Roger Duncan and Michael E. Webber
Authors, “The Future of Buildings, Transportation and Power”

What lies in store for buildings, transportation and electric power as we make the transition to a lower-carbon society? And how prepared will we be to adapt to changes in technology that sometimes seem faster than the speed of light?

In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks to Roger Duncan and Michael E. Webber, the authors of a new book that explores how automation, artificial intelligence and other groundbreaking technologies will change the buildings we occupy, the vehicles we travel in and the electric grid that we rely on to power it all. Aptly, it’s called “The Future of Buildings, Transportation and Power.”

Roger and Michael start with a look at the basic principles shaping our future infrastructure, and then describe how buildings, transportation and the power grid will evolve into sentient-appearing machines. And that’s not all! They also explore what they say it will be like to live, work and move about inside robots. “Think of it, if you like, as a magical journey,” they say.

Roger is the former manager of Austin Energy, the municipal utility for Austin, Texas, recognized as a leader in renewable energy, energy efficiency and smart-grid activities. Previously, he served in various manager roles for Austin Energy and the City of Austin. He was elected twice to the Austin City Council.

Michael is the chief science and technology officer for Engie, a global energy and infrastructure services firm headquartered in Paris, as well as the Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin. His previous books include “Power Trip: The Story of Energy,” published in 2019 and made into a documentary series for the U.S. public broadcaster PBS in 2020.

Bill reached Roger in Austin and Michael in Paris to talk about the new book, including:

  • What new light they shed on the outlook for buildings, transportation and power;
  • What they mean when they say “in the future we will be living, working, and moving about inside robots”;
  • Why political and policy change moves slower than technological change, and how this mismatch can inhibit progress; and
  • What impact the pandemic will have on the pace of change.

 

Transcript

[00:00:00]
Bill Loveless:  Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.  I’m Bill loveless. Our guests today are Roger Duncan and Michael E. Webber, the authors of a new book that explores how automation, artificial intelligence, and other groundbreaking technologies will change the buildings we occupy, the vehicles we travel in, and the electric grid that we rely on to power it all. Aptly, it's called “The Future of Buildings, Transportation and Power”. Roger and Michael start with a look at the basic principles shaping our future infrastructure, and then describe how buildings transportation and the power grid will evolve into sentient appearing machines.

And that's not all. They also explore what they say it will be like to live, work and move about inside robots. “Think of it, if you like as a magical journey,” they say. Roger is the former Manager of Austin Energy, the municipal utility for Austin, Texas, recognized as a leader in renewable energy, energy efficiency and smart grid activities. Previously, he served in various manager roles for Austin Energy and the City of Austin. He was elected twice to the Austin City Council.

Michael is the Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy & infrastructure services firm headquartered in Paris, as well as the Joshi, Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin. His previous books include “Power Trip: The Story of Energy,” published in 2019, and made into a documentary series for the U.S. public broadcaster (PBS) in 2020. I reached Roger and Austin and Michael in Paris to talk about the new book, including what new light they shed on the outlook for buildings, transportation and power. What they mean when they talk about moving about inside robots, why political and policy change moves slower than technological change and how this mismatch can inhibit progress?

And finally, what impact the pandemic will have on the pace of this change? Well, here's our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Roger Duncan, Michael Webber. Thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.

Roger Duncan, Michael Webber:  Glad to be here. Thanks for having us.

[0:02:32]
Bill Loveless:  Guys. Let me start by asking Roger and then Michael, how this collaboration came about and how do you two know each other?

[0:02:34]
Roger Duncan:  Well, I'm the former General Manager of Austin Energy, the municipal utility for Austin, Texas. And during my last year or so there, Michael was on the Electric Utility Commission for the city. And that's how we really got to know each other and we said at that time, well why don’t we talk about doing a book together sometime. And after I retired, I went over to UT. And Michael invited me to join the Energy Institute over there. And we started out by doing a sort of a short course on the future of energy. And what it would be like and this book took off from there.

[0:03:15]
Bill Loveless:  Yeah, Michael, it sounds like this is an extension of a relationship that goes back some time?

