LONDON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Humble, established technologies including natural gas and energy efficiency are top picks to lead a clean energy race through 2020, policymakers and senior executives told Reuters this week.
But a longer fight to avoid dangerous climate change including droughts, floods and rising seas may require multiple breakthroughs in nuclear power, farming, biofuels, as well as today's top renewables -- solar and wind energy.
Industry and banks are placing bets on the climate-friendly energy of the future in a contest that may have many winners, business and policy leaders told Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.
"If one wins and others lose, we've all lost," said Google Inc Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl. Coal, maligned for its emissions of greenhouse gases that stoke global warming, won't give up its dominance in electricity generation easily.
Competing priorities such as U.S. healthcare and global recession threaten fast movement and decisive action at a major U.N.-led climate meeting in Copenhagen in December.
Both Californian and British officials saw energy efficiency as top priority. Efficiency actually makes money, by cutting fuel bills, unlike expensive solar power, for example.
Britain's minister for energy and climate change, Joan Ruddock, said efficiency "is the most critical thing" to meet Britain's 2020 goal to cut greenhouse gases by more than a third.
California's chief climate official, Mary Nichols, said efficiency would contribute most carbon cuts from electricity generation -- not renewable energy.
The United Nations' top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said energy efficiency was a no-brainer. "We're rather stupid not to be driving that revolution more forcefully than we are anyway," he said. "The odd thing for me to say is that you don't need Copenhagen to drive a revolution in energy efficiency."
But not enough people are actually buying efficiency. "It's a failure of economics," rued Richard Kauffman, chief executive of green venture investment firm Good Energies.
The head of Deutsche Bank's global asset management Kevin Parker saw another existing fuel -- natural gas -- as a sure winner because of new reserve finds, low prices, and an established supply network. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, but burns much cleaner than oil or coal.
Longer term, transportation may usher in the biggest changes in energy use -- especially if they run on electricity instead of biofuels.
"The key thing that will look different is we will be consuming a lot more electricity as we substitute electricity for heating and transport," said Paul Golby, chief executive of the UK arm of German utility E.ON AG.
"Potentially, the road ahead is a golden age for electricity ... because of a shift to transport," said HSBC's Nick Robins. "That is where the potential for disruptive breaks occurs, for costs -- particularly in solar -- to come down considerably."
Beyond 2020, electricity would also have to be supplied by an untested technology to trap and bury carbon emissions from coal plants, called carbon capture and storage (CCS), said the head of Britain's science academy, Martin Rees.
"Unless CCS can be implemented in the 2020s there is no chance whatever of turning around the graph where carbon emissions are rising," he said.
"In 20 years we are not going to phase out coal completely, no way," said Google's Weihl, agreeing carbon capture was an important bet to make.
"Biofuels, genetic (crop) modification, fourth generation nuclear power, fusion, battery technology should all be developed with urgency," Rees added.
In developing countries with no power grids, roof-top solar power generation could leap-frog centralized power plants, said Carl Pope, executive director of Sierra Club.
"In very many parts of the world we haven't begun to tap the solar potential," said Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme. "We are just beginning to tap the wind power potential."
Reporting by Gerard Wynn in London and Peter Henderson in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Michael Szabo and Nina Chestney in London, Alister Doyle in Oslo, Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan, Matt Daily in New York; Editing by Gary Hill