Although the reflexive response from the renewable energy community to anything "big oil" has to say about the future of energy is typically a big fat "No" -- especially in the age of fracking and all the bad blood it engenders -- a sustainable energy campaign recently launched by Shell is both laudable and noteworthy in several key respects.
To begin with, Shell appears keen to step away from the often antagonistic rhetoric that seems to permeate the great gulf that exists between the petro and renewable energy communities.
It wasn't so long ago -- in fact, in my personal case, it was only this year -- that oil and gas industry professionals essentially said, "There is no renewable energy future."
One prominent oil and gas industry analyst even went so far as to tell me, "The oil and gas giants have a lot of smart people working for them; if renewables really made sense, don't you think they'd be doing them already."
To its great credit, Shell, through its new campaign, has embraced the idea that to have a truly sustainable energy future in the foreseeable term, we're going to need both renewables and fossil fuels to meet the demands of growing population and (hopefully) less poor planet.
As Shell points out, more than 9 billion people are expected to live on Earth by 2050, up from seven billion today.
"Asia’s fast-growing cities will absorb much of this growth, with three in four people living in urban centres, [and] billions of people will rise out of energy poverty," its web site says.
At the same time, the corporation adds, "total global energy demand could double by mid-century from its level in 2000," and that means a range of sources will be needed to supply the energy, we, our children and grandchildren in the future."
By Shell's reckoning, renewables may account for up to 30 percent of the world's energy mix by 2050.
Obviously this seems a bit modest compared to recent projections from the United Nations and others, like the International Energy Agency, who have suggested that renewable energy from the sun, wind, water and biomass can and should generate a major portion of the planet's energy by 2050.
The UN's analysis -- its most comprehensive assessment of the potential for the renewable energy sector to date, prepared for last May's climate change conference in Abu Dhabi -- weighed 164 separate development scenarios.
As a baseline, it considered 2008 as a baseline of sorts, reporting that renewables accounted for 12.9 percent of the world's energy supply, and provided a breakdown of percentages:
Biomass: 10.2 percent;
Hydropower 2.3 percent;
Wind 0.2 percent;
Solar 0.1 percent;
Geothermal 0.1 percent; and
and ocean 0.002 percent.
The report also noted that coal, oil and gas together make up 85 percent, and nuclear energy, two percent of the mix.
Overall, a majority of projections reviewed show a "substantial increase" in renewable energy usage - ranging from 3-to-20 fold - in the deployment of renewable energy by "2030, 2050 and beyond."
Many scenarios showed renewables reaching 200 to 400 exajoules -- a unit measure of energy -- a year by mid-century.
By then, the International Energy Agency has said, the total global energy supply should be about 1,000 exajoules, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
But the UN was also quick to point out that the continuing growth of renewables is not inexorable and faces many obstacles.
These include, the UN said, vested political interests, inadequate incentive structures for developing new technologies, and subsidies for dirtier types of energy.
What's important about the new Shell campaign, is that it suggests while they may differ with the UN, International Energy Agency and others on numbers and expectations vis-a-vis our energy future, a page has been turned, and at least in the case of one proactive energy giant, they and renewable energy advocates are on it.
We all now agree that as more people gain access to energy and enjoy higher standards of living over the coming decades, these developments will place greater pressure on the world’s resources, and -- and -- Shell agrees that climate change is and will remain a serious concern.
Also eye-opening is that many of the activities the campaign highlights -- where the rubber meets the roads and is more than just "messaging" is that the corporation is striving to take definitive steps to provide energy from cleaner sources, reduce CO2 emissions from its operations and those of its end customers, and also to help its customers use energy more efficiently.
"All sources will be needed to meet growing needs in a sustainable way. Everyone has a part to play," the corporation says on its web site.
Shell plans to spend $100 billion from 2011-2014 to support new energy production, most that, admittedly, to further develop resources like natural gas, which are outside Renewable Energy Magazine's purview.
Even here, it is encouraging to watch Shell's videos and read their reports and learn of their efforts to offer advanced fuels and lubricants to help boost fuel efficiency.
But what we find particularly pleasing are statements such as this:
"We believe the most practical, commercially viable way to reduce CO2 from transport fuels over the next 20 years will be lower-carbon bio-fuels."
In fact, Shell has already moved decisively in this sector, evolving from one of the world's largest suppliers to actual production.
For instance, through a joint venture with Cosan, Shell has moved into the production of low-carbon ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane.
"Shell was one of the first energy companies to invest in advanced bio-fuels from non-edible plants and crop waste. We continue to invest in a range of projects and have our own research teams in the UK, the USA, the Netherlands and India," the company says. "We also partner with leading biotechnology companies and academic institutions as part of our work to develop advanced bio-fuels."
Since 2002, Shell and Iogen Corporation have collaborated via a joint venture company called Iogen Energy to develop the processing technology that enables ethanol to be made from agricultural residue, such as straw and corn stover using enzymes.
These activities were revised somewhat last spring, but Iogen Energy will continue to pursue activity to progress cellulosic ethanol, Shell says, though the exact plans are still being developed.
In addition, a research programme with Codexis in the USA develops natural enzymes into “super enzymes” which Shell says are quicker at converting biomass to ethanol, as well as directly into components similar to petrol and diesel fuel. Codexis is also working closely with Shell and Iogen Energy to help make their conversion process more efficient.
Shell concedes that electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be important in the longer term, but in the meantime it believes that bio-fuels -- and especially bio-fuel blends with petrol and diesel -- offers "the best, commercially viable way to reduce CO2 emissions from road transport fuels over the next 20 years."
Along the same lines, Shell also emphasizes that while renewables are undeniably a growing part of the future, no matter where one stands on the advocacy scale, all must concede that it's going to take awhile to roll out large-scale facilities.
As a result, Shell says it's critical that measures be taken to lower CO2 emissions and increase energy efficiency in the interim.
As one example, Shell points to a road laying technology that allows surfaces to be set in place at lower temperatures, lowering the related CO2 emissions in the process.