[0:03:19]
Michael Webber:  Yes, I think about it, I was a Regulator. So, in a weird way, I was sort of Roger's boss, which is funny, because he was the CEO of the utility, but I was a regulator. We had to meet regularly in a formal setting and Roger and I saw some parts of the world the same way so he sort of invited me over to Austin Energy to do some informal brainstorming sessions at a whiteboard. And we just started to think about the future of energy. In particular, Roger had some thoughts about the future of energy that he'd been kicking around since the 80s, or something. And so we just talked about it to sort of come up with a framework for how to talk about it with other people. And then we were like, yeah, we should write a book. That was like, 2008, or something. And we joke about how we started writing a book about the future of energy in 2008. By the time it came out, a lot of the future had already happened. But that's one of the risks with writing the futures. The future moves quickly. So, your book better move quickly, also.

[0:04:08]
Bill Loveless:  Yeah, and you guys acknowledge that too, in the book, that it you know, the target continues to move and things change. Hopefully, you say your concepts are correct, the trends are correct. But you know, what you're seeing today isn't necessarily what you see tomorrow.

[00:04:24]
Michael Webber:  That’s right, and hopefully, the underlying trends that we think have been true over time will continue to be true, especially around like energy efficiency, and that kind of thing. But some of the details we missed.

[0:04:36]
Bill Loveless:  Well, you know, a lot has been written about buildings, transportation and power. What are the two of you saying here that you think has been overlooked?

[0:04:46]
Roger Duncan:  Well, in the first chapter, we talk about what we think the megatrend is, in technology in general, which we have labeled the energy efficiency megatrend and we're sort of saying that we think that the purpose of technology really is conversion efficiency, and transforming any form of energy to work in an efficient manner, and what that means specifically for the sectors of buildings, transportation, and power. And we arrive at some conclusions that were developing, really sentient appearing machines in our buildings and vehicles of the future, as well as becoming more efficient that way, and that these sectors are starting to converge simply because it's more efficient for buildings and vehicles and power grids to act as a single unit and separately provide their functions.

[0:05:46]
Bill Loveless:  You know, Roger, you and Michael, refer frequently in the book to sentient machines. Can you explain that to us to make sure we're understanding what you mean by it?

[0:05:56]
Roger Duncan:  Well, first of all, we're not saying that we think machines are going to become conscious. I'm not saying they're not, we frankly have no way of knowing if a machine behavior becomes conscious or not. Well, what we're saying is that we are interacting more with our technological environment, as if it is sentient. We talk to Siri on our phones, or Alexa is in my living room now. We take GPS directions from our cars, and we are developing a technology and interacting with it as if it is another sentient being and that is shaping our relationship with our technological world.

[0:06:36]
Bill Loveless:  Well, Michael, you talk, you write a lot in this book about how the ways in which energy is changing and how it is interconnected with everything in our society. Tell us a little bit about that?

[0:06:48]
Michael Webber:  Yeah, that's a great point, energy really cuts across everything we care about in society. So it's enabling this podcast recording we're having right now. It's in the materials that we build, it's in the food we eat, the water we drink. So it's in everything. And that is a point that has been made by me and other people in many forms many times. But then the overlay with Roger here is that the energy systems that are in everything are also changing because of this energy efficiency megatrend, but also this convergence with information technology and computing capability that gives us ubiquitous sensing and other capabilities to give us this appearance of sentient cars and buildings and that kind of thing. So, energy is embedded in everything. But now information and information technology is becoming embedded in everything. And these two are getting integrated or converged that enables new opportunities. And energy really enables information. But this information also enables the energy efficiency. And so that means fields like human computer interface that Carnegie Mellon has studied for decades, is now converging with the energy world, because that human computer interface will affect the way we run our buildings and this kind of thing. So we're seeing all these different technology trends come together, energy was already cutting across all of them. Now they're cutting across each other. And so that means they're going to overlap and integrate. And hopefully we do it in a smart way. So it gives us better performance, more comfortable buildings, this kind of thing, better performance and more energy efficiency, more reliability. So hopefully it goes in a good way and doesn't turn against us or introduce more vulnerabilities or problems for our systems.

