Alec Ross' Sustainable Energy network

After ports, railroads and highways, driving the next epochal change will be clean energy network.

by Davide Perillo
08 February 2021
11 min read
by Davide Perillo
08 February 2021
11 min read

So, why did you return to Italy? “I have an Italian soul. I wanted my children to have the experience of living abroad, and here there’s a unique ability to combine humanism and technological talent, roots and future".

An American a bit Italian

Alec Ross, 49, an American from Charleston, West Virginia, has been a visiting professor at the Bologna Business School for a few months. He has family ties to the Abruzzi region, and his path has crossed our country several times in the past. He spent a year here with his grandparents as a child, and another as a student of medieval history in Bologna. He then returned to become, in order: hi-tech entrepreneur, advisor for innovation to Barack Obama, and advisor to Hillary Clinton (then Secretary of State) on the same issues. He is the author of a global bestseller, including The Industries of the Future, released in 2016, but worth re-reading now for the clarity that he uses to talk about big data, artificial intelligence, changing work and new geopolitics.

Energy and sustainability are themes that pop up throughout the book, although they don’t have a dedicated chapter. "But they’ll be very present in the next book, which I’ve almost finished". The title is The Raging 2020s. “It’s about the social contract, the relationship between governments, companies and citizens that needs to be rewritten. Many of the problems that we’ll face in the near future don’t pertain to just one thing –they require a shared approach. It becomes difficult to manage them if the balance between these three groups is lacking, and we have indeed lost it. We to start working together again”.

Q: Why is energy a challenge for all three parties?

A: We have to ensure that global development focuses on sustainable energies, there’s no doubt about that. To get there you need investments worth billions you can't just launch a small programme here, another one there. We need joint projects and heaps of money. Both to create clean energy production centres and to modernise its distribution, which is equally important. It’s up to governments they must invest hundreds of billions to create twenty-first century energy grids.

Investing in clean energy is the best thing we can do for everyone, whether for companies, governments or citizens.

Alec Ross

Q: Yet not everyone seems to be aware of this; the US, for example, could have perhaps done more, even before Donald Trump...

A: The US has not assumed leadership in the field of clean energy, especially since many people still don’t recognise the effects of climate change. They don’t seem as serious to them as those from the economic crisis. It’s true that there’s a lot of division on climate in the US. Europeans have a more advanced way of dealing with it, whereas we have politicised it a lot. We need to redesign the way we think about it from the ground up. And this is impossible if you stick with an us versus them mindset. It’s a false dichotomy. Investing in clean energy is the best thing we can do for everyone, whether for companies, governments or citizens.

Q: Why?

A: It's like how we built motor-ways over the last century –if you improve trade and facilitate the movement of people, you’re modernising the economy. We did this in the eighteenth century by investing in ports, which made it possible to move goods and people around the world and laid the foundations for globalisation. Then with railways in the nineteenth century, we did the same thing. In the twentieth century, motor-way networks arrived. Now we have data and energy. We have to build the infrastructure needed to distribute clean energy everywhere. Sure, it costs a lot. But over the medium to long term, it will pay out significantly.

Q: You recently tweeted “Being ‘pro-business’ or ‘pro-environment’ is a false choice. What's good for the environment is good for business”.

A: Exactly. Look at Italy today. The high temperatures in Sicily are the same as what was seen in North Africa 10-15 years ago. Rome has the same climate now that Sicily had then. Lombardy now has the same temperatures that Rome had before. It’s a matter of fact, and the effect on the economy is significant across all sectors. Some time ago I was talking to Rossana Gaja, the daughter of Angelo Gala, one of the major wine producers in Piedmont. I asked her what the biggest difference between her job and her father's was. Her answer was clear: climate change. It means dealing with new insects, other risks for the vines, different cultivation methods. In short, a huge impact. Clean energy is not just a vertical issue. It has involved all sectors.

Q: It’s clear that we’re not just talking about investments and laws, but about personal behaviours, as well. What does it take to help people change their habits?

A: That’s a difficult question, because there are so many variables. If you ask an American under 30 what their number one concern is, they’ll almost certainly answer climate change. Above that age, that’s not the case. It’s a question of generation, but also of education. The more educated someone is, the more important they’ll feel it is. The young people that we’ve educated have a sensitivity to this subject similar to that of Europeans, but there is a lot of work to do.

