The surprising new energy reality

Scott Tong Dec 5, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The second and final week of the global summit on climate change in Durban, South Africa, starts today. In case you haven’t been paying super close attention, maybe this’ll do it.

New numbers released this weekend show carbon dioxide emissions around the world — that is, the most common greenhouse gas — have shot through the roof. Europeans and Chinese negotiators have been suggesting an eventual binding deal to cut those greenhouse gas emissions in three years, at the earliest. Lots of countries are playing the you-go-first card, so no one expects a comprehensive agreement by week’s end.

Still, energy markets are getting ready for change. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports.

Scott Tong: The brown energy industry — as in oil, gas and coal — has been around way longer than the green energy industry. Brown is cheaper. And it gets six times more subsidies.

So with climate talks in the slow lane, bet on brown. Right?


Not exactly. Last year, for the first time ever, more investment actually poured into renewable power.

Like this solar panel farm being installed in New Jersey. Bloomberg New Energy Finance says green attracted $187 billion in 2010 — that’s 20 percent more than brown.

Dan Yergin: Renewables has gone from a very immature industry to becoming in its own right substantial global business.

That’s Pulitzer energy writer Dan Yergin. His new book is “The Quest.”

Yergin: You have had a series of very strong financial incentives from governments that are driving the growing role for renewables. In the United States, utilities must get a certain percentage of electricity from renewables.

Governments are pushing it, technology is pulling it along.

And then you have good old, self-interest. Nick Robins is with the bank HSBC.

Nick Robins: For example, resource scarcity. Increasing water scarcity, which does put constraints on the amount of conventional power generation you can have. So I think deployment of renewables makes sense, strategically. And also, then you have the energy security issues.

He thinks the world’s $200 billion clean energy market may double in a generation. And that means opportunity for the historic innovators: the rich countries. Right?


Robins actually thinks emerging market investments will lead the world. South Africa is mulling a fossil fuel tax, which makes alternatives more competitive. Brazil plans to triple its green power. And China Inc., it’s investing on the hope that green power is the next big thing.

Robins: These economies in East Asia have generally followed the Western model, from heavy industry and steel, shipbuilding, autos, into electronics and so on. When they’re look forward and saying ‘Where are the next sources of our growth?’ you look at this low-carbon economy, clean technology and so on.

By Bloomberg’s reckoning, developing countries invest more in renewables now than rich ones.

Like America. Which remains addicted to imported oil. Right?


Not so much. Here’s Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency.

Fatih Birol: The picture is changing, and the picture is changing very rapidly. According to our analysis, U.S. oil imports are going to decline substantially.

Now, we bring in 13 million barrels of oil every day. The IEA thinks the imports will shrink in half by 2035. Our cars are more efficient, and we’re drilling more for our own fossil fuels.

The big rage is natural gas. Charif Souki runs the Houston energy firm Cheniere. He says we don’t even know how much we have.

Charif Souki: When you ask the producers how big do you think it’s going to be, they are very uncomfortable giving you an answer, because it’s still a work in progress. But you can see that they’re smiling when they tell you that, because they keep thinking it gets bigger every year.

America is swimming in billions of cubic feet of natural gas, or bcf.

Souki: Every bcf is 50,000 jobs. Every bcf helps us raise $3 billion or $4 billion we can then use to pay the oil.

But the energy business is full of risk. Will the banks lend to the exporters? Is natural gas drilling safe for the environment? Will other countries find their own, and not need ours?

These are 20- to 30-year bets, based on assumptions. And every so often, those long-held assumptions are wrong.


In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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