[0:08:19]
Bill Loveless:  You know, Michael, I'm thinking back you wrote, you've written several books now. And not that long ago, you came out with a much-acclaimed book “Power Trip” about the ways in which energy has transformed society, a book that was made into a documentary on public television. There's some similarity here. But again, I think you just made the point that there's also a difference in terms of what you're trying to get at here with Roger than what you were exploring in the previous book?

[0:08:47]
Michael Webber:  You have a power trip, it was mostly backwards looking in a present day snapshot about how energy has changed with time and place and how it's a part of our society. And then I had a few pages at the end about the future. Whereas the book with Roger is really about the future about how our energy might change as we move forward.

[0:09:03]
Bill Loveless:  Well, Roger, the book says that as creepy as it may sound in the future, we will be living, working, and moving about inside robots. What do you mean by that?

[0:09:14]
Roger Duncan:  Well, as I was saying earlier, we're starting to interact with our technology now and as artificial intelligence becomes embedded and invisible in a sense inside our buildings in our vehicles, our buildings are becoming essentially large robots. And we will see interactions with the wall surfaces and with embedded robotics within the buildings. Buildings may be able to handle deliveries to the buildings and interact with other buildings and a smart grid and smart city format. The vehicles that we’re in will be able to recognize us, be able to talk with us and interact with all other vehicles and buildings as they move about. And so essentially, artificial intelligence is making our living environment, a robotic environment that we are living and working and moving about inside of.

[0:10:19]
Bill Loveless:  I guess, I mean, as you as you say, the lines of distinction between the three sectors are really blurring.

[0:10:24]
Roger Duncan:  Yes, yes, very much so.

[0:10:27]
Bill Loveless:  And, and it also comes as we’re simply seeing changes, especially with the pandemic now, and the way that we live. And I don't know if this book was, was written by and large before the pandemic struck, but and it comes at a time now, where we see ourselves increasingly, the electricity consumption now is shifting, you know, from the workplace to home, as we all work, or many of us work from home now, rather than in an office. What has been the impact of COVID on your way of thinking now that you've completed the book?

[0:11:08]
Roger Duncan:  Well, there's been several impacts. And we stated in the very beginning of the book that, you know, we published it right as COVID struck. So, a lot of the things in the book are going to be delayed or changed as a result of it. But as you point out, the electricity usage is changing as more people are working from home now and consumption patterns. Electric vehicles, I think and purchase had a short-term impact, but the longer-term impact is very positive. We've seen a tremendous drop in gasoline consumption and oil consumption around the world. And I think that in the book, we talked about how oil demand was going to peak in a few years. And I think that date has been moved up significantly now, because of the pandemic.

[0:12:04]
Bill Loveless:  Right. And even as we speak, we're seeing headlines that indicate the commitments to electric vehicles by automakers are increasing even as the actual you know, the extent to which electric vehicles make up part of the vehicle market is still relatively small. General Motors, for example, announced to what $2 billion I think it was to upgrade a factory in Tennessee, and there was even, you know, they were even advertising in an all-electric Hummer.

[0:12:34]
Roger Duncan:  It's more extreme than that even in Europe. I think Volkswagen made an $80 billion commitment to electric vehicles over five years. So, these are big numbers. And I would say that COVID certainly affected transportation versus electricity, all the things you just said people cut their commute, jet fuel demand went down. But electricity demand only dropped a couple percent, mostly from turned off factories. But because we're at home in our home heaters, and home air conditioners tend to be less efficient than our work, it actually drives up some of the demand. So the power sector mostly was resilient to a lot of these changes. But it has reopened people's eyes about the need or not to commute. The other thing that's happening is I guess my big question is, does COVID slow down or accelerate some of the clean energy transition that's underway. And you could say it's going to slow things down, because now we feel broke and we have to spend the money on economic recovery and other public health studies. And so, we have less money, therefore, the transition occurs more slowly. You could say we'll speed it up, because it might accelerate some of these behavioral changes that were already happening. And also, in places like Europe, where it's a green recovery, as a part of the economic bailout from the country of France, for example, to car makers, like Cujo is a requirement to make electric vehicles or for Air France, it's to come up with e-fuels or fuel substitutes or electrifying some way. So, some of the recovery funds might have strings attached to accelerate the transition. An overall feeling that the economy is down and we're broke might slow it down. But I think in the end, it might actually accelerate the transition, because of the behavioral changes that are coupled with it.

