I'm not one for travelogues, but my recent trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, opened my eyes to the energy challenges -- and opportunities -- in this nascent country.
For those of us who may have missed geography class that day, Slovakia became a country just 18 years ago. Before that, it was part of what we used to call Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 broke into two separate countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, is a quaint city on the banks of the Danube River, just an hour's drive from Vienna -- and close enough to Budapest and Prague to make me feel like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie. Albeit, without the Soviets. (And me, without a tux.)
I was a guest of U.S. Ambassador Theodore Sedgwick, President Obama's pick to represent the United States in Slovakia. Ambassador Sedgwick is passionate about his role and the opportunities that Slovakia and the U.S. have to forge strong cultural, political and industrial relations. Even though Slovakia is a small nation, the potential for U.S.-Slovak relations are dramatic.
Ambassador Sedgwick invited me to Slovakia as a representative of SmartPower, my stateside non-profit organization that promotes clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Ambassador -- like most everyone in Slovakia -- is painfully aware that nearly 100 percent of Slovakia's energy supply comes from Russian fossil fuels. If nothing else, this nation needs to diversify its energy supply.
To the Slovaks, the need to diversify has nothing to do with climate change or other types of altruism. It's simply a matter of common sense: being too reliant on one energy source, especially a foreign one -- as the U.S. knows too well -- is bad for both the economy and for national security. While in Bratislava, I met with a host of folks from government, industry and academia to begin a conversation on clean energy, energy efficiency and how Slovakia can become a world leader in these technologies.
To say the least, this will be a long process. Keep in mind this country is just 18 years old! When the United States was 18 years old, our list of priorities likely didn't include a need to reduce "phantom load" and an urgency to mitigate climate change. So too in Slovakia. They are focused immediately on keeping the lights on, building their government and unwinding decades of socialism. Don't get me wrong: this is really a thriving nation, with shops and restaurants, industry and tourism, cars and the Internet. But dismantling the effects of socialism is a long and complicated process. Consider that everything -- everything -- was once owned by the state. Reversing that does not happen overnight, and is still ongoing.
And so it will be with their energy security, too. Like many of its fellow European Union member states, Slovakia's population faces extremely high household energy costs. That's a huge amount and as a result energy costs are a huge driver in Slovakia. To that end, energy efficiency becomes a tremendous opportunity in this country. I'm looking forward to seeing the innovation that's around the corner.
Brian Keane is the President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.