November 13, 2015

The 11th annual Columbia University Energy Symposium was, in the words of Professor Travis Bradford, “a new and different kind of event.”

Bradford, who is the director of the Energy and Environment concentration at SIPA, welcomed 269 students and 145 professionals to Columbia University’s campus on November 5 and 6 for discussion of the future of the energy field. Focused on the theme of “Synergy in Energy,” the symposium sought to illustrate how leaders in the field are making a difference and what current students can expect as they prepare to enter (or return to) the professional arena.

Read more at the 2015 Energy Symposium website

This year’s symposium featured not only a day-long conference as in previous years, but also—for the first time—an additional day devoted to student-oriented events including a case study competition, a clean tech showcase, and a career fair.

“Instead of just the conference day, we now have a lot more for students to work on the things they want to work on,” Bradford said.

One such student is Joel Smith MPA ’16, who helped organize the landmark symposium as a leader of the SIPA Energy Association (SEA), a student-run group. SEA joined with counterparts at Columbia’s law, business, and engineering schools in planning and running the event.

“Building on the success of previous years, we as the organizing team shaped this year's symposium as a forum for young energy professionals, organized by young energy professionals, intent on tackling the biggest issues spanning the sector,” Smith said.

The energy career fair was the first of its kind for the symposium and featured 16 recruiters representing a broad section of the energy sector—including Shell, NYSERDA, Level Solar, Engility, and Argus Media. Students had the opportunity to sit down with employers to learn about what their needs are and see where the field is going.

“A coffee chat helped me speak one-on-one with a manager at a leading company in my sector, while the career fair helped me discover energy consulting opportunities within NYC,” said William Hernandez MIA ’16. “Given this beneficial experience, I am more informed and better connected to secure my next career endeavor.”

The case competition, sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton, featured seven teams from Columbia University, Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth University, and Yale University. Each team was given a detailed and complex case to analyze and respond to. Cornell’s team won the competition, with teams from Penn and Columbia finishing in second and third places, respectively.

The showcase also put the spotlight on startups’ innovations, giving students the opportunity to network with entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their ideas.

Twenty startups and five incubators participated in the showcase and a pair of pitch competitions. The winner of the early pitch competition was Jason Bylsma, co-founder of MultiSensor Scientific, which develops a multi-spectral infrared imaging system for detection, visualization and measurement of methane leaks throughout natural gas infrastructure. The winner of the intermediate pitch competition was Jeffrey Hoffman, co-founder of MOVE Systems, which seeks to provide safe, clean, and advanced solutions for the mobile food industry to vendors, municipalities, and consumers around the world.

The symposium’s second day featured a full slate of panels, with 32 speakers discussing all kinds of energy systems, including capital market dynamics, utility transformation, and the future of oil and gas markets.

“No one discipline has all the answers to solving our energy challenges,” said Bradford in his opening remarks, underscoring the value of bringing together professionals and students from a variety of backgrounds to discuss energy issues.

Opening keynote remarks were made by Erika Karp and John KS Wilson, both Columbia University graduates, who focused on the impact that sustainable investment can have on the future of energy sustainability. Karp said that investors need to put pressure on investment banks to look at social and sustainable investment to ensure that the money is going in the right direction.

“Now is the perfect time,” she said. “We need to transform the global economy… The $400-500 billion we’ve invested in sustainable energy is not enough—we need to be in the trillions.”

Wilson said that several years ago, sustainable investment was not on the map.

“Now things have changed,” he said, “We can’t ignore these issues. The question isn’t whether sustainability matters, but how it matters.”

Wilson also noted that we are currently in a transitional stage because of technological and policy changes that  have resulted in a level of uncertainty in the energy industry. Low prices in the oil and gas and electricity industries, coupled with increases in renewables have left the markets unstable.

“It’s hard to see how this will play out,” said Wilson.

Karp followed up with a call to take vigorous action in response to the growing need and concern around sustainability in energy.

“We know what we have to do, but it is not easy,” she said. “There will not be defeat in terms of transforming the global economy.”

The symposium repeatedly emphasized the role of students as integral players in solving our world’s most pressing energy questions.

“You all are tomorrow’s energy leaders,” said Bradford at the symposium’s outset. “We count on you because the energy challenges that we face are really grave and the opportunities they present are really great. We believe that you can not only solve these energy challenges but solve way beyond any expectations we have.”

Looking back a few days after the symposium, Bradford praised students for their efforts organizing the event.

“We’re trying to create an event by the students, for the students, and about the students,” he said. “It was an unbelievable amount of work that went into this.”

“Delivering this event and engaging the tremendous speakers, recruiters, and attendees was a hugely rewarding experience,” said Smith.

— Kristen Grennan MPA ’16

Read more at the 2015 Energy Symposium website