Alternative Energy *
Author: William E. Halal and Laura Huhn
Latest Update: Jul 03rd, 2011
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There are signs that global oil production may be nearing its peak, at a time when developing nations are starting to use more oil and concern over environmental impacts is growing. Most agree this signals the end of a long era of carbon fuel dependency. Wind power is experiencing a surge of growth because it is now competitive to oil. Solar and biomass are gaining use with further development, and nuclear power is being reconsidered in some nations, while conservation and energy efficiency are growing. A hydrogen economy is possible, but hydrogen is merely a carrier rather than an energy source. All "alternative" sources now comprise about 17% of global energy use, and they are growing about 30% per year, backed by wide public suport and strong corporate investment. As oil prices continue to rise and the cost of alternatives continues to fall with further technical advances, it seems likely that carbon fuels will no longer be the main energy source in two to three decades. Arun Majumdar, Director of U.S. Advanced Research Projects Administration, posed the challenge: "Fossil fuels have long driven the engine of economic growth, and yet this dependence threatens national security, the environment, and climate change. Nations that use clean energy efficiently will lead the 21st century.”  TechCast sees 2023 +/- 5 years as the serious beginning of this transition period when 30% of all global energy is likely to be derived from alternative sources. 

Selected Adoption & Forecast Data
Present Status Carbon fuels presently supply 83% of all energy use, with the rest obtained from hydropower - 6%, biomass - 3%, nuclear - 6%, wind and solar - 2%. Therefore renewable energy (excluding nuclear) totals 11% and alternative energy is 17%. Hydropower is limited because most rivers are harnessed, but wind, solar, biomass, and nuclear are growing 30-50% per year. (Clean Energy Trends 2009)
Forecasts The U.S. Dept. of Energy says renewables will reach 28% by 2030. California, Hawaii, and other states aim to have 20% of energy from renewables by 2020. At the same time, the EU expects renewables to reach 22%, Britain expects to reach 35%, Sweden 50%, and China 16%. (Discover 12/06) 
Market Size Total energy costs in the U.S. are about $600 billion/year. The global market for renewable energy was $9.5 B in 2002, $12.9 B in 2003, and should reach $92 B in 2013. Another forecast call for $167 B by 2015. and yet another claims $325 B by 2019 (Clean Energy Trends 2009).

Event Being Forecast:

Alternatives to carbon-based fuel provide 30% of all energy used.

Forecast Data Analysis
    Mean Std Dev N (# Experts)
Most Likely Year 2023 6 108
Market Size (1-10) 7.0 1.9
Confidence (%) 69 12.5

In addition, 2 experts predicted that this event would never occur; mean confidence: 77%; std. dev.: 3.

Frequency Distributions
 Most Likely Year Market Size (1-10) Confidence (%)

PROS: Trends Driving this Event CONS: Obstacles Opposing this Event
OIL MAY PEAK SOON The same method that correctly forecast U.S. oil production would peak in the ‘70s indicates global supplies will peak this decade (Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, 2003). A report of the oil industry  produced by 175 energy authorities concluded that oil and gas will peak in 2015. (Guardian 6/29/08)  General Motors's CEO said: "There is no doubt demand for oil is outpacing the supply. We need to develop alternative sources." 
PUBLIC SUPPORT IS STRONG Surveys show 80% of people around the world want to protect the environment, and 75% support renewable energy. Studies of the entire population of England show a strong relationship between living in green spaces and lower blood pressure, stress levels, faster healing, and other health benefits (Independent UK 11/7/08).
CORPORATIONS ENTERING THE FIELD Business is embracing alternatives because they see growth opportunities. Clean energy companies attracted 1% of venture capital before but are now getting 5-8% of all investment. The market value of all renewable energy companies doubled in '06, and $148 billion was invested in clean energy in '07, up 60% from '06. Investors say "Greentech could be the largest business opportunity of the 21st Century," "It's going mainstream," and “We’re seeing the same ramp up we saw with the web.” (Washington Post 5/29/08; Washington Post 4/28/06)
ECONOMIC TRENDS FAVOR ALTERNATIVES Developing nations are starting to use large amounts of oil, gas, and coal, which is why prices are rising. Meanwhile the cost of renewables is dropping. In 2002, the cost of wind and hydro matched carbon fuels. Also, oil is often located in politically unstable regions and controlled by state-owned companies, all of which discourages oil use and favors alternative energy (Brenda Shaffer, Energy Politics, 2009).
