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The Economics of Alternative Energy

Steve Sedgwick |CNBC Correspondent
Tuesday, 20 Jan 2009 | 10:09 AM ET

Let me start at the end rather than the beginning. You'll know where I'm heading that way. I've just had the most entertaining hour hosting a distinguished panel on the Economics of Alternative Energy in front of a packed audience of energy luminaries and journalists.

I ended the panel with a question to all those assembled: Will the current global recession, slowdown for those of you in denial, be the making or the breaking of the renewable energy movement? The resounding answer, perhaps not surprisingly, was that it would be the making of process to convert the world to a sustainable energy path.

Here endeth the good news! The problem is it became clear that we're nowhere near where we need to be. Kevin Parker, head of global asset management at Deutsche Bank, put it pretty bluntly. "We've got twenty years in which to get this done."

Thereafter the tipping point could well have come and gone. Kevin was one of five panelists from across the energy spectrum, and his message was that investors need the assurance of a price on carbon in order to be able to put their money on the table.

They need policy initiatives from Governments which will provide a fluency and longevity to projects. For too long, he argued the real economics issues had been clouded by the fact that emitters have no price on their polluting activities. The playing field needs leveling. PS Kevin currently has around $6 billion in renewables investment under management. He represents a rather key constituency.

Full marks go to Vivienne Cox, head of renewables at BP. It's not easy to come to a summit on renewables when you work for an IOC. She sat next to Kevin on my panel and far from banging the drum for hydrocarbons, she pointed out that we will need 'bridging technologies', that it will be a long time before the baton can be passed from hydrocarbons to renewables for all our energy needs.

One of those key, and pretty much untested, bridging technologies, she argued , could come in the form of carbon capture and storage. CCS is expensive, it uses more fuel than conventional power stations but could just create a solution for our growing CO2 waste.

For me, the key point about having BP on the panel is that we can't just shut out the traditional energy producers. Clearly they have capital, they have the will in many cases and they have the long-term energy production experience to help find solutions. We're all in this mess together. The new energy movement must be a broad church.

And it's not just IOCs. The Middle Eastern green initiatives are here on the ground in Abu Dhabi for all to see. The CEO of the Masdar initiative Dr Sultan Al Jaber joined our panel. His ambition of building the world's first and only fully sustainable city on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi City is both brave and ground-breaking and it's also happening here and now.

The world is watching to see if this can be pulled off. Dr Al Jaber refuses to see the current economic slowdown as a factor in limiting renewable expansion. The process has its own unstoppable dynamism. It cannot be stopped by short term economic troughs.

I also want to mention another one of my panelists, Paul Dickerson. He is a former member of the US Department of Energy Renewables team. And this is where the hope through adversity bit comes in. He, like a lot of the assembled panel and audience are watching with bated breath to how the US administration tackles the energy debate.

A Green New Deal could be on the table. Dickerson said under Obama a 'commercialization' of energy could occur. Maybe the industry is on the cusp of its 'Model T' moment i.e. when scale, price, desirability and performance all come together to create the right product at the right price.

My final thoughts from the WFES. This is January, throughout the year there is going to be a build up of momentum towards key climate change talks in Copenhagen at the end of the year. A lot will go wrong between now and then but a lot is going right too. Industry costs are down, technological innovation is moving apace, we have new leadership in the White House.

And as my debate showed earlier, despite all the well-documented financial woes we will continue to see this year, there is more than just good intent. There is a strong desire to make green profitable, to save Governments money and to combat climate change and our energy supplies for good.

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