Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

Summary: OK, so I lied. THIS is the last post I will make based on my attendance of last week's EmTech@MIT conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TOPICS: Telcos

OK, so I lied. THIS is the last post I will make based on my attendance of last week's EmTech@MIT conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I've been mulling my notes a bit because, frankly, it probably was one of the most potentially controversial sessions of the entire conference: "The Future of Energy." The participants on the panel included two representatives from the "hydrocarbon" energy world (that's the term they kept using), Shell and Exxon Mobil, as well as MIT's research director on energy science and energy policy matters.

For me, there were two big revelations during the session:

  1. Stop expecting miracles on the energy generation front. It will probably take decades to truly shift the balance of power. (Literally.)
  2. Wind-generated power is the clean energy that is more likely to make an impact for established energy companies -- at least for this particular panel -- than solar or geothermal.

First, some perspective. Nazeer Bhore, senior technology advisor for Exxon Mobil, says that over the next 20 years, energy demand will go up by at least 35 percent. That projection takes into account all the different energy efficiency efforts going on in developed economies. Without those measures, energy demand would actually rise by at least 90 percent, according to Bhore.

According to all three panelist, there is no "miracle" clean energy source that will rise up to help meet this demand. "Wind among the renewables is close to economic," says John Reilly, associate director for research, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, MIT. The big gating factor, of course, is the intermittent nature of wind generation. If the wind doesn't blow, there won't be enough power to meet demand. Gusts aren't great either, because they could damage the turbine mechanism.

When pushed, Bhore said Exxon Mobil prefers the possibilities of wind over solar or geothermal. But, all three panelists said miracle breakthroughs that will transform the energy sector overnight are not likely. "You don't create a miracle by throwing money at it. This is something that will happen as part of the activity that we ALL engage in," says Jose Bravo, chief scientist for Shell Global Solutions.

Just for grins, I took a peek at the Shell and Exxon Mobil Web sites to dig up their public statements regarding investments in clean energy technologies. Both of them are focused on carbon capture technology research and development and on investments in natural gas, which both companies see as a cleaner alternative aligned with their existing portfolios. Both are focused on biofuels, although they acknowledge the potential impact on global food supplies for certain first-line technologies in the biofuels arena. Finally, both Shell and Exxon Mobil also offer various economic scenarios for where they seen energy sourcing evolving over the next 20 to 40 years. But I was hard-pressed to find much about research for clean energy technologies.

Topic: Telcos

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • No miracles, but progress can be made

    The term "clean energy" generally refers to something other than fossil fuel, and there is movement. Part of the problem is that most Greenies want a magic bullet, and that simply does not exist. There is no one size fits all solution, but there are solutions that are proven and do work in specific scenarios.

    Wind is a viable part of the equation, but wind generated energy is not suitable everywhere, or even for most places. There are places where the wind is consistent enough to make it viable, but those places are often times very far away from out main population centers. We should continue to exploit wind where it is feasible, but recognize that it is not a solution to all of our needs.

    Likewise, solar energy is viable in some applications and some geographic locations, but certainly not everywhere. Geothermal, tidal power, and other technologies are also promising, but also limited in scope. While I see no reason to pursue these technologies, as a realist I don't expect any of these to amount to over 25% of our needs at any time in the foreseeable future.

    That leaves nuclear power, which is tried and proven, and could have an impact in the short term. We could be converting our current fossil fuel powered plants to nuclear, and adding new reactors to increase capacity for expected growth, but only if we have a change in attitude among our political leaders and environmental groups. Right now, with all of the law suits and delay tactics used by the environmentalists, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to build nuclear plants in the US. Hopefully, the coming political change will usher in a new era of nuclear power in our country.
    • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

      @itpro_z Right now, where I live, the sun is at least shining for a change, there's not a hint of breeze, there are no oceans for tides, and deep injection geothermal would be absurdly deep. The turbines at the local nuclear plant are whizzing around making electricity but nowhere enough. I think your assessment is dead on but I can't help wondering about the sincerity of the government's new pro nuclear stance.
      • Nukes will not be back

        I left the nuke biz years ago - there's no future in it. Some people talk a good game about future deployment of new nuke plants, but when it comes down to building them just about everybody runs the other way. It's not technological issues that stop nuke power, it's all legal issues. Lawyers make building the plants too expensive for utilities to seriously consider. My best guess: one utility will start building one new plant, and it will get so buried under mountains of lawyers that it will end up costing $10B, so it will never be profitable. Other utilities will look at that case and cancel whatever plans they may have had. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see this happening.
    • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

      @itpro_z Unfortunately, if we began converting more to nuclear, prices of uranium would skyrocket. They have already increased a great deal in the past decade without many plants. If enough plants were built to help the energy crisis, nuclear power would be less feasible than some forms of green energy.
      • Probably not. If demand increased, mining would

        increase to meet that demand. Also, allowing the use of breeder reactors pretty much eliminates scarcity of uranium arguments, and thorium reactor technology makes the whole fuel shortage argument laughable. India alone has enough known thorium reserves to meet current U.S. power consumption world-wide for a million years.
      • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

        Cost of fuel uranium, not significant.
    • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

      @itpro_z google thorium, Canada has worked with it successfully for 40 yrs
  • Yup, no miracles will come from the dinosaurs.

    Take note of the article's source for the quote; the very villains who are poisoning our world and who have been blocking 'clean' energies for decades.