England is building offshore wind farms housing as many as 70,000 turbines, and Germany is building 16,000 turbines. Germany and Denmark expect to derive half of their energy from wind soon. European wind power overall grew 50-fold from 1990 to 2002 (NY Times 1/9/10)
• Dong Energy is constructing wind farms off the coast of England with turbines as tall as a 30-story building that can produce 3.6 megawatts each – twice as much power as those commonly used on land. ( Mar.–Apr. 2011)
Broadstar Wind Systems has developed a wind turbine selling for $250,000 that delivers power at $1/watt, unprecedented in the field. 
• Honeywell has developed a wind turbine that costs $8,000 and generates enough power for a small house. Popular Mechanics named it one of the 10 brilliant inventions of 2009. (Washington Post 1/30/10)
•  U.S. wind power grew by 40% in 2009, producing 2% of electricity. North Dakota, Kansas, Texas, and other U.S. states alone could provide all of America’s energy needs (NY Times 1/26/10). 
China is building a wind turbine that is levitated by magnets to reduce friction (MagLev), which is expected to increase generating capacity by 20% and reduce cost by 50%. (Give Green 11/26/07) 
Experts estimate wind power could supply 12% of the world’s energy needs by 2020. The US Dept. of Energy thinks wind could provide 20% of electricity by 2030. (Smithsonian  July 2008)
•  Goldwind Science and Technology has co-developed a direct-drive wind turbine, reducing the chance of mechanical failure and lowering the cost of wind power.
Solar cells used to cost $3-4/watt compared with $.40/watt for oil & gas. But nanotech, quantum dots, and other innovations are bringing costs down and raising efficiency. The US DOE is investing $ 27 million in "Sun Shot" - a research project aimed to bring total costs down to $1 by 2017 (Scientific American 3/14/11)  First Solar, one of the industry's largest manufacturers, is producing solar power at $.98/watt with "thin-film" panels based on cadmium telluride;  manufacturing capacity is increasing at the equivalent of a nuclear plant each year (Gizmag3/3/09). China is becoming the world's biggest producer, with costs at $1.20/watt and dropping. Researchers have developed dye-sensitized cells that operate at 3 different bands of light to increase efficiency to 40% and decrease costs to $.50/watt (PhysOrg 6/7/07). The cost of installing a 5 KW home solar roof is dropping from $22,000 after subsidies to $13,000 (TechnologyReview 2/8/10).
The Fraunhofer Institute set a world's record of 41% for efficiency by concentrating sunlight and using a multi-junction design that combines layers to absorb more light. "This is the most effective way to reduce costs," said the lead researcher (; Discover 10/9/09).
•  Boeing's Spectrolab acheived 41.5% efficiency using concentrated solar cells, and expects to be selling them by 2011 (Gizmag 11/24/10). Sunrgi Company in Hollywood uses lens to concentrate solar rays 2000 times to convert 37.5% of energy into power (TechnologyReview 5/7/08).
•  Nanosolar Company is mass producing copper-indium-gallium-selenium coated solar cells at costs competitive with oil by printing them. The company plans to increase the global supply 20-fold (TechnologyReview, 6/23/06). 
  Dow Chemical is producing solar shingles that can be installed like ordinary shingles and are inexpensive. (TechnologyReview 1/20/09) The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology is producing flexible solar panels that can be used on windows to capture energy (Gizmag 10/10/09).
• Companies like eSolar and BrightSource Energy are constructing sophisticated thermal solar power plants using software-controlled mirrors to optimize rays from the sun and various approaches for storage capacity. A total of 6 gigawatts is being built, the equivalent of 6 nuclear plants. The SunCatcher solar energy plant in New Mexico has achieved 31% efficiency. (TechnologyReview 7/28/09). Google has invested US $168 M to help complete the world’s largest solar power tower plant by 2013 on 3,600 acres in the Mojave Desert. The plant would double the amount of commercial solar thermal electricity currently produced in the U.S. ( 4/13/11).
A scientific team proposes a $400 B program that would produce 70% of all U.S. electricity and 35% of all energy from solar by 2050. (Scientific American January 2008). (USAToday 9/4/07) 
• A team of universities plans to build enough solar capacity in the Sahara Desert to provide 50% of the world's electricity by 2050. (Gizmag 11/24/10)
Exploding demand for solar installation space in Japan has led to a plan to rent out roadside embankments, soundproof walls and unoccupied highway space to solar power generation companies ( 1/20/11).
