Concentrated solar, biofuels competitive soon: BCG

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Solar energy and biofuels are on track to become economically competitive against conventional power sources within a few years to a decade, the Boston Consulting Group said on Wednesday.

Solar panels are pictured in the PS10 solar plant at "Solucar" solar park in Sanlucar la Mayor, near Seville, October 20, 2010. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Wind power and electric cars face hurdles to massive adoption, though, analysts at the consulting firm said in a report.

Alternative energy has appeared to be on the cusp of adoption for decades in one form or another -- Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof while U.S. president in the 1970s -- and report authors joked that alternative energy was always “a decade away”.

But it is likely to be part of the mainstream mix sooner than many expected, they argued. “There may be a silent revolution under way,” Balu Balagopal, a senior partner, said in an interview ahead of the report’s release.

Concentrated solar, which uses the sun’s heat to run a boiler to produce power, had a particularly strong outlook because plants can be built to hold heat for hours, allowing them to overcome problems from cloudy days -- or even nightfall, the report said.

Biofuels made from non-food sources such as switchgrass could be competitive with $3/gallon gasoline by 2012 to 2015, as costs of enzymes and feedstock fuels fall and the benefits of large-scale production kick in.

The projections were based on a combination of forecasts for materials, extrapolation of previous technological progress, and analysis of potential barriers toward rolling out new technologies on a large scale.

Thus while the cost of photovoltaic solar panels is expected to fall precipitously, without some form of energy storage they and land-based wind farms face challenges compared with other technologies, the group said.

More time also will be needed for costly offshore wind power as well as carbon capture and sequestration, the process of separating greenhouse gases from power plant exhaust and keeping them safe and separate, they predicted.

Electric vehicles likely will account for only about 5 to 10 percent of total new vehicle sales in 2020 as battery costs constrain adoption in many markets, BCG projected.

Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Dale Hudson