[0:14:04]
Bill Loveless:  And one of the things that may be accelerated is robotics. Because we've seen more of a push toward automation, robotic delivery services, and so forth, which can generally be more efficient than some of the institutions we have in place.

[0:14:22]
Roger Duncan:  And more sterile, more hygienic. And so you're looking already at mini robotic forklifts in like a, not 7-Eleven, but convenience stores to do the reloading of the shelves because the robots not likely to be a carrier of COVID. And so public health reasons might drive the adoption of robotics. And that will create new electric loads, by the way, which is very interesting.

[00:14:41]
Bill Loveless:  So, you think that the automation in transportation will continue to take place at a faster pace than it is in buildings and the power sector?

[0:14:51]
Roger Duncan:  Yes, I think that autonomous vehicles and automation in general in the transportation sector will definitely speed up as a result of this.

[0:15:00]
Michael Webber:  The thing we didn't write about much, but I wish we had written more about, I think about a lot with electric transportation is the rise of e-bikes and e-scooters, two-wheeled electric transportation, because these cost a couple thousand dollars apiece instead of a couple tens of thousands of dollars, and they meet a lot of mobility needs for a lot of people. And they reduce congestion, air pollution and noise on city streets. And there are cities like Paris, which announced I want to say today or yesterday, were moving 70,000 parking spaces to make it harder for cars to come in the city, but to make it easier for bikes and scooters, and people walking and that kind of thing. And so electrified transportation might grow faster than we think, but not quite in the form that of Tesla. It might be these smaller, cheaper mobility platforms. And that will be sort of fascinating how that changes things.

[0:15:48]
Bill Loveless:  The bigger challenge though, is going to be the big transport, right? The transportation, you need to move, you know, cargo, planes, ships, that sort of thing. That's, that's a tough nut to crack.

[0:16:01]
Roger Duncan:  Yes, definitely. So, the general sectors of aviation and shipping in particular are going to be very difficult to wean off of petroleum. I do think that we're going to see some electric aircraft pretty soon, but they're going to be the short-range variety, regional hybrid aviation. But replacing the large commercial aircraft, and particularly maritime shipping, it is just very difficult to find a sustainable alternative to the very cheap diesel engines and bunker food fuel that it's operating on currently.

[0:16:39]
Michael Webber:  So maybe those ships might use ammonia or some sort of hydrogen carrier like that, that has the good energy density in liquid form. So it's easy to store. The Long-Haul heavier aviation needs fuels, I think, much more than electricity. And so maybe those are e-fuels, these fuels that are synthesize like jet fuel or kerosene synthesized from hydrogen. We actually have a collaboration of France with Airbus and Air France and the airports of Paris and some engine makers to look at these e-fuel. 

So the fuel is not electricity, but electricity is used to fabricate the fuel. And I think that might be a way to go. And these electric aircraft, the smaller ones for regional aircraft are interesting, because for just a couple hundred miles, they'll be fine. It's really the longer haul aircraft that have more difficulty with electricity. And they have other advantages, which is the electric planes are actually quieter. So they can take off and land at later or earlier hours in the morning, which are often limited for noise ordinances, which you have from the jet fuel jet engines. But with electric motors, it might be much quieter. So there actually might be some other performance advantages to electric aircraft. And that expands your operational range in time.

[0:17:44]
Bill Loveless:  You know, talk a little bit about buildings, we hear a lot about zero energy buildings these days, and you say it's a rather amorphous term with a number of definitions. You suggest it's more important to think about net zero carbon buildings. Why is that?

