2016
  • Starr Million Baker

I spent the day at Fortune Brainstorm E, expecting to be enlightened on all the ways the tech industry and the energy industry could work together to solve the world’s problems. After all, Alan Murray opened the conference with this: “We believe in the power of business to solve the world’s social problems.” And I did hear some of that: California will power 50% of its energy demands with renewable sources by 2030; Ford will work with new economy options like ZipCar and Car2Go to introduce new forms of transportation to new generations; and we all have hope (some more, some less) after the climate talks in Paris where an unprecedented number of leaders of state came together to discuss climate issues, while none of them argued about the science. Remarkable.

What I wasn’t prepared for were these two things, the first of which I can help with, the second of which gives me pause.

First, communication. In many of the interview-style discussions, I heard a resounding call for better communication. “People don’t understand the value of energy efficiency programs,” or “Time-of-use rates are too confusing for customers to understand.” Any time companies feel the need to say someone doesn’t “understand” something, it means they aren’t explaining it well and could perhaps use some help. These are confusing topics, to be sure, and need to be communicated with not only an educational bent, but with a “what’s in it for me” value as well. In a still new-ish industry, it’s understandable that the jump to educational and informational communication has not yet been made.

Second, food. What? Yep, food. It’s disconcerting to hear that while you’re figuring out how to tackle Problem #1 (Energy), what you should really be concerned about is Problem #2 (Food). I can’t even do this topic justice just yet, but Jeremy Grantham can – read up on what’s he’s thinking here. Here’s the deal – there will be 10B people on our planet in 2050. We have no way to support that population – not with infrastructure, not with energy, not with food. All of the people I spoke with said “Energy? Technology can – and will – fix that. Food? Not so much.” This is concerning. And not just for any certain sector or country or group – for our entire population. I do not yet know of what I speak in enough authority to educate you, but I will. This is a topic that will affect all of us, including our children, and theirs, and we need to get ahead of the issues – something we didn’t do with energy.

I have to say, I’ve met more pessimists than optimists at this conference. While we’re all cognizant of working towards a common goal – keeping the temperature of our Earth’s climate from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – most feel we’ll move fast enough to get close to that goal, but not fast enough to actually meet it. That’s disconcerting. But what’s more concerning is that not one person I spoke with – from the former head of the EPA to the current CEO of one of the world’s largest energy companies – believes we can truly address our upcoming food shortage. “It is what it is” was the general consensus from those I spoke with.

None of these things are acceptable to me. We can improve our communication (always – more on that soon), and not enough food is just not an option. Let’s get it together, people.

I’m looking for more optimism in Day 2.

Other good stuff in here

What is the Energy Story?

EP. 58: The Rise of the Rest