5 May 2014

“Future Influencers” from Siemens Have Specific Ideas How Best to Boost Sustainability

Written by Jim Pierobon

Siemens AG recently brought together what its leaders consider to be likely “future decision makers and thought leaders” to exchange ideas, participate in live dialogues and otherwise collaborate on how best to create a more sustainable energy future.

Community managers, led by Siemen’s Social Team Leader Sarah Hashish at corporate headquarters in Munich, invited candidates from around the world to engage. At least twice a year since 2011, a handful of candidates participate in forum webcasts moderated by the Harvard Business Review where they interact in-person with a Siemens executive and senior professionals.

Since  launching Future Influencers, Siemens has collected more than 50 ideas of how to address the most pressing and urgent sustainability issues. Not only is Siemens interested in their ideas, but the process of engaging and sharing those ideas connects them with the thinking that is guiding the next generation of business, policy and academic leaders. Some of them could be people Siemens might want to hire, need to do business with or simply want to be associated with to promote its brand and reputation around the world as an “innovative and open-minded company.”

Whether on the web, through Twitter, Google+, and/or YouTube, to name a few, Siemens is measurably increasing its digital footprint along with its position as an “employer of choice” in the “global war for talent.”

Siemens currently counts more than 180 persons it deems to be “high profile” members. It has completed four “collaborations” and in March conducted its 4th forum  / webcast with the Harvard Business Review at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston organized by IHS Energy.

3 of Siemens 'Future Influencers' address energy challenges during a Harvard Business Review webcast in early March 2014 during CERAWeek in Houston, March 2014

Participating in this webcast (front left in the accompanying photo) were:

  • Angelia Herrin, Editor of Special Projects and Research at Harvard Business Review;
  • Greg Unruh, Professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA;
  • Jane Okun Bomba, Senior Vice President and head of Sustainability, Investor Relations and Communications at IHS;
  • Randy Zwirn, President and CEO of Siemens Energy Inc., a unit of Siemens AG.

Three of the younger current “Future Influencers” earned the privilege of participating through the ideas they submitted about energy and sustainability. They included, continuing from left:

  • Julian Marwitz, who has studied law and economics in Geneva, Hong Kong and Germany; is pursuing a Masters of Sustainable Urban Development at Oxford and consults about the construction of green buildings;
  • Daniel Recht, a Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard who works on developing and producing new technologies for a large chemical, materials and renewable energy company; and
  • Brian Sergi, a fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, DC who recently graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

I was particularly interested in where the ideas from the established professionals would mesh, or clash, with the three Future Influencers.  How would their visions and aspirations for a more sustainable energy future will hold up in the real world reflected by those who’ve been making a living at it for two decades or more?

The conversation was especially relevant given the lessons we’re all learning about the practical limits of renewable energy in Germany, the costs and political hurdles to mitigating climate change in the U.S. and elsewhere and the consequences of generating a lot of electricity from coal in rapidly developing countries such as China.

Jane Bomba of IHS said the climate change discussion has changed a lot over previous CERAWeek conferences. “I haven’t heard a single speaker (from the largest companies and major policymakers) who hasn’t been raising (the climate) issue” (compared to very few mentions previously). She said climate change is framing “how they’re  . . . running their companies, making investments and the tradeoffs that need to be made.”

You can watch the entire 60-minute webcast here. If you don’t have time to watch now, here’s a top-line summary of the thinking that illustrates the dynamic challenges and opportunities facing the electric power industry, particularly in the U.S. Germany and China. Either way, please chime in with your thoughts and share your ideas to help move this conversation forward.

From the outset, there was general agreement that for energy to be sustainable, companies deserve the opportunity to make a profit. Sustainability isn’t just about the environment, it’s about how a business can sustain itself making cleaner energy that is affordable and reliable. George Mason’s Greg Unruh asserted, “People tend to forget that and criticize the public sector. Unless those conditions are there, you’re not going to have a sustainable marketplace.”

It didn’t take long for Julian Marwitz, who has studied in Germany, and Siemens’ Randy Zwirn, to reflect on the retreat of solar energy in Germany after that country offered rich subsidies for years.