The consensus is that costs will become competitive with oil about 2013-2015. Solar was the fastest-growing sector in the U.S. economy in 2010, with total industry value rising from $3.6 B to $6 B in 2010, for a 67% annual increase. Enough solar power was installed to power 200,000 homes. ( 3/10/11) Oerlikon Solar in Switzerland expects to reach parity with prevailing energy prices in 2011. The Solar Energy Industry Assoc. says "By 2016 solar will be the lowest cost option," and a study finds that solar power could provide a quarter of the world's electricity by 2050 (ABC/Reuters 5/26/09).
CONSERVATION Authorities estimate that 60% of all energy in the US is wasted, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy thinks it is 87%. Amory Lovins says most nations operate at such low efficiency that conservation is the most cost-effective approach. The U.S. saved 40% in energy costs over the past 20 years, with efficiency providing 80% of all energy growth. Lovins thinks conservation can reduce energy costs by 75% with a 100% annual return. (Discover, June 2010). Homes and small businesses could help cut carbon-dioxide emissions up to 30 % by using scaled-down combined heat and power (CHP) systems that recycle heat waste from space or water heaters by converting it to electricity (The Futurist, May 2011).
NUCLEAR POWER RECONSIDERED As the world reeled from Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster, global leaders initiated a moratorium on building nuclear plants and called for strengthening safety regulations. While the extent of radiation damage remains unknown, India, China, and other energy hungry nations in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East reaffirmed their nuclear commitments albeit with heftier precautions while others, such as Germany, have all but abandoned them.
• Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation and provides energy security while being largely insensitive to fuel price fluctuations ( 3/9/11; ScientificAmerican 3/25/11).
• The World Nuclear Association estimates that “the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years” ( 3/15/11).  
• In the US, 104 nuclear plants provide 20% of electricity, and the nation remains committed to nuclear as one component of its Clean Energy Standard plan, calling for 80% of electricity to come from clean sources by 2035 ( 3/14/11; 3/14/11). Upward of 40 US applications for new nuclear plants are being considered ( 3/2011).  
• China plans to add as many as 10 nuclear reactors a year during the next decade to satisfy consumption, growing at 12%/year. India is investing $150 B for dozens of reactors to help supply 25% of the country’s electricity by 2050. (NY 3/15/11).    
• Next-generation reactors will use a passive-cooling system, which doesn’t rely on external power, to reduce the chance of meltdowns ( 3/15/11).
New designs like the pebble bed reactor are immune to meltdown and store waste in glass safely for 200,000 years. A "fast breeder" design recycles spent fuel to reduce radioactive waste from 95% to 1%, increasing efficiency and reducing the disposal problem. Other possible designs include the thorium reactor, sodium cooled fast reactor, and the high-temperature reactor (Discover June 2009).   
Toshiba has developed a micro-sized reactor that is fail-safe to power individual buildings. The Tennessee Valley Authority is buying 6 small modular reactors because they are less expensive, time-consuming, and safer. (TechnologyReview 6/21/2011) 
Ethanol use has doubled in the past 3 years and will double again. Although many think corn-based ethanol is not economically viable, the US EPA found that it is competitive with oil after taking all costs into account (Washington Post 2/4/10).
• Scientists are developing bacteria to convert cellulose from woody plants and biomass waste (sawdust, weeds, etc.) into fuel that is almost identical to gasoline at lower cost while producing 5 times the energy. The US government is investing $ 1 billion in 12 cellulosic plants to meet the mandate for producing 16 billion gallons of fuel by 2022.(TechnologyReview May/June 2010).  They succeeded in using a specially designed bacteria to produce isobutanol directly from cellulose. Further, isobutanol can be used in autos. (Gizmag 3/10/11)
•  Amyris is using genetically engineered yeast that feeds on Brazilian sugarcane juice to create “farnesene,” a biofuel that can work better than ethanol and be used for diesel and jet fuel ( 4/29/11).
•  Novozymes, the world's biggest enzyme producer, has developed a process for producing biofuels at less than $2 gallon. The process uses specially designed microrganisms that produce biofuels at 100 times the rate of corn-based ethanol and 10 times the rate of celluososic methods. (NY Times 2/16/10).
