The future of energy—it’s not just about oil prices

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Biggest market mover of 2015?   

Oil prices and oversupply may be the energy buzzwords of the last few months, but what will be people in the sector be talking about in five, 10 or even 20 years' time?

As the World Economic Forum in Davos gets underway, CNBC takes a look at five of this year's key themes in its "5 in 15" series, starting with energy, and possibilities for the sector looking ahead.

Watch India

Demand for energy will rise 41 percent by 2035, with 95 percent of demand coming almost entirely from "emerging economies," BP said in its latest long-term outlook report last year.

While the oil supermajor saw China as the world's biggest importer and consumer of energy in 20 years' time, BP also predicted that the country's growth in energy demand would have started to slow, by then. Overtaking it in terms of the rate of growth of its energy demand will be India.

Furthermore, ExxonMobil of the U.S. has also identified what it calls "key growth countries" due to their rising populations and improving living standards. The countries ExxonMobil has identified as taking a an increasing share of the global energy market by 2040 include:

  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • South Africa
  • Nigeria
  • Egypt
  • Turkey
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Iran
  • Thailand
  • Indonesia

China muscles in on shale?

PetroChina workers at the site of an oil well in Xinjiang, China.
Bloomberg | Getty Images
PetroChina workers at the site of an oil well in Xinjiang, China.

The U.S. and Canada currently dominate the supply of shale oil and gas—which is removed from rock formations in a process known as fracking—but this might not always be the case.

BP forecast North America would account for 70 percent of shale output in 2035, down from around 99 percent by 2016. China is seen as the most likely candidate for growth in its shale industries. But are also lots of shale deposits in countries ranging from Argentina to France and Spain.

However, that does not mean that countries will necessarily be able to replicate the "shale revolution" enjoyed by the U.S., said Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodities strategy at BNP Paribas.

"Shale fracking in the U.S. has been around for a very long time in terms of technology. Americans today are quite adept at implementing fracking and have made leaps and bounds in terms of productivity gains and cost reduction in delivering shale oil. Other countries still face a steep learning curve when it comes to replicating the shale boom in the U.S.," he told CNBC.

Read MoreWhy commodity exporters may get a tailwind

In addition, the fracking industry was helped in the U.S. thanks to a plentiful supply of cheap capital and laws that give land owners own the right to any sub-soil resources on their property—a situation rarely found in other countries.

"One of the most critical factors in the development of U.S. shale oil has been property rights and in particular the ownership of the subsoil resource. In the U.S., this ownership is private, allowing for large scale leasing of land by independent oil companies for the purpose of exploration and development," said Tchilinguirian.

He added: "If there is going to be any development of shale oil reserves in China, it will likely have to be driven by China's oil companies rather than foreign participation, be it directly or through joint ventures."

Where's the investment?

The supply of long-term financing on reasonable terms is uncertain in the energy industry in the wake of the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

"Outside North America (where external financing is more readily available), there is a need to unlock new sources of finance, via growth of bond, securitization and equity markets and, potentially, by tapping into the large funds held by institutional investors, such as pension funds and insurers," said the International Energy Agency (IEA) in an energy investment outlook report out mid-2014.

Read MoreIEA spots signs that oil decline 'tide will turn'

Since then, the low energy price environment has hit companies' equity valuations and seen them cut back on capital expenditure.

"A large number of oil company stocks have been disproportionately hit by the recent decline in oil prices, making the energy sector looking undervalued," said Tchilinguirian.

He added that struggling, smaller listed companies could become takeover targets—giving weight to comments by co-CEO of Goldman Sachs International, Richard Gnodde, who told CNBC last week that "some activity" was likely in the energy M&A space this year.

Read MoreGoldman Sachs: Watch out for energy M&A in 2015

Nuclear safety fears

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz.
AFP/Stringer | AFP | Getty Images
An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz.

Emerging nuclear powers—and the security risk they could pose to the world—is one of the World Economic Forum's themes for its annual flagship meeting in Davos, Switzerland this week.

At present, Europe and the U.S. remains locked in discussion with Iran, as they attempt to strike a deal that would see the Middle Eastern state relinquish its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

"Safety is the dominant concern—safety in plant operation, safe radioactive waste disposal and safeguards against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And perhaps most importantly, there is the need to improve confidence in the competence and independence of regulatory oversight," said Faith Bitol, chief economist at the IEA, in a recent posting on the World Economic Forum's website.