The Future of Energy

Vancouver, Canada - Fossil fuels will continue to dominate the global demand for energy for at least the next 20 years, with higher energy prices for consumers and renewables playing only a minor role. That was the ‘consensus’ prediction by energy experts at a GLOBE 2008 session on "The Future of Energy Dialogue."

Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise in the atmosphere to well above ‘safe’ levels - in terms of precipitating climate change - of more than 500 parts per million, predicted Bob Elton, president and CEO of BC Hydro. "I don’t believe from what I’ve seen that we’re going to solve it (the greenhouse gas issue)" in the short term, he said. He expects there will climate change-related catastrophes followed by intensified efforts to adapt to climate change.

"In the long term, I believe we’ll solve the problem," Elton told EnviroLine afterward. "The trouble is, as people, we like to see real impacts before we actually take action. And this (climate change problem) is hard, because the impacts are often felt somewhere else in the world."

BC Hydro is delivering more ‘green’ energy to its consumers and working on energy-conservation measures, while at the same time increasing its capital spending on storm protection because more extreme weather events are expected with climate change, he said. With two billion people in the world without access to electricity, energy demand will continue to increase especially in developing countries, Elton told the GLOBE session. These countries will choose renewable energy sources only if they cost less than fossil fuels, he said.

Closer to home, British Columbia needs the right mix of community involvement and technologies, along with energy conservation, preservation of hydro power and more renewable energy, Elton said.

Bill Smith, vice-president, power generation for Siemens Canada, said that coal and natural gas will still be providing most of the fuel for power generation in 2030. Coal accounted for 41 per cent of power generation in 2006, and is projected to provide 39 per cent in 2030, he said. Natural gas provided 20 per cent of power generation in 2006, and will account for 22 per cent in 2030.

Renewables, which provided two per cent of power generation in 2006, will account for only eight per cent in 2030, Smith said. Siemens, which he noted invests 6 ½ per cent of its revenues in "innovation," is installing a combined-cycle gas plant in Germany that will break the 60-per-cent energy efficiency barrier. The company also has installed more than 300 megawatts of wind power.

Even renewable energy sources can lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, Smith noted. "It takes a lot of money to build a solar cell, and you produce a lot of CO2 doing it," he said. "Carbon is here to stay," so society must find ways of displacing carbon, including putting a price on carbon emissions, he added.

Smith called for three things to tackle the problem of energy demand and demand-management: a "technology push" (including R&D funding for key technologies and full-scale demonstration projects; a "market pull;" and "a legal basis (for) and public acceptance" of innovative energy systems.

Marc Josz, head of strategy and portfolio management for SUEZ Energy International in Brussels, told the GLOBE session that China installed about 105 gigawatts of new power in 2006 (equivalent to all the electricity generated in France) - 90 per cent of it from coal-fired power plants. Coal reserves are 1.5 times higher than combined proven reserves of oil and natural gas, and coal prices are less volatile compared with gas, he said, adding that "clearly, coal could be the fuel of reference for the 21st century."

China, however, also has set a target of obtaining 10 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, Josz noted. He called for more engagement by North America and Europe with China and India on improving energy systems.

For consumers, "I can only see high electricity prices in the future," Josz said. SUEZ Energy, which has 52 gigawatts of installed capacity, has targeted 100 GW by 2020. "Nuclear (energy) is part of the solution," he said, noting that nuclear provides up to 50 per cent of the electricity in Belgium.

Bob Huggard, president, home and business services, North America for Direct Energy, told the session that technology must play a crucial role in meeting future energy demand while not increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Direct Energy installed more than 5,000 high-efficiency furnaces in Ontario and B.C. last year. The company is also participating in more than 3,600 natural gas wells in Alberta, is involved in coal bed methane projects, and is looking at development of highly efficient fuel cells fuelled by hydrocarbons. "We need industry to drive technologies into the energy markets," Huggard said.

Governments should allow markets to reflect the "true cost" of energy, Huggard said. Alberta, he added, should have put its natural gas rebate - paid to homeowners whenever the market price of gas goes above a certain level - into improving energy efficiency or renewable energy development.

BC Hydro’s Elton said that the market by itself won’t solve the problem of energy demand and demand- management, so market signals and incentives are required. One proposal in B.C. is to charge consumers 6.2 cents per kilowatt-hour if they consume less electricity than the provincial average, and seven cents per kilowatt-hour if they use more power than the provincial average. BC Hydro is getting "very creative" on demand side innovations, Elton said.

Meanwhile, Kevin Walsh, managing director of the renewable energy group at General Electric’s energy financial services group, said renewables could make up between five to 10 per cent of the energy mix in the U.S. - up from the current 2.5 per cent - within 10 years. GE plans to invest US$6 billion in renewables by 2010. Walsh spoke in May at the Milken Institute Global Conference in California.

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