•  Joule Biotechnologies has developed a process using micro-organisms to convert biomass directly into biofuel as cheaply as the price of oil. Yields could be 20,000 gallons/acre, compared with 6,000 for algae, the nearest competitor. (TechnologyReview 7/27/09)
Researchers converted glucose sugars found in cellulose into alternative energy at 70-90% effiencies. The team thinks this could provide a renewable source of fuel, plastic, and other materials and "the opportunities are endless" (PhysOrg 6/26/07).
Sweden is building the world's largest biogas plant and thinking about 5 more (TechnologyReview, 3/20/06).
•  The EPA estimates biomass could produce 35% of all fuel used in the US, and the U.S. DoE plans to replace 30% of gasoline with biofuels by 2030. (TechnologyReview 5/3/06).
• Breakthrough research is increasing the viability of renewable petroleum-like hydrocarbon fuels that use only bacteria, sunlight, and carbon-dioxide. The existing fossil fuel infrastructure could be used to process and transport the fuel ( 4/4/11). 
• Far more efficient LEDs and OLEDs could save 90% of the energy wasted by incandescent lights and last 50 times longer. Sylvania, Phillips, and GE are bringing out LED lights, and Australia will phase out all incandecent bulbs by 2010 (NY Times 5/16/10).
• Algae can double in weight several times per day, producing 30 times the oil that soybeans do. Exxon is investing $1 billion in algae research, and the U.S. DARPA has an algae project that produces jet fuel at $2/gallon and is expected reach $1/gal. (PhysOrg 8/28/08; 2/24/10)  
• Companies are developing systems that will convert any kind of organic waste into fuel. Geoplasma Co. is building a plant in Florida that uses 10,000 degree F plasma to convert 3,000 tons of waste daily into electricity for 36,000 homes with no pollutants (Discover 6/07). Slaughterhouse waste, sewage, old tires, scrap plastics, and almost anything else can be converted into oil at competitive prices, while also producing fertilizer (NY Times 7/24/08).
• New fuel cell technologies are being developed that create H2 directly from biomass, plant photosynthesis, and solar cells splitting water. (See Fuel Cell Cars and Hydrogen Economy)
• Stirling engines, which are 85% efficient, are being used in England.
• Tidal and wave energy are being harnessed in Manhattan, France, Scotland, Nova Scotia, and Northern Ireland. Scotland is developing 6 wave energy projects and 4 tidal energy projects, which could produce 15-20% of the country's needs (TechnologyReview 3/24/10).
 • Some think Ocean Thermal Energy (OTE) could "become the biggest source of renewable energy." Temperature gradients over a 1000 meter depth are harnessed with a heat engine and electricity is sent to shore via cable. The US EPA envisions 500 MW OTE stations. (NewScientist 11/19/08)
• Geothermal energy could easily supply US needs, says an 18 member panel at MIT. They estimate a $1 B project could provide 10% of all U.S. electricity (Scientific American 4/07).
• Cold fusion is being rediscovered because of new supporting evidence.
• Researchers at U. California are converting the biggest problem in global warming - CO2 - into oxygen and carbon monoxide, the primary feedstock for plastics and other products (TechnologyReview 5/25/07). Sandia researchers have developed a machine that converts CO2 from power plant exhaust into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. ( 12/2/09)
• Sky WindPower is developing wind turbines that ride 10 Km up in the jet stream to capture 100 times as much energy, which is transmitted to Earth on supporting cables (The Economist 4/3/07).
• The US Military is studying the use of solar satellites for producing energy, and India is planning to build one ( 4/11/07; The Statesman 7/13/07).  Solaren Corp. is planning to launch a solar satellite by 2016 and Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to buy the energy (San Francisco Chronicle  4/14/09). Japan is planning a solar satellite that will produce the equivalent of a large nuclear power plant by 2030 (Scientific American July 2008).