[0:18:03]
Roger Duncan:  Well, first of all zero energy buildings are a wonderful development. And I think we will see a lot of zero energy buildings, particularly single-family homes and small commercial businesses and such. But it's extremely difficult in a dense urban setting to take high rises and make them zero energy buildings technically, where they just use the sunlight and wind and so forth that impact the building. But they can be net zero carbon buildings, because once we get our electric grid cleaned up and operating off renewable energy, we can provide 100% clean renewable energy to urban skyscrapers. But they will technically be net zero carbon buildings and not net zero energy buildings from onsite energy.

[0:18:56]
Michael Webber:  And I think those high rises achieve other important energy efficiency accomplishments, because they improve density, which means people are closer to work or closer to the store and don't have to commute as much. So, there's a lot of energy reasons why you want that kind of density, even if makes it hard or impossible for that individual building to be zero energy. It's still positive energy, but might still be very clean if you power it the right way. So, I think that's important. There are also some other things to consider for a house. I'm thinking of Roger’s house where he's sitting now, he's in sunny, Texas, and it's hot. He has big trees over his house. And those trees provide a lot of shade. And that shade is actually pretty valuable. And to make it zero energy, you might think about like cutting down the trees and adding solar panels to provide cooling. Well, it's better to have the trees do the cooling. So sometimes we should focus more on what we really want from the performance of the building in the carbon footprint rather than just the energy footprint?

[0:19:47]
Bill Loveless:  You know, policy, you know, of course, we’re the Center on Global Energy Policy, we focus on the policy considerations. You refer to Alvin Toffler and his conclusion that technological change moves fastest while political and policy change moves slower, and the legal system slowest of all, and you add that decision making in government and the legal system seems to be slowing. How can this mismatch inhibit progress?

[0:20:17]
Roger Duncan:  Oh, I wish I had the answer to that.

[0:20:20]
Bill Loveless:  You were once a policymaker.

[0:20:22]
Roger Duncan:  Yes, it is a real problem. And as we get more complex in our decision-making process, we've got to find ways to, to speed up that decision making and we tried at the City of Austin, for instance, in green building programs and so forth, to give a special expedited review processes for environmentally sensitive projects. And we've tried other mechanisms to take the higher policy goals related to climate change, for instance, and give them an advantage in the speed of the decision making. And we need to do the same thing for the legal process. We simply do not have the luxury to take years and sometimes decades to make final decisions on the technology changes that we need to implement to meet the problems we have today.

[0:21:21]
Michael Webber:  This mismatch I think is a pretty fundamental challenge for the energy sector. So, we make decisions in the corporate world driven by a quarterly rhythm of reporting our public results to shareholders. And then political decisions are usually on a two-year rhythm of a new Congress every two years. So we have anywhere from three months to two years driving our decision cycles, but the assets live anywhere from 20 to 100 years. Well, just a car last 10 years, solar farm 20 years, wind farm 25 years, natural gas plant 40 years, nukes 60 years, dams 100 years.

And then climate change has its impacts for centuries. So we have long lived environmental impacts and long lived assets, but a short decision timeframe. And this mismatch is quite difficult, because if there's instability or volatility in the policy scene, meaning if our mood is changing from the policy perspective, every two years based on who's elected, that unstable environment makes it harder for industry to make big decisions that last 40 years, because the decisions might change a lot. So one thing was might want to speed up the rate at which we make decisions. 

But I would also suggest that making decisions more stable would be helpful, even if it's a bad environment for business, but it's stable. Business can accommodate in different ways, but if it's changing all the time that's really difficult. So, I don't know how we do that. Now, there's also some advantage in that decision making kind of slow or weak as a result. So President Trump came in, and part of his campaign pledge in 2016 was he was going to save coal. This was a very important part of his platform. And because of the way the decisions are made so slowly and because he had limited tools, he actually could not save coal, coal shutdowns have accelerated under President Trump compared to President Obama. And I think for the most part, this has been good economically and environmentally for the United States to replace it with gas, efficiency, wind and solar. So sometimes the slow decision making really works against you when you're trying to accelerate a transition, but sometimes it works for you, when it might slow down a bad decision as well.

