By Melissa J. Anderson

On Tuesday, the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future held its summer roundtable event at Pfizer’s corporate headquarters in New York City. The discussion, entitled “The Energy Question: Crises, Costs—and Alternatives” explored the energy situation from a variety of different angles: jobs, costs, consumers, investment, and politics.

Moderated by Dr. Ann Goodman, WNSF’s Founder and new Strategic Director, the panel included Andrew Aulisi, Director, Sustainability Affairs-Americas, Credit Suisse; Michal Pelzig, Manager, Reporting, Hess; Supria Ranade, Vice President, Renewable Energy Markets, Evolution Markets; and Christina Coltro, Manager of Residential Energy Efficiency, Con Edison.

On the question of energy efficiency, Goodman said, “This topic could hardly be timelier, on a hot summer day.” She explained how the government recently announced the release of 60 million barrels of oil from the strategic oil reserve, and highlighted the recent Japanese nuclear disaster as well as recent mining crises and oil spills. All of these factors are combining to raise energy costs – but will this make sustainable alternatives more attractive?

Sustainability: A Dynamic Industry

Opening the event, Marty Brown, Director, Energy & Climate Change Program at Pfizer, discussed the draw of working in the sustainability field. He said, “I’ve been with the company for seven years and no two days are alike. It’s an interesting and challenging area to work in.”

He explained that the convergence of politics, incentives and pricing, and new technology make the field dynamic.

“It’s a truly remarkable area to work in and these are remarkable times.”

Through a combination of goal setting, regulatory reporting, explaining the business case, and incentivizing, Brown said, the company has made big strides in the sustainability. He explained that Pfizer has committed to a 20 percent reduction in green house gasses between 2008 and 2010. Additionally, he said, the company had been named First in the US and Fourth globally in the pharmaceuticals industry on the 2010 Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index.

Impact on Clients

Aulisi explained that while Credit Suisse has engaged in several internal sustainability measures, the topic has has the biggest impact on the bank’s clients. He said, “As a bank of 50,000 employees globally we have a lot of office space and we travel a lot – so we have a footprint. That means energy, paper, and water.”

He continued, “But the bigger picture for us is how it affects our clients.”

That includes, Aulisi said, risk management, working with business to promote investment in green products and services, and stakeholder engagement.

Challenges for Renewable Energy Industry

Additionally, he said, “Energy demand is increasing significantly due to urbanization and wealth is also increasing.” He pointed out that wealth is more important in predicting increased consumption of energy than population size.”

He said that conventional energy would likely remain the most popular form of energy for the time being. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing a dramatic shift over night. We need to make the conventional stuff cleaner, and we need to invest in new technologies.”

At the same time, Ranade said, “We see challenges to renewable energy in several categories.” Mainly, she explained, there is a lot of political uncertainty surrounding legislation and incentives. “State driven markets are the real promise to the renewable industry as a whole.”

She explained that currently sustainable energy currently costs $4 per watt to install while traditional energy costs about $2 per watt. In order for sustainable energy to be viable, she explained, state and federal green infrastructure investments would have to continue.

Pelzig agreed. Currently the biggest challenge facing renewable energy is, “infrastructure – how to get power from where it’s generated to where the consumer wants it.”

Many of the challenges facing the industry are related to its relative youth, and according to Ranade, upfront infrastructural costs may impede its growth without state or federal subsidies. Given the challenges facing the industry, where should green energy job seekers focus their searches?