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Clean energy at top of agenda for oil and gas, tech and other sectors

January 25, 2019
Precourt Institute

By Vincent Xia

Senior executives at Facebook, Anadarko Petroleum, Sunrun and the California Public Utilities Commission all advocated for a clean energy future in a panel discussion Friday as part of Stanford Energy Week.

The four panelists focused specifically on regulations, energy reliability and more infrastructure investments across the energy industry, saying that everyone has a stake in cleaner energy. The panelists, hailing from vastly different industries, were all positive about the hottest topic in energy policy: the proposed “Green New Deal.” As sourcing renewable energy affordably has become easier around the world, they hope to pave cleaner energy paths for both their own sectors and others.

“The way that we in the tech community are hoping to move these markets is by saying we will source 100 percent renewable energy matching our consumption in all of the states that we go into,” said Bobby Hollis, head of global energy and data center site selection for Facebook. Even in states with historically skeptical views of renewable energy, after Facebook signs a big supply contract at low prices, other companies and even the local utilities soon do the same, he said.

Stanford Energy Week's energy policy panel
From left: the CPUC's Alice Stebbins, Anadarko's Shandell Szabo, Sunrun's Anne Hoskins, Facebook's
Bobby Hollis and Stanford's Preeti Hehmayer, who moderated the discussion. (Image credit: Beri Behar)

For the tech companies, energy reliability is at the core of long-range planning. Facebook, for instance, makes 20-year decisions around their data centers. Going into a new state requires bringing in new renewable energy supplies, and being assured of stable policies and regulations for that lifespan.

“Even if you’re talking about residential or small-business rooftop solar, the impacts of having regulators unwind what was potentially a transaction people were relying on for 10 or 20 years creates uncertainty,” Hollis said. “If we can’t rely on the energy sector and have the certainty of regulation and legislation, it makes it hard to be certain that’s where we as a company want to be,” he said, adding that companies from GM to Walmart make the same calculations.

As an example, panelists discussed Nevada’s decision to end the policy of net metering, which helped make residential solar panels affordable in a state where sunshine is a huge resource. Generally, legislatures set policy and regulators figure out how tp pay for it all. Legislators and regulators not being on the same page creates uncertainty. After a consumer backlash, Nevada eventually restored net metering.

Regulators work with a wide variety of groups, including solar equipment providers like Sunrun, to help ensure electric reliability at reasonable cost, noted Alice Stebbins, the California Public Utilities Commission’s executive director. The CPUC, for example, is trying to figure out the right infrastructure investments to prevent wildfires. (Stebbins could not discuss PG&E’s expected bankruptcy filing next week, which is the result of the utility’s wildfire liabilities.)

A better regulatory framework is important to the oil and gas industry, too. Shandell Szabo, Anadarko’s head of U.S. exploration, said the states should spend more money securing safe, environmentally responsible operations.

“What we need from a state level is to ensure that our operations are safe,” Szabo said. “We need more police officers, and we need more public service.”

Green New Deal

A clean energy future will require more companies and individuals to force it onto the legislative agenda, the panel agreed. That is happening with the Green New Deal movement led by the youth-driven Sunrise Movement and newly elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The proposal, while still not clearly defined, aims at massive public spending to end U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the next dozen or so years and make clean energy the driver of economic growth and U.S. exports.

“I haven’t met Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, but I hope to someday. It’s very exciting,” said Anne Hoskins, Sunrun’s chief policy officer. “We plan to use the opportunity to get people to understand the issues and inspire the next generation to engage.”

Though not endorsed even by most Democratic Party congressmembers, the Green New Deal proposal has revived bipartisan discussions in Washington, D.C. in favor of a tax on GHG emissions, the panel agreed.

“We’re all here to find an affordable energy source that’s clean,” Szabo agreed. She added that the movement showed that getting an issue on the political agenda is “all about leadership and not only about who has the power.”

The panel unanimously encouraged the predominantly student audience to actively engage. The Green New Deal movement “says all off you can do the same thing,” said the CPUC’s Stebbins. “You’re the next generation. Keep pushing!”

The declining costs of renewable power have made the goals of such a push realistic.

“There are almost no places in the U.S. and very few places in most of the industrialized world where you have to mark it off because you have no ability to source renewable energy,” Hollis said. “That is such a dramatic change for us, for the Googles of the world and the Apples of the world. You’ve got sectors that you’d never expect: Kaiser, Walmart, GM. You’ve got Exxon. All the companies are getting into that.”

Stanford Energy Week is an annual conference organized the student-run Stanford Energy Club.

Vincent Xia is a Stanford student and communications intern at the university’s Precourt Institute for Energy.