I spent last week in Houston for CERAWeek, one of the premier conferences for the global energy industry put on by IHS. This was the first year they had a panel on renewables and I was honored to participate as a speaker. CERAWeek convenes senior business and government leaders to assess the current state of oil, natural gas, coal, renewables, and nuclear power. It’s all about energy on a vast scale.
I found the conference humbling and inspiring at the same time. Humbling because the vastness of our global energy needs is difficult to grasp. Humbling because the immensity of activities going on to extract fossils from some of the most inhospitable places in the world to meet that need is also hard to visualize. Humbling because on that scale renewables today are still so small. I’ll get to the inspiring bit in a moment.
The theme of CERAWeek this year was “transformation and change.” The main focus of this theme was clearly the upheaval wrought by fracking and other unconventional fossil recovery methods. Driven by new technologies and new drilling techniques, the global assessment of recoverable resources has been turned upside down.
In short, the US—once thought to face a bleak future of endless oil and natural gas imports—now sits on an abundance of oil and gas that could make us energy independent by 2020. And a world which not so long ago was thought to be at “peak oil” is now at the beginning of a multi-decade (if not a century’s) upswing in production.
So radical is the transformation that an oil economist like Philip Verleger Jr. can ask quite reasonably whether the U.S. ought “to consider joining with other energy-exporting countries, like those in OPEC, to sustain high oil prices.” Wrap your head around that.
This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The last decade was supposed to be about dwindling fossil resources. It was supposed to be about the transition to an innovation-led effort to supplant fossils with new renewable technologies. If there is one constant in energy, it is that surprises are the norm.
Now to the inspiration. The other focus of CERAWeek’s “transformation and change” was the revolution that’s occurring in renewables, particularly solar and wind. For decades considered expensive and impractical, solar and wind have leapfrogged their way into the top three least expensive sources of electric generation. And they’re now the fastest growing segment of energy overall.
As you might expect, this means wind and solar are going to be a big part of the future of electric power. In fact, IHS’s own analysts forecast that by 2030 solar and wind will generate as much solar power as the nuclear sector does today. That’s the status quo scenario and that's almost as hard to wrap your head around as what's happened with oil and gas.
Here's the thing. I think we can do even better. And we have to if we’re going to make real progress on climate change. After all while it’s wonderful to have lots of cheap oil and gas, they’re still part of the carbon problem. Even ‘clean’ natural gas is only preferable when compared to its dirty cousin coal.
I left Houston inspired by the progress renewables have made and fired up about the road ahead. We have to focus now on building an upside to the status quo. The new conversation is now longer how to afford renewables, it’s about how to integrate as much of affordable solar and gas as our grid and our nation can take. Hopefully five year's from now that's the status quo we'll be talking about.