In the last six months, there has been a dramatic shift in the geopolitical and economic trends of clean energy, a panel of energy experts said Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Claude Mandil, former executive director for the International Energy Agency, cited the results of the 2010 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico; the Arab Spring; the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami catastrophe; and the 2012 elections in democratic nations including the United States, France and Germany, as major events that have radically changed the clean energy picture.
The Cancun meeting lacked leadership, the Arab Spring led to high oil prices and the Fukushima disaster hindered the rise of nuclear power and brings about a possible return of coal and gas, he noted.
Mandil said he worried that governments will make bad policy decisions, particularly in election years, because they bend to public opinion and aren't brave enough to explain that cheap, clean energy sources aren't easily attained.
The private sector, he said, will compensate.
Michael Liebreich, chief executive officer of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a clean energy analysis and data company, agreed it's too expensive for governments to fund clean energy innovation and that venture capitalists will play a major role in financing clean energy advancements.
Liebreich said his research found a vast market for patents on clean energy innovation, particularly in the United States. In 2002, energy technology patents surpassed all technology patents worldwide and have continued to do so, which means scientists are piling their efforts into clean energy technology.
In addition, the web of policy supporting renewable energy, energy efficiency or climate-related initiatives implemented over the last decade forces progress in the clean energy realm, he said.
"Even though now there isn't this a swell of new policy, this stuff is actually cumulative," he said. "That has left us in a place where the policy -- you won't get people in the industry to agree everything is fine and rosy -- but actually you have a pretty functional set of policies domestically in most of the large economies and most of the large states."
There are 1,741 public and private energy policies worldwide, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said.
Liebreich forecasts a strong economic outlook for clean energy, comparing it to the mobile telephone industry. In 1993, it cost $45 a minute to use a cell phone but now people are ditching landlines, he said. "That's where we're going with clean energy."
Future clean energy trends
He also predicted that while the private sector is critical to the success of clean energy progress over the long haul, the game-changers are electric cars and the rise of energy efficiency in the developing world.
Electric vehicles are emerging in mainstream manufacturers, although not in large numbers due in part to the cost of lithium batteries, Liebreich said. But that will change as lithium battery packs become cheaper by 2019, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said, eventually leading to electric cars costing less than maintaining a gasoline vehicle.
Mandil agreed the electric car is a way to reconnect two markets that are increasingly disconnected. The energy market for transportation, oil and biofuels and the market for power, which is all the other fuels -- coal, gas, renewables -- can be reconnected through the electric car.
In the developing world, Liebreich found that clean energy technology is more compatible than in the developed world. It's cheaper to adapt to new energy technology in places without power grids than in places where the first concern is to build a centralized grid.
In Bangladesh, there are 870,000 homes with solar power, not subsidized but kick-started by non-government organizations, Liebreich said.
In Africa, telecom towers use hybrid wind-solar battery power because it's so expensive to buy and transport diesel fuel, he added.
Water is a major concern for Doug Arent, executive director of the Joint Institute for Energy Analysis.
With an increase in production on the energy front, the use of water domestically, regionally and globally will become a major issue in supplying water in nuclear power plants as well as in decarbonization, he said.
Liebreich's Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently started a new service focused on water technology and water investment.
But Arent emphasized another concern -- the increasingly complex policy environment that already exists.
"And dealing with this complexity of distributed, domestic energy resources and the essentially intellectual property manufacturing and service industries that are needed in order to take advantage of it … dealing with both of those together will make it a game-changing difficult environment for policy," he said.