• Despite high cost and a shortage of installers, U.S. homeowners are installing ground-source geothermal systems for heating and cooling in rising numbers. The federal government is setting standards, offering tax credits, and has spent over $61 M on geothermal projects in schools, hospitals, government and commercial buildings. (NY Times 3/7/11)
• High demand has led more than three dozen American firms to propose plasma-torch syngas plants for burning household waste to create electricity. Geoplasma in St.Lucie, Florida, aims to create electricity for more than 20,000 homes by burning local waste. ( 1/1/11) 
ASIAN NATIONS DETERMINED TO COMPETE Asians face daunting needs for energy and environmental control, so they are investing heavily in alternative energy. China now leads the world in manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, and plans to lead in efficient green coal and nuclear plants. China and India are both planning to install 20 gigawatts of solar power each by 2020, more than 3 times that installed by the entire world. India plans to have 13% of its power from solar by 2022. China is also installing 150 gigawatts of wind power, more than any other nation, and building the largest photovoltaic power plant in the world with the help of First Solar Company. Altogether, China is investing $75 billion in renewable energy, compared to $18.6 billion by the US. S. Korea is investing 2% of its GDP in renewables, and intends to gain an 8% share of the world market for renewable energy products. (The NY Times 1/30/10; 9/9/09; Washington Post 9/30/10)
OIL SUPPLIES COULD BE VAST Oil may remain plentiful because new fields and methods are constantly being discovered. The U.S. Geological Survey and the DoE estimate world oil production will last until 2037, and Cambridge Energy Research thinks actual reserves are almost 3 times larger; But costs increase as oil becomes more difficult to recover from less attractive sites. The oil sands of Canada are enormous and could meet demand for decades, although extracting it requires huge amounts of water. Oil may be abundant if it can be extracted at depths of 5 miles or so, but the costs are 3-4 times conventional drilling. (Fortune; BusinessWeek, 9/7/2006)
COAL IS ABUNDANT 95% of U.S. reserves consist of coal, but present plants kill 20,000 to 30,000 Americans each year and dump 50 tons of mercury in the air. The US EPA is spending $1 B on FutureGen, a pilot plant to demonstrate clean coal gasification and sequestration. British Columbia now requires new coal power plants to emit no CO2, a move expected to set the new standard for clean coal technology. But some analysts claim the energy needed to mine and liquify coal would produce twice the global warming emissions of gasoline and large amounts of water are needed, and many think the technology for producing clean coal is not feasible. (TechnologyReview 2/28/07; Scientific American 8/07)
INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDED Alternative energy requires difficult changes in production (power plants), distribution (gas stations), usage (vehicles, appliances) and other infrastructure that are expected to cost $600 billion.
BIOFUELS RUNNING INTO PROBLEMS Despite the popularity of bio-ethanol, there is a global backlash because biofuels are taking over land that was once used for food production, thus raising food prices and decreasing forested lands (see Biofuels commentary). Of the 6 cellulosic ethanol projects funded by the US Dept. of Energy, 3 projects have been halted, 3 are moving forward, and cost overruns are reaching $1.2 billion. So progress is being made, but far more slowly than expected and doubts persist. (Chemical & Engineering News 8/7/09).
TAX ADVANTAGES DISTORT ECONOMIC VIABILITY Governments subsidize alternative fuels, which distorts economic markets with false expectations.  For instance, entrepreneurs become fearful that tax benefits could be repealed, so they are often distrustful of entering the field.  This is somewhat misleading, however, because fossil fuels are also subsidized to the tune of $310 billion (WSJ 2/4/10).   
NATURAL GAS COULD REPLACE COAL Gas reserves in the eastern U.S. have been found to be far larger than once thought due to better drilling techniques. It is thought that gas could supply the entire U.S. for 90 years and produce $ 1 trillion in revenue over the long-term. Natural gas also produces half the CO2 that oil does. One analyst said "Pennsylvania could become the OPEC of natural gas." But others think this would not solve the global warming problem. "Natural gas is a bridge to nowhere," said one critic. (TechnologyReview 12/09)
Following the Japan disaster, Germany shut down its 7 oldest reactors and will completely phase out nuclear power by 2022; while proponents are optimistic that an expanded transition to renewable energy will sustain the economy, opponents cite the threat of blackouts, the economy’s difficulty in adapting, and lawsuits by utility companies ( 3/22; 5/30/11). Switzerland also voted to phase out its five nuclear reactors, which currently supply about 40 % of the country’s energy; the goverrnment hasn’t issued a phase-out date, but experts suggest it will occur around 2040 (WSJ 5/26/11). India's proposed nuclear power plant near the earthquake-prone Konkan coastline has raised alarm along with a call for a moratorium on the Jaitapur Nuclear Plant ( 3/13/11).