    The only 'miracle' needed will come in the form of a change of popular opinion which clears these dinosaurs out of the way and allows (perhaps even promotes) the adoption of a mixed portfolio of clean renewable energy sources.

    While it is certainly true that no one single power generation format can outright replace our dependence on petroleum based fuels, unless there is a sudden unexpected breakthrough in fusion, a mixed heterogeneous generation model can solve the vast majority of our problems and meet most of our energy demands.

    Perfect? No, of course not. Better? Absolutely!

    The time for energy activism is now.

    As always, this is just my $0.02USD, and your opinion may well vary.

    • Unfortunately for you, physics doesn't give a rat's a$$

      about your utopian dreams. Fossil fuels are the most efficient portable power source on the planet. Nuclear fission is the most efficient power source for centralized generation on the planet. The primary byproduct of fossil fuel is plant fertilizer and water. The primary byproduct of nuclear power is a 40-gallong trash bucket of waste per year that you can easily seal in concrete and dump into an ocean trench to get subducted back into the crust.

      The issue is, and always has been, the marxist environmentalist leadership and their useful idiot followers sabotaging the greatest key to human freedom and prosperity: Cheap, abundant energy.
      • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

        Thats what you are lead to believe but a good investigator at the site of a crime always looks to see who really benefits. If nukes go belly up...Peak oh yea profit oil! Cheap no no no abundant oh yea costly oil (coal as well). Those that have studied thermodynamics know the deal with the "waste heat" story its there it could be used but if you can sell the other end why would you worry? (try the AAAS for a view on waste energy) Not Marx its Adam Smith leadership!
      • @Altotus

  • Clean energy

    Conservation; energy efficiency in homes, industry and transportation are the short term "magic bullets". We will then not have to build any more polluting plants until "green" can meet the required growth and eventually take over all energy production. As much as I like cheap gas just as much as the next guy, I think fuel price levels in North America in general and the US in particular, are a HUGE part of the problem.

    I will probably get flamed for this and I understand the concern of politicians pi$$ing away tax $. But if you want people to consume less of something, you simply tax it.
    • Have you considered

      That fuel prices are not set by the market as such but by production schedules.
    • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

      @Economister, you are correct that conservation is an important part of the picture, and we certainly have made progress on that front. The issue that I see is that many expect that we can convert from a fossil fuel based energy economy overnight, while I look at it as a 50 year project. We could probably halve that if we had any leadership in Washington, someone to stand up and rally the masses with a JFK moon type speech making it a nation priority, but, sadly, leadership is in short supply these days.

      I would push for a combination of nuclear, wind, solar, etc, to bridge the gap until newer technologies like fusion and hydrogen fuel cells could come on line. Technology is not the problem, as we can handle that. The problem is building the massive infrastructure necessary to replace our current system. It took us 100 years to build what we have now, so replacing all of the pipelines, fuel storage, power plants, gas stations, ect, is a massive project that will consume huge amounts of time and money.
      • Agree, but....


        finding replacement energy sources that do not require such large infrastructure changes would at least be part of the solution also. Any future energy would either be in the form of electrical, gas or liquid, which we currently distribute. I realize that the sources of the energy will change, hence pipelines need to be built.

        Generating the energy closer to where it is needed would also help. That is the approach taken in Europe, using smaller local wind turbine and solar installations, while North America is still fixated on large scale industrial projects that the electrical utilities control.

        I fully agree leadership/vision in Washington is an issue, but the voters have to take a large share of the responsibility for that I am afraid. The culture in North America has hardly been one of concern about energy use.
  • Idiocy

    The notion that there is or ever can be an "energy shortage" is utterly preposterous. The simple truth is that we live in a world that is teeming with energy. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of physics knows that.

    The only problems we have now are the same ones we have always had -- namely how to make energy accessible and portable. Notwithstanding the potential development of controlled nuclear fusion, we already have the technology to solve both problems.

    As correctly observed in several previous posts here, there are essentially zero fuel supply limitations with either breeder reactors or thorium reactors. That takes care of the access problem.

    The principle practical argument against fission reactors as a replacement for all energy needs is its non-portability, but that argument overlooks the use of fixed-plant power generation as a means of converting other inexhaustible resources to more portable forms. The obvious choice is water. With the sufficiently abundant, inexpensive power that nuclear plants would provide, water would be a limitless supply of hydrogen via electrolysis.

    That takes care of the portability problem. Modular tanks of liquid hydrogen could power any vehicle equipped with hydrogen fueled turbines. The waste product from hydrogen combustion is water vapor. You'd be hard pressed to find a cleaner or more renewable source of portable energy.

    As always, the obstacles are political. The current mountain of "legal" obstacles are real enough, but could easily be obliterated IF sufficient political will existed. The problem is that it doesn't. The "pro-nuclear" noises currently being made in the political rhetoric are just that -- noise. It's calculated to give the appearance of being pro-nuclear in an effort to stem the onslaught of criticism that would come from those who have enough rationality to recognize that NOT going nuclear is the present day version of idiocy.
    • You should run for President...


      since you got it all figured out.
  • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

    Agreed, dinosaurs, that make money from OIL, there are plenty of ways to get clean efficient energy. Solar is one. Then there are others ... Why not assemble a panel of REAL experts and post the results here ? hehe
  • RE: Energy execs: No 'miracle' in sight on clean energy front

    google thorium . . .
  • No miracle that supports their business model

    These guys don't care about what works for the general benefit, they want energy sources that produce the kind of profits they're making now. Renewables can't be monopolized, therefore aren't suited to their business model.