The Long Road to an Alternative-Energy Future

FEBRUARY 22, 2010.
The Wall Street Journal

New energy technologies are coming that will shrink our use of fossil fuels and cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

Just don’t expect them anytime soon.

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Why the delay? After all, the computer revolution has shown how rapidly new innovations can be imagined, developed, brought to market and have an impact. But new energy technologies don’t work that way—they can take years to gain just a toehold in the market, and 20 to 30 years to push aside existing products or techniques.

That’s partly because of the sheer size of the energy market. The U.S. utility industry in 2009 produced an estimated 3.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity; nearly half of that was produced by coal. Solar power, which is doubling every couple of years, contributed less than 0.1%. Or consider transportation, which used an estimated 3.3 billion barrels of gasoline. And how much of that consisted of renewables, mainly corn-based ethanol? About 8%.

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Brian Stauffer .
Of course, no single technology needs to replace all that carbon-producing power. Researchers planning for future energy supplies are working on several technologies simultaneously, including carbon capture to produce electricity, and next-generation biofuels and electric-powered cars to move us around. They talk about the need for “silver buckshot,” instead of a silver bullet.

Researchers also agree that policy makers can speed or delay these developments—at least up to a point. A price on carbon, either through a tax or a carbon-trading mechanism, would make new technologies competitive with cheap oil and coal more quickly, spurring investment and adoption. Governments can also spend money on research, development and pilot projects, speeding the move from the drawing board to the market. Higher oil prices also make all the energy alternatives more attractive to investors and consumers.

But even if you combine all the current alternatives, they aren’t likely to make much of a dent for quite a few years. To better understand why, we offer a closer look at a handful of the most-promising clean-energy alternatives, and the reasons they’ll be a long time coming.

Read about alternative-energy options:

■New Nuclear Reactors
■Algal Biofuels
■Carbon Capture and Storage
■Electric Vehicles

Write to Michael Totty at


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