[0:23:19]
Bill Loveless:  Well, you talk too about the, you appear somewhat cautious too in discussing setting energy goals, for example, renewable energy goals and policymakers do tend to set goals like that states have costs across the United States have adopted renewable portfolio standards. You know, Vice President Biden, his campaign has goals for renewable energy and net zero energy and carbon free electricity by 2035, what is your thinking on setting these goals? What makes sense when you when you go about doing that? And where do you perhaps need some, some flexibility?

[0:25:19]
Michael Webber:  Maybe I'll go first real quick, Roger, then you can correct anything I say that's silly. But I feel like government has an important role to set goals, but it's easy to set the wrong kinds of goals. And generally speaking is my philosophy. So I don't know if Roger really agrees, but I think that when the government specifies a particular technology or price for energy, it's usually less effective and it's better for the government to set a performance standard, meaning there's a standard where the pollution must be below the standard or the safety must be above that standard. Reliability must be above that standard, that kind of thing. If the government sets the standard, then the markets can figure out how to comply with that standard. I think that's better than the government say you can't use this or you must use that. So these prohibitions or mandates can work against us.

The recent mandates for the government have been around corn for ethanol, and this is very complicated environmentally and economically to mandate we must use corn for ethanol. In 1978, with the Industrial Fuel Use Act, the government prohibited the use of natural gas for power plants for new build and so we built a lot of coal instead. So in that case, the prohibition of gas made our power mix dirtier. And in this case, the mandate for corn ethanol has all sorts of land and water use impacts. It'd be better just to say, make sure the grid is clean, averaged across the fleet of power plants you own or whatever your right boundary is for jurisdiction, and we don't care how you do it, you figure it out.

And then industry will try to do it in a cheap way. And if it wants to use fossil fuels with carbon capture, or whatever to get to that particular carbon standard and it can do that more cheaply than with other sources. I'm okay with that as long as it meets the cleanliness standard. So that's my preference for how policy should engage rather than specifying or prohibiting what we can or can't do. I think it just ends up having better longevity and more efficiency in the markets.

[0:25:45]
Roger Duncan:  I certainly agree with that. I think that performance standards are a better approach than trying to pick a particular technology. I think the important thing, however, is what are the principles involved overall, in setting the policy and setting the performance standards. And one of the things we advocate for in the book is an attitude or a principle of -- in addressing climate change, are what are the decisions or technologies that reduce the most greenhouse gases in the shortest amount of time, at the least cost. And those technologies may be different in different situations. You've got to look at each regional areas energy needs and resources and such to make that determination. But it focuses a lot on what your carbon return on investment that you get from a particular technology in this decision-making process. And it puts a more urgency on the matter of what can you do with your current resources financially, and in the time that we have, rather than mandating a particular technology nationwide, to be implemented.

[0:27:05]
Bill Loveless:  And you make that point too in the book that the best energy solutions are regional ones, that what flies in Austin doesn't necessarily fly in Cleveland or Seattle?

[0:27:14]
Roger Duncan:  That's correct.

[0:27:15]
Roger Duncan:  Yeah, I think of like Norway with their abundant hydro resource, and Iceland with their abundant geothermal, Arizona with sun, West Texas with wind and sun, Florida has a lot of sun, but not much wind. And so it'd be weird to have a wind mandate for Florida, this kind of thing. So really thinking about the regional appropriateness of the resource will make a big difference.

[0:27:34]
Bill Loveless:  And I'm thinking if you're -- another term, we hear a lot about is smart cities, and Roger, your city, Boston sounds like a pretty smart city. But I guess it has different meanings for different people as we look to the future. I just wonder, if you're a municipal leader these days, if even as you invest in a smart city, you're also going in a smart city, you're also going to invest to some extent in some dumb technology just to make sure things are flowing, like water and power and other stuff all the time.

[0:28:06]
Roger Duncan:  You know, I learned a lot of lessons as a City Council Member and working on municipal policy and trying to be on the cutting edge of technology at the same time. And I learned that the cutting edge means that you bleed sometimes. And particularly with basic fundamental resources, like water purification and picking up the garbage and so forth, you want to have systems in place that work when the electricity goes out, because it's going to go out from time to time. And as we get more automated and more complexity, involved in our computer systems, and sensors, and so forth, the consequences will be greater when you have those sensors fail or the electricity goes out, and so forth. And so, you've got to sort of balanced, the smart and the dumb to make sure you don't have tragic consequences. When the smart system fails, which at some point, it will at sometimes.

