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The Future of Clean Energy Meets in San Francisco This Week

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Spanish energy company Abengoa in 2007 built the first two solar power towers in the world to commercially generate electricity and deliver it to the power grid.Photograph by Cristina Quicler — AFP/Getty Images

The world’s clean energy leaders have descended on the Bay Area this week to meet for the first time following the historic climate change agreements that happened in Paris last December.

The idea of the week of meetings, discussions, and talks is to get a clearer picture of just how countries around the world will be able to achieve some of those ambitious goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Amidst the international focus, local leaders, like California Governor Jerry Brown, will discuss state and city plans to boost clean energy and lower carbon emissions. California investors, like Tom Steyer, are using the opportunity to discuss the role of the private sector in backing new energy technologies. Representatives from the group of billionaires, organized by Bill Gates, called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, will be in town meeting with policy makers, entrepreneurs, and partners.

Expect to see thousands of policy makers, energy tech execs, investors, and even the general public, hanging out in downtown San Francisco and checking out exhibits from 95 companies showing off the latest in solar panels, electric cars, and efficient energy tech. The “showcase,” situated in San Francisco’s Union Square, will open to the general public on Thursday.

Aerial Views Of San Francisco
The north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge is seen surrounded by fog.Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images
Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

Behind closed doors, the world’s Energy Ministers, who are responsible for pushing their countries toward the Paris goals, will meet and discuss solutions and problems.

Each country—depending on their natural energy resources, locations worldwide, and stages of economic development—will look to a different set of energy technologies to potentially meet their commitments. While one country might have ample sun and flat remote regions upon which to build solar farms, another country might have windy areas like valleys that could benefit from wind turbines. Other countries could be interested in expanding technology that can capture the carbon emissions from coal plants.

On the sidelines of a kick-off event focused on women in clean energy at Stanford University on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Fortune that he was “optimistic that the ground work has been laid,” for a bipartisan support for supporting innovation in the energy sector. However, to reach the desired goal for the U.S. government to double its energy research and development budget, Moniz said, “We’re going to now have to pick up the pace in the coming years.”

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Moniz will act as a sort of emcee on Thursday for the only day of open talks and discussions. The Department of Energy is also seeking to develop the annual event, called the Clean Energy Ministerial, so that it isn’t led entirely by the U.S. and hopefully gains importance in the wake of the Paris talks. Next year, the event will be held in China. But this week, there will be more structural and institutional changes announced about future meetings.

There are both headwinds and tailwinds for the major energy meetings that will unfold in the Bay Area this week. Deployment of clean energy projects, like wind and solar farms, smashed all previous records globally last year, according to a recent report. Companies around the world are making money off of clean energy like never before; the largest IPO this year could be from a Danish wind company.

“It’s a fact that this market is going to develop and we should focus on elevating our activities in the innovation space for those economic reasons in addition to addressing our climate and energy security concerns,” said Moniz. “We are going to see multi-trillion dollar markets developing quite robustly,” he said.

At the same time, the U.S. is facing policy uncertainty in a presidential election year. The Obama administration has eight months left in office, and last week, Republican candidate Donald Trump said he would “cancel” the Paris climate deal.

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How Trump would actually be able to do that is unclear. But that factions of the U.S. are still conflicted over meeting with these international commitments is no doubt worrisome for attendees of the event this week.

Moniz declined to comment on Trump’s statement to cancel the Paris accord, but he said that “there is a certain stability to what we’ve put in place” around energy policy under the Obama administration. Whoever is elected President can’t just snap their fingers and put new policies in place; there’s a long formal process with public engagement, said Moniz.

The argument that the U.S. should support clean energy because the country will benefit economically from it is something that is hard for both Republicans and Democrats to dismiss. The Clean Energy Ministerial, now in its seventh year, has a large focus on how the private sector can work with the government to boost energy innovation as well as help support new energy technologies and companies.

The Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which was announced at the Paris event last December, has pledged to invest billions into breakthrough energy technologies. These investors are committed to being patient and waiting the many years it takes for clean energy technologies to mature.

Moniz said he thinks there’s a better understanding of how to invest in new clean energy technologies today compared to the first round of energy investing out of Silicon Valley years ago, which he called “Energy 1.0.” Many of those investors like Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures lost millions on energy deals.