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

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.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

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.

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