Even with great tech, no easy answers on energy

Experts wrangle with what's the best formula for transitioning the lumbering energy industry to cleaner sources and to take advantage of green-energy innovations.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--No matter how you look at it, the big picture on energy trends isn't pretty.

A number of factors--a swelling world population with more people aspiring to higher standards of living, limited resources, and a pressing need to curb pollutants--mean that the world needs more efficient and cleaner sources of energy, according to a panel of experts at the EmTech technology conference here on Thursday.

A number of technologies can play a significant role in cleaning the massive energy industry, but the innovations in energy face a far more complicated path to market than other technologies, like computing, they said.

"It takes patient investment from some large technology companies," said Uma Chowdhry, chief science and technology officer of DuPont. "Why are (clean energy technologies) hard? Simply because they require more technology breakthroughs. And we have to recognize there's inertia in the system."

After the oil shock of the 1970s, a number of technologies were developed, such as solar photovoltaics or synthesis gas production, but were abandoned as oil prices dropped along with government research funding.

Today, many of those technologies are being revived and improved upon, but there still remain a number of risks, including the high capital costs of making products which, in the case of electricity and liquid fuels, are commodities, said Jim Matheson, a venture capitalist at Flagship Ventures.

There's also a funding gap for young companies that have developed technologies, such as improved biofuels processes, but need financing to test that their products can be made as designed. As a result, many people say it's not clear that the billions of dollars in venture capital will deliver the returns they expect.

"The reality is in this sector you have to actually deploy something to realize full value," said Matheson. "The challenge is not so much in the innovation piece--it's a deployment challenge."

Energy is also a heavily regulated industry. Negotiations around cap-and-trade carbon regulations are expected to continue for months, which makes it difficult for investors to place their bets, said Steven Isakowitz, the chief financial officer from the Department of Energy.

The DOE will be disbursing tens of billion of dollars in loans and grants over the next few years in an effort to "fill the breach" left by risk-averse banks and to jump-start energy innovation. Evaluating which companies and technologies receive money is an admittedly very difficult task and the DOE has a patchy track record, said Isakowitz.

"One of the challenges is the hype can swing things way too hard. At one point it was fusion, at another, superconductivity would be the answer," he said.

Important technologies
Still, panelists said there are a number of technologies that look promising because there's a clear need when viewed on a global scale.

Dupont's expertise in material science applies in a number of areas, including industrial efficiency, solar, and in bio-based materials, such as corn-derived plastic, said Chowdhry.

BP is investing in cleaner ways of extracting oil and gas and in biofuels through start-ups and university research. It is also working on carbon capture and sequestration, where carbon dioxide from coal plants or other sources is stored underground. The cost of that technology is very high and there's "no product," which means that it will only take hold if government regulations put a price on carbon emissions--a position that BP supports, Eyton said.

Both BP and DuPont have abandoned hydrogen storage research because the technical challenges are so high.

As part of its sustainability portfolio, Flagship Ventures, meanwhile, has invested in biofuels, water purification, and waste-to-energy companies.

Chowdhry said she is optimistic that many of the energy challenges can be met through innovation, particularly in materials and bio-based processes, such as synthetic fuels made from plants.

But all the panelists said that there needs to be coordination between large corporations, technology start-ups, financiers, and the government for them to take hold in the market.

BP's Eyton noted the concerns over the supply of energy may be brought to a head, politically and socially, by other closely interlinked environmental issues.

"The scarcity issues we face are far broader. Energy intersects quite uncomfortably with a whole lot of other natural resources like food, like water, like land. And I think it's possible that the first crisis we face in terms of a lack of something may be one of those," he said.