Conventional fossil fuels will keep their status as the main source of global energy for at least the next two decades, but some renewables - such as biofuels, solar power and onshore wind - should soon be able to compete effectively without subsidies, according to a new study.
International business advisory firm Boston Consulting Group released a report Wednesday that examined seven key renewable energy sectors. It projects dramatic gains for some in the short term, while others are expected to take much longer to take hold.
The report notes that much of the momentum toward renewables, built up in the years before the worldwide recession, was lost as energy prices fell, project financing declined and alternative energy companies saw their stock prices drop. Some sectors have since regained strength, and the report's authors say it is now clear that ones that can be scaled up at reasonable prices will take a permanent position in the energy landscape.
"There are several sectors of technology that are on track to potentially change the landscape far sooner that many had thought," said Balu Balagopal, a BCG partner and one of the report's authors. "There is a silent revolution in the works."
Some of BCG's findings:
Ethanol made from waste cellulose, switchgrass or other feedstocks could be cost competitive with gasoline in North America by 2015. This fuel does not have the same political and social problems as ethanol made from food crops such as corn. The key barrier is establishing the transportation and storage infrastructure, and converting vehicles to accept higher blends of ethanol.
Systems that focus the sun's energy to heat fluids, which are then used to generate electricity, are becoming competitive with conventional power generation. In areas with lots of sunlight and lots of room, it could be a significant electricity source by 2020. The energy can also be "stored" in the thermal fluids, then used when needed. Lack of transmission links could slow the rollout.
Power can be generated directly from the sun's rays, using photovoltaic panels. These systems are still expensive, but the technology is improving and costs are falling rapidly, so they could be competitive with other sources of power by 2020. However, big swaths of land are needed for large solar farms, and transmission links can be an issue. Also, the sun doesn't shine all the time, and power storage is difficult.
Wind power is a mature technology compared with many other renewables, and in some jurisdictions it can generate power at rates competitive with traditional energy sources, even without any kind of subsidies. The costs of generation equipment is continuing to fall. Still, finding appropriate sites and getting permits can be difficult. The intermittency of wind, and difficulties in storing the power generated, will eventually limit growth.
Wind farms located in the ocean, or in large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, are much more expensive to build and maintain than onshore sites. Getting the power to the transmission grid is also more costly. This sector will likely expand sharply only in jurisdictions prepared to subsidize it sharply for many years - such as countries that have few other renewable energy alternatives.
The adoption of electric cars will be constrained for many years by high battery costs, which will keep prices up and extend payback times. They could get a solid share of the market in some areas, such as Europe, where gasoline prices are very high. Other potential problems include the difficulty of recharging in public places, and possible shortages of some materials used in batteries.
Carbon capture and storage
While it is vital that emissions from coal-power generating plants be cut, large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities are still a long way off. Even when the technology is proven, a substantial carbon price will be necessary to make them economically viable. "It is out of the money and will be for a long time," said the BCG researchers, who don't expect CCS to be deployed widely until the late 2020s.