Inside Report: Alternative energy showing promising signs

By Amy Wold

Advocate staff writer

Although other countries have done more than the U.S. to invest in alternative energy sources, industries in the U.S. are now seeing such investments as a business opportunity, William Brinkman, director of the office of science with the U.S. Department of Energy, said during a talk last month at LSU.

Once consumers are convinced the costs of renewable or alternative energy are more affordable, “it will take off,” Brinkman said.

Investments in alternative energy in the U.S. have oscillated over the years, he said. China’s investment in alternative energy is increasing, even though that country’s initial focus was on building coal-fired power plants. He also noted that Europe is much farther ahead of the U.S. in the use and development of renewable energy.

In a study of federal subsidies of energy resources, Double Bottom Line Venture Capital notes that fossil fuel received much more government support in its early development than renewable energy has.

“The federal commitment to O&G (oil and gas) was five times greater than the federal commitment to renewables during the first 15 years of each subsidies’ life, and it was more than 10 times greater for nuclear,” according to the report.

Brinkman said investing in alternative fuel sources is critical to addressing rising carbon dioxide levels worldwide.

“There’s great debate about the impact of this,” Brinkman said. “But in recent times the temperature has really taken off.”

When scientists run computer models of carbon dioxide levels and the corresponding temperature increase, it’s clear human-caused carbon dioxide is in the mix, he said.

“This year has been the hottest year on record and the last 10 years have been the hottest decade on record,” Brinkman said. “It’s pretty clear that increased temperature has to do with humans putting CO2 into the air.”

So what can be done?

“There are a lot of solutions to this problem, but they’re all too expensive,” he said. “The issue is how to bring the cost of this stuff down.”

And that appears to be happening as investment in alternative fuel and energy resources increases.

“There’s no way you can do without fossil fuel,” he said. However, investors are showing an increased interest in solar, biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, batteries, small reactors, fuel cells, wind and other energy sources.

He displayed a chart of fossil fuel and clean energy investments that shows alternative energy investment had been increasing while fossil fuel investment had been decreasing until 2011. That’s when investment in hydraulic fracturing began a growth spurt.

But the renewable energy sources show some economic promise, he said.

“Wind, of course, is something that is really taking off,” Brinkman said.

The 2011 Renewable Energy Data Book from the U.S. Department of Energy notes that “worldwide, wind energy is one of the fastest growing renewable electricity technologies — between 2000 and 2011, wind electricity generation worldwide increased by a factor of 13. The United States experienced even more dramatic growth, as installed wind electricity capacity increased by a factor of 18 between 2000 and 2011.”

The key, however, is to attract consumers through lower energy costs.

At first, industry said it couldn’t be done, Brinkman said, but then they started thinking about it and at this point have essentially reached reductions in cost.

Amy Wold covers the environment for The Advocate. She can be reached at awold@theadvocate.com.