Q: At the end of your book, you say that the most important job to prepare us for the future is to be a parent. Or rather, to educate. When talking to your children, what points do you highlight to draw their attention to these topics?

A: I think there are two things to keep in mind. First: It's a vast topic. How do you make it understandable for kids? I have teenage children. Your behaviour has more of an impact than explanations. For example, we have an almost religious attitude toward waste sorting at home. We’re very careful not to waste. Nothing, not even time. And they see how you behave, how much certain things matter to you, even how you take out the garbage in the evening.

Environment is not one political party’s obsession, but something reasonable and necessary for our lives.

Alec Ross

Q: And the second thing?

A: Think about and discuss the effects of climate change together. You see the hurricanes and floods that increasingly hit even the United States, and you try to make them understand the connection between what’s happening and climate change. And, you know, they understand very well. If you only approach a topic from a scientific point of view, with theoretical explanations and so on, it doesn’t really work. But if you show them videos, with how it affects animals, they understand immediately.

Q: Let's go back to politics. In Trump's four years, the US has lost a lot of time on these issues. What will change with Biden? He announced that he would return to the Paris Agreement immediately, but what about after that?

A: Biden's policy will be very aggressive in this respect. Climate change is one of his administration’s three main themes, along with the response to Covid and the restoration of America's role in the world. It won’t be easy. On climate, the US has always followed a very gradual approach, taking small steps at a time. People didn’t feel urgency. And we did lose a lot of time, that’s true. Now we need drastic decisions, moving from small steps to a big leap. The president is aware of this. We'll see if they can do it.

Q: If you were one of his advisors, what is the first move you would recommend?

A: Invest. But he already knows this. He has a $1.9 trillion investment plan. He wants to immediately spend at least a trillion on infrastructure, to stimulate the economy. And 400-500 billion will be used to jumpstart the investments necessary for the Green New Deal, for the transition to new energies. These are high figures, but they’re essential to making the leap we were talking about. There are still a lot of people, like Mike Bloomberg or other Republicans, who believe that the Green New Deal is a fantasy, a kind of weird mania supported by a group of Democrats. But it’s actually completely rational. The most urgent thing, perhaps, is precisely that –to push it once and for all into common thought, to make it truly mainstream. To make everyone realise that the environment is not one political party’s obsession, but something reasonable and necessary for our lives. Take agriculture. It’s still incredibly important in the US. In the American heartland, entire sections of the population live off of it. But, no-one more than these people risks suffering from the effects of climate change. The people that should be most supportive of the Green New Deal are these people, Republican farmers of middle America.

Q: What is the role of oil companies in this move toward green energy?

A: They have an important task. But, here too, there are differences. When we talk about big oil, we’re talking about something very different, depending on whether we are referring to the US or Europe. Here, oil companies are energy companies – there is an evolution from oil to energy companies, from fossil extraction to the search for sustainable sources, at least for many of them. And that's a great thing. In the United States, this transition has been slower and in some cases non-existent. There are still traditional big oil proponents, people who say, “If the stuff down there isn't black, we don't want it." They want to find oil now, not make the future sustainable. Evolving would be the most natural thing in the world; it's innovation in production. But some companies just don't do it. It’s all about mentality. Such people remain anchored in what we call the Oklahoma and Texas culture.

Q: And how do you change mentality? Maybe it's the hardest job.

A: It’s difficult, of course, and it will take a long time. Honestly, I trust European energy companies more. Whether in Rome, Paris or elsewhere, they have a different culture. More progressive, less holding onto the past. They sell more than just energy.

Q: You travel a lot. Which countries or situations have had the most positive impact on you?

A: It’s not very original, but I'd say Scandinavia. And not only for their energy policies. They really changed their overall way of building, moving, and acting, in little bits at a time. And I'm not talking about elites. People have embraced the culture of change we’ve been talking about in their everyday lives. You can see it when you walk down the street. They’re one step ahead.

Q: What about Italy?

A: It has a great opportunity. You have excellent engineering know-how; there are tech geniuses here. The challenge is finding a way to leverage their knowledge to create large-scale business models. I hope that these experiences will become a part of global heritage as much as they can, and that Italy becomes increasingly capable of cultivating and sharing this kind of genius. The other thing is that if you look at the big energy companies here, they've already made this leap in mentality. For them, talking about sustainable development is not a matter of appearance, or a PR campaign. They really believe it. You can see it in how they act. And this gives me a lot of hope.