Duke hosted its 15th annual Energy Conference on Wednesday featuring keynote speakers, panels of industry leaders and networking events to engage the Duke community in conversations around the global energy transition.
The conference, which was held in Geneen Auditorium, was one of several events taking place during the University’s Energy Week.
“We're in a really exciting time where there's been a lot of federal policy passed, some really great programs and a lot of talk about making the clean energy transition just,” said master’s in public policy student Ian Hitchcock, co-chair of this year’s Energy Week Leadership Team. “[We want] to make sure that we are being thoughtful and intentional in examining those programs and having conversations with communities that may not have been as well served in the past.”
Master’s student Carley Tucker, a fellow co-chair, added that one of the goals of this year’s programming was to engage students, faculty members, researchers and the larger Durham and North Carolina communities.
This year’s theme for the Energy Conference was “Energizing Disruption: Fostering Innovation and Collaboration Across the Energy Ecosystem.” The event featured keynote addresses from Mark E. Hickson, executive vice president of corporate development and strategy for NextEra Energy, Inc., Audrey Lee, senior director of energy strategy at Microsoft, and Eric Toone, chief technical officer at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
“It's an opportunity for students and professionals from here and other schools and other regions to learn about new challenges, innovations and problems that we're seeking to solve in the energy space,” said master’s student Ross Fly, a co-chair of the conference.
Breanne Leakey, fellow co-chair of the conference and second-year MBA student at the Fuqua School of Business, was especially excited about the inaugural Company Expo set to take place during today’s programming. The Expo will feature representatives from 11 companies in the energy sector available for students to network with and learn about emerging opportunities in the industry.
“I think North Carolina — and Durham especially — is such a hub for climate tech and for energy innovation,” she said. “Fuqua is branding themselves as ‘the energy school’ … and so we really wanted this conference to be able to continue to build on that narrative.”
Other Energy Week events
Energy Week began Friday with a visit to Duke’s geothermal site. The 400-foot deep hole was commissioned as part of an effort to conduct geological research and explore geothermal possibilities for Duke and Durham. Peter Malin, emeritus professor of earth and climate sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment, provided updates on the project while leading participants on a tour of the site.
Experts in climate policy from federal, state and local government served as panelists in a Monday discussion on the environmental implications of the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The event was moderated by Elizabeth Ouzts, the Energy News Network’s North Carolina journalism fellow. She was joined by Nick Jimenez, who leads the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Solar Initiative, Tobin Freid, sustainability manager for Durham County Government, and Eric Fins, vice president of Grove Climate Group and former deputy staff director of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
The panelists agreed that the two pieces of legislation were transformative for efforts to expand renewable infrastructure, providing a combined $430 billion for climate and clean energy through various grants and credit programs. Implementation of such policies is more difficult with logistical and bureaucratic hoops to jump through, but the panelists' main takeaway was one of hope.
“I think the impact we’re going to have on people’s lives is going to be significant,” Freid said.
Five teams of graduate students competed in the final round of the 11th annual Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition on Tuesday. Organized by the MBA Energy Club at the Fuqua School of Business, the competition's partner, Okra Solar, asked students to present a business model for expanding electricity access in Nigeria for a final prize of $15,000.
Following the case competition, members of the Duke community gathered for a panel moderated by junior Felicia Wang, who serves as the community outreach assistant for NC WARN and the politics lead at Sunrise Durham.
Ajulo Othow, founder and CEO of EnerWealth Solutions, Michelle "Meech" Carter, clean energy campaigns director at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, and Ren Martin, eco-justice connection program coordinator at North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light, discussed environmental justice issues in North Carolina in the context of the energy transition.
Panelists agreed that a community-centered approach is necessary for ensuring a just and equitable transition in North Carolina. Specific areas of concern included completely phasing out fossil fuels, uplifting the needs of historically underrepresented groups and educating them about clean energy options.
Duke Energy’s role in switching to renewables was a frequent point of conversation, with Carter referring to the corporation as a “regulated monopoly.”
Duke Energy has recently pushed for a number of large investments in natural gas infrastructure, which panelists decried as counterproductive to energy transition goals. The cost of such investments is being passed on to consumers, with many North Carolina residents faced with 18% rate hikes in their energy bills just this year.
Speakers recognized the power of collective action and appealed to students in the audience to support local environmental justice efforts.
“The long arc of history bends toward justice,” Othow said.
On Thursday, a fireside chat and lunch titled “Unearthing Circularity: Redefining the Critical Mineral Lifecycle” will be held at the JB Duke Hotel. Attendees will hear from David Klanecky, CEO of Cirba Solutions, and Brian Murray, interim director of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, about ethical challenges associated with mineral extraction for clean energy development.
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Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and a staff reporter for the news department.