NEW YORK —
But the outlook for wind, batteries and biofuels is as dim as it’s been in a decade. Global greenhouse gas agreements have fizzled. Dazzling discoveries have been made in laboratories, and some of these may yet develop into transformative products, but alternative energy technologies haven’t become cheaper or more useful than fossil fuels.
Solar, wind and geothermal sources together accounted for 4.8 percent of U.S. power generation last year. Ten percent of U.S. gasoline demand was satisfied with corn ethanol, but ethanol and other fuels made from non-food sources have yet to hit the market.
“In many cases, renewables aren’t ready for primetime yet,” says George Biltz, vice president for energy and climate change at Dow Chemical, which continues to work on a host of renewable technologies.
Likewise, electric cars have not enjoyed the success many expected. The battery alone in an electric car costs as much as a new gasoline-powered car, and electric vehicles are not selling nearly as fast as once projected. General Motors expected to sell 60,000 Chevy Volts globally last year, but sold just half that many. Sales of Nissan’s all-electric Leaf grew 22 percent around the world last year to 26,000, short of Nissan’s projected 50 percent growth.
The cost of wind and solar power has declined, but the price of electricity made with newly cheap fossil fuels has fallen too, making it harder for wind and solar to compete.
“Renewables are now under scrutiny. They haven’t made the kinds of quantum leaps we have seen in the oil and gas industry,” says First Reserve Corp.’s Santiago, who now shuns investments in alternatives.
David Aldous, the former Shell executive, learned that lesson while trying to turn wood chips into ethanol at Range Fuels. The system that fed the chips into a gasification chamber didn’t work well, and the project failed.