Germany’s Conundrum

Said Zwirn: “One of the most forward-looking, sustainable energy agendas (had) unintended consequences.” After shifting its focus to renewable and plotting the closure of its fleet of nuclear plants, “Germany today is importing a tremendous amount of coal from the U.S. because of the economics.”  Turns out, renewable energy in Germany isn’t as sustainable a business as its advocates first thought.

“As a result of these (once) forward-looking, renewable / sustainability policies, (Germany’s) carbon footprint is actually going up,” Zwirn was quick to note.  He contrasted that with the U.S. which lacks a legal, national, requirement for electricity from renewable sources: “Because of the innovation (developing shale natural gas), because market forces allow us to access low-cost gas, our carbon footprint is back at a level probably of the early 1990s.”

As late as 2007,” Zwirn remembered how the U.S. was still widely thought of as the “Saudi Arabia of coal. And two years ago we were still talking about the nuclear renaissance before Fukushima.”

Don’t sell out Germany just yet, Daniel Recht interjected.”There are a lot of ways to construe the narrative in Germany. “That story is still very much being told today.”

How Quickly the Energy Landscape Is Changing

Zwirn also recalled how he and his colleagues were talking as recently as three years ago about building a business to capture carbon emission from coal-fired power plants.”  Today, the private sector essentially has ceased trying to forge a carbon capture solution due to the natural gas boom.  Marwitz all but pleaded with industry not to give up on carbon capture.

To Innovate, Siemens Welcomes Help from Entrepreneurs

One of the many other benefits Siemens hopes to reap by engaging Future Influencers are the inspiration and the ideas to help forge customer solutions. Zwirn acknowledged that many innovative ideas come from collaborating in teams. “The ability to build communities between universities  . . . companies like Siemens, startup companies, the DOE (U.S. Dept. of Energy) and also (other governments) is important to tackling these issues.”

Smaller can often mean faster and that, Zwirn said, can “drive much shorter innovation cycles to be able to deal with changing public opinion.”

Three of the biggest enablers for constant innovation at Siemens, according to Zwirn, are automation, three-dimensional printing and big data. “More and more of the technologies today that have an impact . . . are coming from smaller companies. They are tremendously impactful to our business. We need those startups, those smaller companies, that inspiration, in our community of R&D.”

Recht, for one, said he hopes innovations from entrepreneurs could “bleed into the developed world leading change there” before their problems become unmanageable as they might be in China.

Unruh was quick to warn that “unless (new) technologies are deployed and perfected in developed countries first, it’s unclear that you’re going to get that kind of transfer at a rate that’s fast enough to deal with the rapid transitions in China, Indian and what we’re seeing now in Africa.”

Brian Sergi spotlighted two efforts that reflect the cutting edge of innovation in the U.S. : 1) The NEST thermostat which ‘learns’ from household usage patterns;  and 2) efforts by Opower that compare household electricity bills in the same utility service territory to each other, thereby motivating consumers to save energy.

How Long Will the Natural Gas Boom Last?

Unruh urged listeners not to bank too much on the future and the sustainability of natural gas. His take on a recent survey by the Harvard Business Review was that fossil fuels and sustainability are an “oxymoron. It’s going to have to prove itself out.”  Unruh challenged the net benefits of low cost natural gas in the U.S. for how its pushing renewable out of certain generation markets.

Brian Sergi jumped in asserting that the issue of methane leakages from natural gas drilling and processing operations is too potent a pollutant to take lightly, as some critics contend the gas industry and government regulators are doing. “That’s something we need to understand better.”

How Will China Deal with Its Rising Pollution?

Zwirn called how China is trying to maintain its 7-8% annual economic growth fueled by an aggressive push for more power generation an “environmental disaster” in the making and a “phenomenal experiment to watch.” He questioned how long the often dangerous pollution in Beijing, Shanghai and other metro areas can continue. “Ultimately that will be a social impact, not just a health impact. People will simply not accept (it).”

How China juggles these challenges over the next 5 to 8 years is going to be a critically important piece of the whole global greenhouse gas discussion,” Zwirn opined. “There is no model anywhere in terms of how to deal with that situation.”

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