October 12, 2016

Cornell Energy Connection Explains Changes in The Energy Industry, Promotes Collaboration

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The Cornell Energy Club recently hosted its sixth annual Cornell Energy Connection event. Cornell Energy Connection was attended by approximately 60 members of the Cornell community ranging from both undergraduate and graduate students interested in the energy industry to alums currently working in the field.

The theme of this year’s event, “Transformation and Turbulence in The Energy Industry,” was tackled in speeches given by energy industry leaders and by interactive networking activities. The discussion included development of new energy sources, the expansion of renewable energy and the impact of new energy sources on traditional energy.

Keynote speeches included remarks by energy policy expert Katherine Hamilton ’83, the principal at and founder of 38 North Solutions, and Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital and founder of SunEdison. The various presentations included important topics ranging from sustainability and conservation to the challenges faced by large power generation facilities.

Conference Chair for the Cornell Energy Club, Aidan Renaghan, MBA/MPA, ’17, said that the event is important for Cornell students who want to learn about the energy industry. This year’s topic aimed to familiarize students with the changing energy landscape.

“In New York alone we have the reforming energy vision or ‘rev’ process which is rethinking what utility is, we have the growth of renewables and the drop in oil and gas prices so it’s really changing a lot of industry dynamics,” Renaghan said. “We wanted alumni to come back and speak about how these trends are affecting the industry today and how they are going to affect opportunities in the future both for businesses and students looking to get involved in the industry.”

Renaghan explained that the focus of the event was not solely on renewable energy, but rather the event was broad in focusing on diverse energy sources. Renewable energy nevertheless did prove to be a topic that was addressed throughout the event, with many energy industry speakers addressing the transformative impact of renewable energy on the industry.

“We try to represent all the types of energy here so traditional, renewable, clean tech or grid edge technologies [are all represented]. The growth of the solar and wind industries is huge, so it has been a theme throughout the day,” Renaghan said. “Our keynote speaker Katherine Hamilton really spoke about the opportunities for having more renewable energy on the grid and how the utilities can sort of adapt  to that challenge.”

Keynote speaker Jigar Shah made several remarks to a crowded room packed with alumni, faculty, and industry leaders about what is necessary to accelerate climate wealth. Climate wealth according to Shah is, “about how climate change — the biggest challenge of our time — can be turned into a $10 trillion dollar wealth-creating opportunity”

Shah discussed the balance between having both innovation and strong financial operations when developing, or expanding energy technologies.

“With creating climate wealth I think there was just this mistaken notion in silicon valley that technology always wins, and what you find is in this space, finance always wins because this is really about infrastructure,” Shah said.

Jigar Shah shared his expertise in the industry to attendees by discussing the importance of startup energy companies gaining acceptance by the finance community.

“If you’re an angel investor you’re not going to invest in a company unless you believe that the financing is there for their customers to buy it, so what you need is an ecosystem all the way from innovation to revenues,” Shah said. “If you’re an investor and you’re betting on this technology working you don’t also want to bet on their ability to get the projects financed.”

On the second day of the event, a Newtonian Shift simulation activity was carried out. In this activity, a giant table top game structured to mimic real world situations in which renewable energy and new technologies change the way in which utility executives respond and how the energy grid carries out its operations.

The simulated real-world experience enabled students and alumni alike to engage in developing innovative ideas about how to solve problems and produce effective team-created solutions within the energy industry. Goeff Johnson grad described the Newtonian Shift simulation as a unique collaborative experience between students and energy industry professionals.

“You get these really unique perspectives from folks with a lot of experience and not so much experience,” Johnson said. “The latter group sometimes thinks of things that people who have been working in the industry for a long time don’t think of, so it’s a really awesome time to learn from each other and try out new ideas.”

Susan Mann ’04, an alumna currently working for NYSEG, a subsidiary of AVANGRID, described the meaningful experience she has had at The Cornell Energy Connection as a first time attendee.

“One of the most powerful things I’m seeing about it is the messiness and the confusion and that is reality … we have multiple market actors all with needs and all with challenges and we all need to speak to each other and that’s difficult,” Mann said. “That ambiguity and messiness of having to work things out and not having full information that is very much like the real world… it’s all learning and experimentation and I think it’s that openness to collaboration which I find so interesting and Cornell helps to facilitate that.”

For Claudio Macedo ’16, a third time attendee, the event chiefly offered a distinct learning experience that helps individuals to become educated about what is currently going on in the energy industry. Macedo was able to take away a more complete picture of what the future of the energy industry might look like from multiple points of views and was even able to recruit for the company he works for, Emerson Electric.

The interaction between students and alums via engaging speeches and networking events were carried out in an effort to foster communication and to conceive solutions to future challenges and transformations in the energy industry. Renaghan used the example of energy and utility workers joining to share their perspectives on the industry.

“If you are coming from the solar side, thinking about the challenge that the utility has in meeting demands and making sure energy is affordable [would be new],” Renaghan said. “If you’re coming from the utilities side maybe to see from the customer’s perspective [how] they need energy, [and if] they need certain types of energy and the utility is not providing it. So the whole idea is to really get everybody to take new perspectives and see what that looks like when you’re trying to manage the entire system.”