So many consumers. Could there be a silver lining?

Is there a positive side to consumption?

One of our Great Energy Challenge advisers, Dan Kammen, of the World Bank and UC Berkeley, raised that thought in a brainstorming session on questions to ask the panelists here at Aspen Environmental Forum 2011. The sessions are focused on the strain on the planet as population nears 7 billion.

I wasn’t sure I understood how consumption ever could be an advantage in the search for environmental solutions—but now that I was listening for it, I began hearing examples.

At a session on clean coal (entitled “Oxymoron or Salvation?”), Jim Rogers, the outspoken chief executive of Duke Energy, talked about his company’s two partnerships in China—with the nation’s largest utility, Huaneng Group, and with the private company, ENN Group. As I’ve heard Rogers say before, he believes that it is in China that the technology will be developed to make carbon capture work in electric power. With so many consumers and so much growing consumption, China is spurred to innovate to find a coal solution at large scale.

“They are scaling because they have an economic imperative to provide universal access to electricity,” Rogers said. “As a consequence, I believe they are creating what I would characterize as the intellectual property of scaling. That is probably a more powerful (intellectual property) than the technology itself.”

In the United States, Rogers said, we don’t feel that impetus; we already had our drive for innovation to provide universal access to electricity more than 50 years ago.

Another example is the work of MIT researcher Daniel Nocera, who has developed a technology for storing solar power using artificial photosynthesis. In our small group at dinner, he talked about how he was working to do the field testing in India. With 500 million people who still have no electricity, India has a huge market, need and opportunity to test and deploy this technology in the field.  (See Nocera’s work in a photo gallery on solar energy in National Geographic magazine.)

Of course, the breakthroughs that Nocera, Duke, or any other innovators realize in the testing ground of the developing world can be brought back to make life better and energy cleaner in the developed world. In that way, our lack of need is a kind of impoverishment. And that’s one way that for new technology development, consumption can be an advantage.

Changing Planet

Marianne Lavelle, energy editor for National Geographic Digital Media, has spent more than two decades covering environment, business, climate and policy in Washington, D.C. Previously, she spearheaded a project tracking climate change lobbying for the nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization The Center for Public Integrity. Before that, she was a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report magazine, where she wrote the Beyond the Barrel blog. Before joining U.S. News, she created a beat on federal regulation for The National Law Journal, and led a team of reporters in a series on environmental justice, “Unequal Protection," winner of the George Polk Award and numerous other honors.