Amid changing winds from Washington, Energy Transition Symposium to confront new energy realities

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Chuck Henry, Chair of Chemistry at Colorado State University, talks about low cost technologies to quantify pollutants in air and water at CSU’s 7th annual Energy Transition Symposium. Oct. 31, 2017. This year’s event has been moved online due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. (©Sonar / Depositphotos)

In the interest of transparency: Empowering Colorado is a media sponsor of the 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium.


21st Century Energy Transition Symposium


The virtual Symposium will take place May 4, May 5 and May 14. Registration is free but space is limited. Register here:

As President Joe Biden’s administration pushes to supercharge the nation toward a clean energy economy, the upcoming 9th annual 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium will offer industry officials, climate advocates, policymakers and the public an opportunity to discuss the path to decarbonization.

The annual symposium, taking place May 4-5 and May 14, is hosted by the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory, a partnership between Colorado State University, the University of Colorado, Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The mission of the symposium is to unite stakeholders, activists and policymakers from different energy spheres — from oil and gas to renewables — for a nonpartisan, balanced discussion on the myriad challenges and changes in the energy industry.

Normally, the annual event is known for its in-person atmosphere, with interactions between environmentalists, industry groups and policymakers that are often on opposing ends of energy policy. Because of uncertainty about in-person gatherings in the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 symposium will be held online with a virtual event platform. (The symposium was canceled in 2020 for safety concerns.) Registration is free, but space is limited.

Maury Dobbie, executive director of the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory and chair of the symposium, said the virtual event will be “not just a Zoom call or a webinar” and will still allow for the broad-based discussion that has defined the event and Colorado’s energy debate.

“What we have accomplished over the years is bringing people together with a common goal of solving very hard issues when it comes to energy, the environment and climate,” said Dobbie. “We believe that finding successful outcomes takes all of us. There’s not one group or one technology that can solve all these issues.”

For the 2021 symposium, that means confronting the new reality from the White House after four years of the Donald Trump administration. Biden has vowed to focus on climate change throughout his administration and has announced a goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power sector by 2035.

The debate over Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan is expected to bring a debate on climate change and clean energy funding to the floor of Congress this spring.

In a May 4 general session hosted by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, White House National Climate Advisor and former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy will address the symposium on the Biden administration’s climate policies and rejoining the United Nations Paris Climate Accords.

Xcel Energy-Colorado president Alice Jackson will also speak about the utility’s climate goals under the new federal targets. Xcel announced in February that it aims to deliver 80% renewable energy by 2030, with an estimated 85% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents the Boulder area, will deliver an address on May 5. Neguse, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, has co-sponsored many of the House’s bills on climate change, including legislation to reintroduce the Civilian Climate Corps to put young people to work on conservation and clean energy projects.

Attendees will also hear from energy and natural resources officials from Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon in a session moderated by Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor to discuss states’ role in facilitating the clean energy transition.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association CEO Duane Highley has been chosen to deliver a keynote address, touching on the utility’s commitment to reduce emissions. In November 2020 Tri-State, whose 42 utility member systems serve more than a million customers across the west, announced it would submit a plan to Colorado to reduce emissions from its wholesale electricity sales by 80% by 2030.

Colorado has a long history with oil and gas production, and has invested in the renewable energy sector as well. Gov. Jared Polis has laid out a plan to reduce greenhouse gases by 26% of 2005 levels by 2025 and 90% by 2050 under the goals set by House Bill 19-1261. That includes a transition away from coal-fired power plants and installation of new solar and wind capability for the state’s utilities.

Dobbie said the 9th symposium will reflect the changing policy landscape. When the gathering was originally convened in 2011, it was called the Natural Gas Symposium; its rebranding in 2015 to reflect the “21st Century Energy Transition” showed organizers look keep up with the rapidly-changing sector.

“While we have a new administration.” Dobbie said. “We are always working towards these solutions no matter what administration is in power. From the state level, the university level, the 17 federal labs in the United States, we believe collaboration is the answer to solving these very complicated issues. With the Biden administration’s push on climate change, especially discussing research development and equity, we support the notion of doing this together.”

In a nod to the national discussion around race and equity, the symposium will feature a panel titled “Environmental and Energy Justice” hosted by Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. That panel will feature speakers from Xcel Energy and GRID Alternatives discussing how to support marginalized and minority communities in the energy transition, especially around affordability and reliability.

The symposium will also feature a panel on women in energy, moderated by Maria Tikoff Vargas, senior program advisor for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Other panels throughout the symposium will touch on topics like the trend toward beneficial electrification, reducing the energy impact of buildings and the role of combustion technologies in the clean energy transition, especially as progressive areas pass bans on natural gas infrastructure. The symposium will also feature a discussion on carbon dioxide mitigation, a key technological trend to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store or reuse it.

The symposium’s third day — May 14 — will feature a series of rapid-fire technical presentations on various decarbonization solutions from Colorado researchers, ranging from building-to-grid interactions to bioenergy.

The Collaboratory has hosted 26 webinars since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have brought a global audience to the state discussion. Dobbie said she expects the online symposium, while lacking in-person discussion, could even expand its traditional audience for a more impactful energy debate.

“We can talk about these things and lament over what we have or haven’t done,” Dobbie said. “Our symposium always talks about what we can do, especially working with people who may not agree with you.”

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