February 26, 2009 04:08
by J. Wylie Donald

by Grace Kurdian

As I sat in the morning conference session of RETECH 2009 and listened to the line-up of speakers, I couldn't help but think that for the renewable energy industry, this is much more than a conference/expo; this could be the equivalent of Davos (though more broadly accessible) in terms of bringing together leaders from industry, government, NGOs, and legal and other professional services to discuss the status of the industry, critical issues and where we are moving in policy and legislation.  Disclaimer: I haven't ever even been invited to Davos (but would go if asked). 

The speakers at RETECH include international experts, CEOs and presidents of non-profits in the climate change, renewable energy, and energy efficiency areas, and high profile individuals such as Wesley Clark, speaking on national security and renewable investment from a business perspective, as well as Dan Reicher, the director of climate change and energy initiatives for Google. 

The mood is varied, mostly ranging from ebullent celebration of the confluence of events, including the leadership of President Obama and the public, grass roots attention being given to climate change and renewable energy, to a more cautious optimism that there are still many issues that must be addressed before we can successfully achieve the ambitious goals established on various state and regional levels (soon to be followed on a federal level) with regard to renewable energy and carbon emission reduction. 

Much of the excitement, of course, comes from the federal stimulus dollars targeted toward renewable energy, energy efficiency, a smart grid and all related energy issues. While there is certainly mention of the economic downturn and its impact on financing projects, the sense of optimism is palpable. 

However, if you think all the answers lie here at RETECH, think again. Many issues await legislative action or direction.  For example, issues remain as to what the new smart grid will encompass and who (federal government through FERC or other federal entity or state utility commissions and regional compacts or a combination of these) will have jurisdiction and responsibility for transmission related to the renewable energy grid expansion and build-out.  As demonstrated by the speakers from various sectors, the delicate balance of providing some regulatory certainty while encouraging the entreprenurial spirit in technology, financing, and the like is still a challenge. Interestingly, there are also relatively new topics, such as decoupling, that have entered the industry discourse although most, if not all, state utility commissions have yet to address such proposals.

Issues of particular concern come as no surprise to those in the industry.  Transmission and siting, storage, local and regional regulatory processes related to environmental and zoning matters, regulatory signals/certainty, and finance are all high on the agenda, sobering the more optimistic discussions of what the technology to date can achieve once implemented.

Overall, however, unlike the mood at Davos, which by all accounts was more somber than in past years, the tone here is at the very least cautiously optimistic even despite the recognized challenges that lie ahead.

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The business case for the development of renewable energy projects, from biodiesel and ethanol to wind, solar, and distributed generation, is more compelling than ever as tax and regulatory incentives combine to attract investments. Emerging issues in environmental law and increasingly recognized principles of corporate social responsibility are encouraging public companies to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, install clean energy alternatives, and invest overseas in projects under the Kyoto Protocol to respond to climate change concerns.

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