• For the short run, the beneficiary of nuclear’s 2011 crisis is going to be fossil fuels. Renewable energy remains too expensive, too land-hungry, too unreliable and too small-scale to take up much slack, so cheap coal and newly abundant natural gas will do the job ( 3/19/11). Gas is about the most scalable, efficient, flexible, clean and lowish-carbon form of electricity available, so it is likely to prove economically and politically attractive ( 3/19/11).
While a 2010 Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans favored nuclear, a March 2011 poll finds that only 44% favor construction of US nuclear power plants and 47% oppose it ( 3/16/11).
 Despite Europe's agreement to launch voluntary “stress tests” of reactors, this is only a “modest step toward centralized oversight” and critics contend the tests are not rigorous enough (NY 3/26/11).
 Critics dismiss safety claims of “next-generation” nuclear power plants. “It is completely unclear whether new designs would actually have significant benefits” in situations similar to the one in Japan, according to Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They’ve never been built and operated anywhere." ( 3/30/11)
Building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gases would cost $ trillions, create thousands of tons of lethal radioactive waste, contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, result in a Chernobyl-scale accident every decade, and waste resources needed to avert climate change ( 3/26/11). 
•  A 2009 MIT study estimates nuclear energy costs about 30% higher than coal or gas. Extensive regulatory approval processes can also boost plant developers’ costs, hindering investment ( 3/15/11).
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Public Comments
(Edited and displayed in 1-2 days)
Al Leedahl (12/27/2007 10:31:02 AM)
Adoption of new technology depends upon economics (cost) and social factors (which determines value, such as: beliefs, priorities, benefits, laws, regulations, etc.)as much as the technology itself. Oil shale in the Green River area of CO, UT, WY, oil sands in Canada and coal in America will provide all of the petroleum needed in the USA for hundreds of years. Social factors, and to a lesser extent economics, will determine the speed of alternative energy.
Peter King (1/3/2008 2:21:10 AM)
The main question is whether or not we are reaching a tipping point in terms of public awareness of climate change and the need to move towards a post-carbon society. In many developed countries, the awareness level is high, but this has still not translated into a mass change in consumer behavior. A prolonged sequence of climate related disasters, which could be attributed plausibly to climate change might be needed to trigger this tipping point. Policy interventions that keep the cost of fossil fuels high will help too.
Roberto Perez (3/24/2008 6:40:26 AM)
Our planet is facing the worst environmental problems in geological history. The economic, social, and political actions of nations around the world will be the catalytic key for saving or destroying our beautiful blue pearl. Education may be a small price to pay before a terrible environmental disater happens.
Russell Enderby (5/13/2008 7:13:09 PM)
This process will be slow but will continue to gain momentum as time goes by. In the near term we will continue to use carbon-based fuels while we slowly start to switch. One big recent change is the introduction of ethanol at the pump in small percentages. This will grow as well.
John Smart (1/15/2008 10:23:15 AM)
As Al says, social factors are generally at least as important as technology capabilities. I would argue more important in this case. Energy is so plentiful on this planet that leading cultures can afford to be choosy and take their own prioritization paths (France with nuclear, Denmark with wind, Germany with solar, etc.). I expect that the steadily increasing value of quality of life in the developed economies, growth in sustainability values, media scrutiny, and public awareness of the downsides of "dirty" technologies will continue to drive us toward cleaner alternatives, long before the potential of even oil, much less coal, is exhausted. Even nuclear, which is tremendously technically attractive, is a nonstarter today in almost all of the developed world (France has always prided itself on taking its own path and is an anomaly, not a culture to generalize from) because of its two great environmental externalities (waste disposal and terrorism potential), given the rising efficiency we see in the renewables. I think the developed world will keep nuclear as a last resort, and we'll only see it grow rapidly here again if we experience sharp oil supply shocks or steep price rises, which seem unlikely for the forseeable future. The reason such shocks seem unlikely is that there are at least a trillion barrels of oil left in the ground, and the suppliers of that oil will do everything they can, as long as they can, to keep shocks from reaching the global economy. They remember the 1970's and the scare they had then that alternatives might disrupt their industry. As Wally Rippel says, there's over $100 trillion dollars of business they want to get done. They may not get much more than half of that done before we move to greenhouse-reducing alternatives, but they're very motivated to ship product. It is a mistake to underestimate the effectiveness of highly motivated, mature technologies. Their massive wealth and influence makes the policy interventions that Peter suggests, as much as I agree they would be ideal, unlikely in all but the most developmentally advanced of social democracies (such as we see in Scandinavia). As Glen Heimstra likes to say, we didn't leave the steam era for lack of wood or coal, and we probably won't leave the internal combustion era for lack of oil. Electric, generated via natural gas with the growth of renewables, with solar the most rapidly growing component, and a significant one after 2020, apppears to be the next big attractor, and it will arrive soon enough (spurred by the early effort of Germany and the industriousness of new Chinese solar startus) to unseat oil before its time, even as the oil kings try to featherbed the transition and delay the arrival of the electric economy (see "Who Killed the Electric Car?" for a good example of this, a film whose facts I have personally verified in my own research on innovation) as much as possible.
