Energy Experts Share Thoughts on ‘A Roadmap for a Sustainable Future’

We may not be able to see it, but it’s coursing through our homes, our cars, our cell phones, and our Pacemakers. It’s so integrated into our routines that we hardly even notice it – until it fails.

Finding an accessible, affordable, and sustainable source of energy is vital to our future, but the path toward a solution is mired by competing interests and economic quandaries. With all of these mounting tensions, how can business strategists, technologists, and policy makers make any progress?

These questions were the topic of a panel discussion Wednesday, May 16, hosted by the McCormick School of Engineering Dean’s Seminar Series and the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern: “Developing a Roadmap for a Sustainable Future: Navigating the Global Tension Among Sustainability, Economic Development, and Energy Security.”

Left to right: David Porges EQT Corp., Mark Mills of Digital Power Group, Bill Silliman of Imperial Oil Ltd.The event featured presentations by three energy experts, each with varying roles and viewpoints: Bill Silliman, development planning manager of Imperial Oil Ltd., an Exxon subsidiary and the second largest petroleum company in Canada; David Porges, president and CEO of the natural gas producer EQT Corporation; and Mark Mills, an author and CEO of Digital Power Group, an energy and tech capital advisory group. The discussion was moderated by Kellogg Innovation Network Founder and Executive Director Robert Wolcott.

Speaking to an audience in the ITW classroom in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, Silliman provided an overview of energy trends in recent decades: demand for energy has continued to climb, while efficiency has also grown steadily. But by the year 2030, he explained, the picture is expected to shift, with high efficiency causing reduced demand.

Silliman called for a balanced response to energy development, one that expands upon all energy sources, improves efficiency, and mitigates emissions, which by 2030 are expected to grow considerably in developing countries. “We have a problem, and it’s a global problem we have to deal with,” he said.

It’s true that each form of energy creation comes with risks, Porges said, such as diminished air quality, potentiall security risks, and harm to wildlife. But the good news is that each potential risk may be mitigated by technology and behavioral changes: water pollution can be prevented and reversed by technological advances, for instance, while wildlife can be protected by relocating exploration sites.

Mark Mills, CEO of Digital Power Group“There are going to be risks and costs in any activities we undertake,” Porges said. “The question is, how do we deal with that?” He called for a model of “comprehensive pricing,” or energy pricing that includes the cost of its mitigation techniques.

But Mills, who served as an energy, nuclear, and missile defense adviser during the Reagan administration, challenged the very existence of an “energy problem,” arguing that our lack of understanding of energy is resulting in faulty policies and practices. It is technology, not policy, that will open doors to new energy solutions, Mills said, noting that our current energy technology — from wind turbines (1941) to nuclear fission (1942) to the photovoltaic cell (1954) — is more than 60 years old.

New processes will give us the production levels — and the understanding — that we need, Mills said. “(Energy) is metaphysical, weird stuff, and we think we understand it,” he said. “We don’t.”