You might believe, as many people do, that the World Economic Forum in Davos is out of touch with everyday people. To me, the only thing worse than the global elite getting together to solve the world’s problems is the global elite getting together and not solving the world’s problems.
The theme this year was creating a shared future in a fractured world, which is exactly what our global leaders should be talking about. And this year the forum gathered together the most powerful aggregation of global corporate and government leaders in recent decades.
I participated in the forum and led a dialogue about the role of renewable energy in creating a shared future—a key theme at the forum, touted by many heads of state. In the opening plenary, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi named climate change the number one challenge to civilization as we know it, and shared his country’s ambitious goal of producing 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron said he wants to “make France a model in the fight against climate change,” and will shut down all the country’s coal-fired power plants by 2021.
The numerous energy tracks at the forum were largely made up of policy makers, utilities, and technology providers. The discussion around renewable energy is often thought of as a three-legged stool: technology, finance, and policy. While those three things are indeed crucial to advancing renewable energy, there is also a critical fourth element that is much harder to shift—people. Unfortunately, like many large conferences, the voice of energy consumers was largely lacking at Davos.
I participated in the Accelerating Innovation for Sustainable Energy panel, which had a rich, dynamic dialogue around accelerating technological innovation. There was consensus around the important role that government can play in both financing technological innovation to start the research and development process, and also shepherding winning technologies all the way through commercialization. However, often where technology fails is not in the early R&D phase but in pre-commercialization—a phase when a technology often requires no changes to policy or finance, but just needs buyers to take a risk and use something they haven’t used before. It’s where human dynamics really come into play.
While policy and finance support systemic change, most dramatic shifts are driven by people and companies making different choices. There’s an inertia we have – our human instinct is to do things the way we always have, or “don’t fix what isn’t broken.” But when you see large companies make dramatically different decisions, when they say “we’re no longer going to simply pay the utility bill; we’re going to sign up for a 10-year contract to buy renewable energy at a fixed price,” that’s when you see huge shifts. Unfortunately, there was very little discussion in Davos around the incredible momentum that’s building on the consumer side of the equation.
“There is a seemingly persistent misunderstanding that renewable energy can’t solve the energy access problem at scale.”