Jose Cordeiro (12/20/2009 11:21:16 AM)
Solar and wind energy are currently experiencing an exponential growth that will radically transform the energy matrix as early as 2020.
Russell Enderby (5/13/2008 7:38:21 PM)
It is clear that we will be growing to alternative energy, however it will be a slow process. We will continue to use carbon-based solutions as that is what we have most of our processes currently setup to handle. We will continue to go after more difficult carbon-based solutions such as oil shale as well. Finally we already see that we are headed in this direction as currently we see at the gas pumps ethanol is already taking a small percentage of the fuel.
Jonathan Peck (5/20/2008 2:37:27 PM)
Technology breakthroughs are going to be important to bring alternative energy sources to the market, and nanotechnology is likely to be an area for breakthroughs to emerge. For example, the nanotech "blacker than black" surface that let's very little light get reflected can improve the efficiency of solar energy collection substantially. As the price of oil goes up and government support for alternatives with it, the scientific community will respond with new innovations.
David Shook (9/2/2008 3:57:07 AM)
Simulations I've seen give a a lot of credence to a complete waste-gas capture sewage treatment system. This technology seems to bypass the food-fuel question and generate commercially viable levels amounts of methane. Also it uses off the shelf technology.
Melvyn Kuan (11/23/2008 3:20:44 AM)
There will be a drive towards independence from Gulf oil and fuels that are "cleaner". The Obama administration could push for this change more strongly than the Bush administration.
Kate Lister (1/28/2009 11:24:25 AM)
Non-technical solutions to carbon energy problems, such a telecommuting, could reduce demand and negative effects. Public perception of crisis could, thus, de-emphasize need for alternatives and push out the date when 30% is achieved. On the other hand, a breakthrough in fusion energy production could move the date closer—even considering development, construction front load. In the longer term, lunar He3 could possibly offer an alternative to carbon based fuels too.
Harry Rothman (7/16/2009 8:30:19 AM)
I have revised my estimate upwards in the light of the financial crisis, I now doubt whether sufficient investment will now be available to speed up some of the very promising innovations, but as yet untested, on-stream quite as rapidly as I had envisaged.
Judson Walls (9/7/2009 12:46:02 PM)
Geopolitical tensions may drive the US move toward alternative energies as instability in key areas, coupled with increased dissatisfaction with US presence abroad, lead the US to focus on strengthening its internal capabilities and self-reliance.
Dennis Bushnell (8/15/2009 11:36:14 AM)
The Alternatives will be greatly accelerated as the realism/realization of the positive climate feedbacks become even clearer.There are many of these feedbacks and their effects are responsible for the emerging major gaps between IPCC Predictions and what is actually happening to the climate.
Jose Cordeiro (12/20/2009 11:18:57 AM)
Solar and wind energy are currently experiencing an exponential growth that will radically change the energy matrix as early as 2020.
Mohammad Qayum (3/13/2010 12:38:04 AM)
As demand for renewable energy rises, the cost for per watt energy will decrease. Some point in the development, technological breakthrough will accelerate the adaptation of renewable energy source. This will be a significant moment in the history of civilization, as renewable energy is sustainable, environment friendly, and scalable. This event can spur on high growth rate in the developing countries which is suffering of huge energy crisis. Energy freedom is de-facto to unlock the underutilized human potential in the most part of the world.
Rupam Shrivastava (3/10/2010 3:37:14 PM)
I think the adoption of Alternative energy will be dictated by oil prices going up rather than better technologies being developed. Hence, I think that when we 'really' start to run out of oil, the alternative anergy solutions will get accepted and integrated.
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