Alum Talks Changing Environmental Markets


Frederick Weston ’79 came to speak at Middlebury on Thursday, March 1 in the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest. In his speech, entitled “Decarbonizing an Economy: Electricity, Coal, and the Threat of a Good Example,” Weston discussed topics ranging from his career and his time at Middlebury to more serious topics, such as what he sees as the most significant hindrances to the global adoption of renewable energy.

After graduating from Middlebury with  a B.A. in theatre, Weston decided to change paths and enter the world of consulting, working for the American International Group with a focus on the Arabian oil business. After several years there and realizing that there were many issues within the United States yet to be addressed, Weston decided to face domestic environmental problems head-on by working for the Vermont Public Service Board in regulating utilities. In 1999 he joined the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), where he still works today as the director of their China Program. Weston has dedicated his life’s work to creating more efficient and cleaner ways to produce and share energy.

Weston framed his talk around the fact that energy is the cause of and solution to all the world’s environmental problems, going at this idea from several sides of the issue. Weston believes we need to “decarbonize electricity, then electrify industry, transportation and buildings.” With the current technology, changing our energy systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy would be possible and relatively quick. The costs of renewable energy are getting lower, and thus more competitive with the cost of fossil fuels as technology improves. Electric power is getting cleaner and clean cars are getting more accessible and widespread.

Yet many obstacles stand in our way of transitioning to renewable energy, many of which trace back to money, which Weston outlined in his talk. Weston believes we must rearrange our economy so that people, both users and producers, are rewarded and make money by doing the right thing. Some of the more surface-level suggestions Weston proposed are investing in energy efficiency, redesigning wholesale markets to encourage buyers, using electricity more efficiently to use less energy, tracking the demands of energy users and responding economically to change pricing.

More foundational changes that Weston proposed concern mostly policy changes that need to come from coordinated efforts from government officials and energy companies. Two of the most common ways for the government to regulate corporate energy use and climate effects are “cap and trade” (or cap and invest) and “pollution pricing.” “Cap and trade” penalizes companies that exceed a limit on greenhouse gas emissions decided by scientists. Companies that emit less than their limit can then trade (or invest) their extra emissions to other companies, therefore rewarding companies that emit less. The caps on emissions are currently going down, encouraging a reduction in emissions on a broad scale. “Pollution pricing,” similar to a carbon tax, also puts a limit on emissions, but companies that over pollute must pay fines. Weston emphasized the need to reinvest income into renewable energy. Companies could put the money they make from shares of emissions into renewable energy research rather than selling their shares.

Weston concluded his talk by discussing the example set by China, which has issues with air pollution and premature deaths due to climate change and fossil fuel emissions. Like China has done, Weston believes, the United States should introduce a wide-scale limit on carbon emissions, reduce the use of coal in our industries and economy and increase energy efficiency. In Weston’s opinion, this all can be achieved without dislocation in the economy. Good policy and good markets designed to drive results and reward low carbon usage will help us avoid depletion of our natural resources and further harm to our environment.