01 November 2010

Wharton Energy Conference Tries to Bridge the Future

Judging by the commentary at last Friday's Wharton Energy Conference, the bridge to the future is a double-truss of traditional and alternatives.
The conference, held at the stodgy, old-fashioned Union League of Philadelphia, featured a stellar group of experts in three tracks, including representatives from traditional energy sources (fossil fuels, nuclear), alternatives, and the regulatory and financial players to help navigate.

And it was no more evident than in the sentiments expressed by the speakers over lunch.

"Traditional sources of energy are going to be with us a long time," said Mark Mills, founding partner of Digital Power Capital. "The world doesn't really react to $80 barrel oil. $80 a barrel is the new floor. $150 a barrel is not question of 'if' but 'when'."

Mills was participating in a mock scenario over lunch demonstrating how an energy storage company needs navigates between those who hold the purse strings and those who have the regulatory clout to help or hinder its business.

"As an investor, I want rules and guidelines, especially around interconnection and safety, to anticipate where it is going," said Mills. "It's not important to have the "right" rules, but just have the rules not change."

After lunch, investors shared their insights about the state of financing in cleantech and energy businesses.

"Renewables have taken a beating lately," offered Michael DeRosa, a managing partner with Element Partners, a leading investor in high growth companies in the energy and clean technology markets. "But let's remember that renewables is a broad category."

"Solar seems to be the most expensive, but it has the best potential for distributed generation and actually has the lowest subsidies," suggested DeRosa. "Geothermal is a very economic source of base load generation. We should be looking at more geothermal in the US."

DeRosa shared his concerns about picking one technology over another to receive subsidies.

"Does it make sense to subsidize electric vehicles or a particular type of solar product that may have risks," asked DeRosa. "Risk in light of a lithium shortage, for example or other rare earth material, versus a subsidy for natural gas vehicles and an industry where we know we can access all the reserves?"

The subject of reserves was also taken up by those on the traditional energy side of the equation.

Representatives from Shell, ExxonMobil, and Brazil's quasi-state oil exploration company Petrobras analyzed their quest for tapping into reserves and the need for all sources of energy for the future.

"We're still going to be using a lot of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future," said Robert Lance Cook of Shell. "We see natural gas as not just a bridge fuel, but as a destination. It has a 2-to-1 advantage over coal in terms of CO2."

The future of energy is paved by old technology, new technology -- and creative folks trying to develop the right policies and financing vehicles to make innovation possible.

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