#1 and Done? Not When It Comes to Clean Energy Leadership (or Lego Robotics)

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | December 15, 2015, 4:27 pm EDT
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My son’s Lego robotics team had been training for months, and the recent annual tournament was quite an adventure. Their robot outperformed all 23 other teams to take the #1 spot.

That performance at the local level wasn’t enough to get the team through to the state championship, but it got me thinking about leadership, and particularly—with the amazing conclusion to the Paris climate talks this weekend—clean energy leadership: Where things stand, who’s at the front of the pack, and where they/we need to go from here. Because there are a lot of #1’s out there, and we need a whole lot more from each of them (and us!).

What clean energy leadership looks like

There are lots of ways to gauge #1-ness, including in the clean energy space, and different places to look for leadership. For different renewable energy technologies at the country level, for example, here’s a handy chart:

The five top countries in different renewable energy technologies (Source: REN21)

The five top countries in different renewable energy categories (Source: REN21)

Leadership in renewable energy appears at the state and city levels, too. Same for energy efficiency policies, for states and cities. And renewable energy and utilities. Companies outside the energy sector can be leaders, too—in using solar, for example.

All those advances, those leadership positions, are the result of forward-thinking policy or management decisions, technological edges, and commitments to clean energy. And they are really important.

Sustaining leadership

But staying in front in the fast-paced world of clean energy means there’s no resting on your laurels. There’s no guarantee that being in pole position will make you first to cross the finish line in that particular race. And (with apologies for the metaphor mixing), when it comes to energy, our transition is more of a marathon than a sprint. Or maybe its both.

For wind power, for example, while China was tops in terms of installed capacity in 2014, the U.S. was #1 in total wind generation, because our wind turbines produce more power per megawatt. But keeping that lead position depends on the U.S. getting our policy house back in order for wind.

Source: REN21

China and the U.S. were neck and neck in terms of wind generation, but China’s been adding wind turbines more quickly (Source: REN21)

In the face of the tremendous challenge of climate change, and in light of the Paris commitments from so many countries, we need not just leadership for now, but policies and innovations that tell markets and entrepreneurs that we want to continue to be out front.

Fortunately, there are plenty of signs that we’re continuing to head in the right direction in many ways, that many leaders are determined to lead even more. California recently upped its commitment to renewables and efficiency, for example, and New York has just followed suit.

Continued innovation from our country’s (and our world’s) entrepreneurs and research institutions will be very welcome (though we don’t need to wait for that). Continued leadership—at the local, state, national, and global levels—is what it’s going to take to bring our clean energy future into being, and soon.

What robot leadership looks like

As for our kids and the road to the state Lego championship: It turned out that the scores from the morning robot competitions were what counted toward the point totals, along with less robo-centric components about solving society’s problems. (To think: our kids are already standing at the intersection of science and policy, just like the whole Union of Concerned Scientists!) So my son’s team didn’t make it through to the next level.

He and his teammates, though, still have plenty to celebrate (and for proud parents to boast about): the victory in the finals; a chart-topping performance in the semi-finals (see video); and memorable moments even during less-than-perfect runs, like when their robot’s claw managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, snatching a point-heavy piece from accidental rubble. We’ll cherish those moments.

And the kids won’t stop there. The progress between their first attempt (last year) and this one was amazing. They’ll look ahead, and think about what they can do better.

Get it right, get it done, do more

Clean energy progress is the same way. We won’t always get it right, but there are lots of things we know work, because we see the results—the tax policies that have helped drive amazing developments in solar and wind, for example, and need attention from Congress right now.

But with hope, hard work, and the momentum from Paris, we’ll find more leaders. And we’ll find more leadership potential in ourselves.

Because when it comes to Lego robotics—or clean energy—being #1 is just the beginning.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming

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