Future 500 | Finding common ground between uncommon allies

There has been increasing coverage of threats to the U.S. economy due to extreme weather events and their impact on electric grid reliability. In the Southwestern U.S., with reservoir levels precipitously low, residents face the dual threats of growing water scarcity and unreliable hydropower production.

To address these long-term systemic risks to the economy, the DOE is recommending that utilities and regulators work to modernize U.S. energy infrastructure and promote renewable energy.  While some states such as Oregon are quickly implementing this call to action, others like Nevada are not as evidenced by that state’s energy commission’s recent ruling to roll back support for solar. Opponents decry the ruling as a crony capitalism, erecting a market barrier for Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary Nevada Energy, which produces an estimated 80% of the state’s electricity from fossil fuels.

Given Nevada’s aridity, reliance on Lake Mead for water and power, and significant potential for solar power production, one might logically conclude that Nevada’s Energy Commission would seize the opportunity to continue encouraging solar power adoption. Solar is popular among consumers from all political parties for providing more choice in meeting their electricity needs, empowering individuals to achieve greater energy and economic security. Moreover, cultivating increased solar production (and other renewables) can  increase grid resilience over time by reducing over-reliance on a singular power source or producer.

Source: Raquel Baranow. Creative Commons License.

Source: Raquel Baranow. Creative Commons License.

A win-win, right?  Stakeholders such as Nevada’s solar users, providers, and other advocates may be understandably dismayed by the Nevada Energy Commission’s ruling, but they certainly should not be surprised. We are amidst a long, disruptive process of transitioning the global economy off fossil fuels. Such transitions will unfold locality by locality, pitting entrenched interests like Nevada Energy understandably fighting to protect its regulated monopolistic market position, against those seeking to introduce more choice and competitiveness into the market.

It’s the familiar David vs. Goliath narrative: fossil fuel dependent villains against scrappy clean-tech entrepreneurs and individuals agitating for change. But stakeholder and political dynamics are invariably more nuanced than portrayed in media sound bites. In Oregon, there was proactive, sustained cross-sectoral collaboration that led to a breakthrough plan to transition from fossil fuels that removed the need for a ballot measure costly to all sides. In Nevada, such cross sectoral collaboration failed to coalesce, forcing the commission to pick sides.

Ultimately, to ensure the long-term energy security of the U.S., we must change the narrative.  To do that, we need bold, cross sectoral leadership among key stakeholders willing to engage one another to tackle our daunting energy challenges – more Oregons and fewer Nevadas.

Erik Wohlgemuth is COO at Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds – often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others – to advance systemic solutions to sustainability challenges.

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