ACORE's Eckhart: Renewable energy must put microprocessor to work

The future of renewable energy is in the microprocessor, and natural gas will help smooth the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, a top cleantech exec says.

NEW YORK -- The future of renewable energy is in the microprocessor, and natural gas will help smooth the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, said American Council on Renewable Energy president Michael Eckhart on Tuesday.

Kicking off the seventh annual Renewable Energy Finance Forum--Wall Street at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Eckhart said the future of America's energy infrastructure hangs in the balance -- and it's politicians who must help remove the administrative hurdles that prevent projects from quickly moving forward.

"We can get 30 senators to agree with anything," he said, displaying a map of the United States. "Look at this map -- how do we get 60? [We have] a political dilemma in a country based on geographical representation."

Compounding the problem is the recent economic downturn in the U.S., which has removed foundational support from the industry at a time when it needs it to grow rapidly, he said.

"The pipeline of development is withdrawing. Are we going to pop back up?" Eckhart asked. "The financial crisis is nobody's friend. The financial crisis is not over. The stimulus package assumed it's a two-year crisis -- it's not. It's a four-year crisis."

Eckhart briefly touched on the status of each popular type renewable energy today:

  • Wind: 10 gigawatts of wind power last year in U.S. Midwest is a strong resource: "The whole country -- we've got a wonderful [wind] resource."
  • Solar: 12 gigawatts of contracts in the U.S. right now. "Solar is taking off like a rocket. Solar PV is where wind was in 2005." With low lending interest rates, "There's never been a better minute to be building or contracting or buying PV." He added: "Concentrating solar power: this also could be a rocket ship that's sitting on the [launch] pad."
  • Geothermal: 100 gigawatts in 100 years. "I call this the $300 billion a year R&D something big with geothermal."
  • Wave power: "This is very exciting. If we could harvest 1,000 megawatts out of a little river, imagine what we could do with a gulf."
  • Biomass: Small but growing.

"The most important message I want you to walk away from, technologically, today is that we are not alone," Eckhart said. "We need the microprocessor at work in the renewable energy industry."

Eckhart also discussed the role of natural gas, a hot topic for the U.S. after the discovery of large deposits of shale gas.

"Natural gas is our friend, because it's a natural buffer between our intermittency of [renewable energy] and [coal]," he said. "This whole package [renewables and natural gas together] is the solution set."

Eckhart said policy changes are needed to achieve growth, including an extension of the stimulus -- "because of that two-year gap" -- and some $32 billion per year in financing.

"We need to scale this up to a level we've never been at," he said.

Looking back, Eckhart reflected on how far the renewables industry has come since he began his career in 1976.

"We definitely are winning this, because the prices of oil, gas and coal are going up," he said. "We have been dealt the winning hand. The question is what we're going to do with it."

Responding to a question from the audience, Eckhart said he believed the next crop of energy executives -- the children of those in office today -- would choose renewables over coal.

"It's the technologies that we can't see that are so exciting," he said. "We're still inventing every day."

In closing, Eckhart praised attendees for believing in the true success of the sector, recalling that handheld calculators were once predicted to take "as much as 30 percent of the slide rule market."

"None of you got a degree in renewable energy," he said. "I like all of you because we chose to be here. We have a sense of purpose."

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