Clean energy overestimated: panel

Governments and the public are overestimating the role clean energy will play in the next 50 years.

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Governments and the public are overestimating the role clean energy will play in the next 50 years and underestimating the challenge the world faces in doubling energy supplies, according to a panel of energy experts. The experts yesterday painted a grim picture of the world's ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions while meeting exploding demand for fossil fuels in emerging markets.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) and other authorities, for instance, assumed greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels would be limited by schemes to capture the emissions and pump them underground, but their estimates were too generous, said David Victor, the director of an energy studies programme at Stanford Law School. "The actual role of the technology is on a different planet from what people imagine," he told a conference in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Victor estimated the world would at best capture and store up to 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide underground by 2030. The IEA, however, has said the US alone would need to capture 350 million tonnes per year by then. The dialogue over energy also underestimated the growing role cheap coal was playing in fuelling the world economy, and the damaging effect that would have on greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas when burnt in modern power stations, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The rising price of oil and a concurrent falling in shipping rates has increased the appeal of coal to industry and power producers, Dr Victor said. "You would think that all this talk about CO2 and greenhouse gases would lead people to move away from coal," he said. But falling shipping rates mean "coal is undergoing a transformation similar to what the natural gas industry went through with LNG".

Even with Europe's strict carbon emissions regulations, coal power plants remained cheaper than natural gas or alternatives, he said. "The price of CO2 in Europe would need to be double current levels just to get power plants fuelled by coal and power plants fuelled by gas on an even keel," he said. With many alternatives still out of reach, cleaner-burning natural gas would remain the easiest solution to satisfy growing energy demand.

At the same time, a shift to a clean, hydrogen-based economy was still many years away, according to Peter Edwards, a professor at Oxford University who focuses on hydrogen research. "It's going to be hard, in fact impossible, to wean the world off fossil fuels," he said. "But of course there's a cost to this," he added, which came in the form of climate change. The shift away from fossil fuels would take longer than optimists would care to admit, said Abdul Munim al Kindy, the general manager of the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

"The hard facts are, to change from one fuel to another, you need a cycle of 20 to 30 years," he said. Mr Kindy said people underestimated the size of the energy challenge facing the world, and believed everyone would have to get used to living with less energy, and carefully budgeting the energy they did use. "Mankind would find a solution, but among those answers would be a different way of life," he said. "I think 50 years from now, people will wonder if they can iron their clothes."