Exxon chief strategist sticks boot in on solar

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The chief strategist of one of the world’s largest multinational oil and gas companies has dismissed the long-term prospects of the solar power industry in a revealing interview with British newspaper, the Guardian.

Exxon’s Bill Colton has remarked that solar and wind power are "not ready for prime time" while asserting that the upheaval in the world’s energy mix will be driven mainly by oil and gas from North America.

However, the strategist did admit that Exxon’s own research forecasts solar, wind and other renewables to be the fastest-growing types of energy technology between now and 2040.

Colton labeled the quantities of natural gas discovered in North America in recent years as "almost unspeakable", and suggested that the fracking industry will help propel the continent to become the world’s largest exporter of gas by 2025.

"The world has such an improved outlook for supplies," said Colton. "Peak oil theorists have been run out of town by American ingenuity." Colton was referring to advances in drilling technology that have made fracking cheaper, easier and better equipped to explore more difficult terrain.

The rise of North American energy independence has caused oil prices to plummet in recent weeks, and there are other, more far-reaching concerns around the U.S.’s role in world politics should it become a net exporter of oil and gas.

Colton added that gas is poised to supplant coal as the second-most important fuel, after oil, as governments seek cleaner energy as they try to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

On this point, Colton was dismissive of the potential of renewable energy, telling the Guardian that some of the aggressive targets for renewables that governments have pledged are "too expensive to come to fruition", adding that technologies have not yet made the necessary advances in order to make them a compelling alternative to fossil fuels.

Exxon calculates that renewables will account for just 4% of world energy output by 2040. This figure is at odds with a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which suggested that renewables will overtake coal to become the world’s largest source of electricity by 2035. In the developing world, the report said, renewables will meet 37% of electric demand.

Further, a report released this week by Accenture suggested that utility revenues to fall by $123 billion by 2025 based on a top-end scenario, while adding that a "most likely scenario" could see U.S. utilities stripped of $18 billion in revenues, and those in Europe lose $48 billion. The increased penetration of clean technologies is going to be the single biggest factor affecting utilities’ revenues, the report added.

Exxon, however, suggest that fossil fuels will still be the dominant energy source by 2040, with oil accounting for 32% energy, then gas at 26%, and coal at 19%.

A number of analysts dispute Exxon’s calculations and Colton’s assertions. Penn State Earth System Science Center’s climate scientist and director Michael E Mann claims that renewable grid parity is prevalent in many parts of the world, and as economies gradually begin to realize the dangers of climate change the pace of renewable adoption is likely to quicken dramatically over the coming years.

"Exxon’s vision of a fossil fuel-driven future is one in which carbon dioxide levels rise well beyond the dangerous limit, where we will witness fundamental threats to food, water, land, our economy, national security and our environment," Mann told the Guardian.

"Let’s hope, for the sake of us and our planet, that this is not our future."