[0:29:11]
Bill Loveless:  You know, jobs is another big issue, Michael, and you note in the book that you know, workers who are displaced by automation are not usually the ones who get new jobs arising from automation. And if the pace of automation is accelerating, then job retraining becomes difficult and an aging population. You don't seem to have any particular solutions here, other than to say it's in the best interest of society to start addressing this issue immediately.

[0:29:41]
Michael Webber:  I think the social justice issues around energy transition are very important and people don't give them enough credence. And let me give the example just for coal mining, coal mining. Coming back to the campaign platform 2016, the lost coal mining jobs was a big part of President Trump's victory. And part of that is sort of war on coal by wind and solar and that kind of thing, although really the war coal might have been from natural gas, unstated was the real war on coal mining jobs was automation, that a coal miner with a large machine can do the work of many men without the machines. And automation has been a story of coal mining, really, since 1927, which is when coal employment peaked in United States at over 800,000 employees.

And now we're down to about 40,000 or something like that. So, coal mine has been losing employment for almost 100 years, primarily from automation, primarily from mechanization and machines. So this is a long story. Again, those coal mining jobs just disappear. It's not like they come back somewhere else. And coal miners maybe can be retrained for other jobs. But a lot of people like to live where they like to live. They live in a certain place and those are the jobs there. If those jobs disappear, people don't like to pick up and move, it seems like demographically, Americans move less today than we did for decades. So in the 40s, we moved much more. We're less mobile as a population; I think primarily by preference, we have more ability to move. And so this is a challenge because those jobs are created.

They're a different skill set. But importantly, they're in a different location. And so we need more labor mobility to get from place to place, but also labor flexibility with new skill sets. And I think this shows up with higher education, think of like what Columbia does, or what we do at the University of Texas, there's a constant battle at the universities, about whether our job is to educate students or train them. And there's a subtle difference. If we're training them, we're training them for a particular job or career. But if we're educating them, we're teaching them how to learn. And I think that as we train students for careers, and then those careers disappear, 20 years later, those students might not be prepared for what's next. But if we educate them on how to learn, then perhaps there'll be more resilience built into the system. So this is my own criticism about higher education that maybe it's time to get back to education and not to training, and they do the training on the job or something. I don't know, but there's some broader issue here, society wide we need to tackle.

[0:32:00]
Bill Loveless:  That's an interesting point. Is it fair to say each of you are optimists, when you look at all of these issues?

[0:32:06]
Roger Duncan:  I try to be a reasonable optimist. [Laughter].

[0:32:10]
Michael Webber:  I am optimistic. So, I think that I think the challenges are bigger than we admit. But I also think the solutions exist in greater abundance than we realize. And so if we open up our minds to them, and we start to implement them, they'll be incorporated at scale. And we'll get there. I feel like we'll get there. But part of that is I'm an engineer and engineers are by definition, problem solvers. And to solve a problem, you first must believe the problem can be solved. And so we have to have an optimism that problems can be solved, otherwise, we won't have jobs for ourselves. So it's built into my job description to be an optimist, at least a little bit.

[0:32:42]
Bill Loveless:  Well, this has been an interesting discussion, Roger and Michael, and one that reminds me of a comment by Mahatma Gandhi that the future depends on what you do today. And thanks for explaining some of the options that we have at our disposal.

[0:32:59]
Roger Duncan:  Thank you very much for having us.

[0:33:00]
Michael Webber:  My pleasure. It's always fun to talk about the future. Thanks, Bill.

[0:33:03]
Bill Loveless:  For more on Columbia Energy Exchange and The Center on Global Energy Policy, find us on the web at energypolicy.columbia.edu. And on social media @columbiauenergy. And when you have a moment, give us a rating on your favorite podcast platform. It helps us continue to grow. For Columbia Energy Exchange. I'm Bill Loveless. We'll be back again next week with another conversation.