In 2013, China installed 26 gigawatts of solar and wind power. That's roughly five times as much as was installed by the United States, the second largest renewable power player. The pair spent nearly $100 billion combined last year. But, perhaps surprisingly, a roughly $1 billion utility plant retrofit that recently went live in Canada may have the bigger long-term impact.
There's no question that solar, wind, and other renewable power options are a huge opportunity to improve the environment. And, for those with both an environmental eye and a financial bent, there's an opportunity to make money because growth within the industry has been swift. The amazing customer growth statistics at SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY) are proof.
Since 2009, the company's customer base has grown at more than 100% a year. No wonder the price of the company's stock has skyrocketed more than 300% since it went public. The only thing is, pretty much everyone on Wall Street sees what's going on. And while such renewable power technology is transformative, there are other efforts taking place in the energy space that could be even bigger.
Clean tech of a different sort
One sleeper technology that's finally coming to fruition is carbon capture and sequestration. SaskPower in Canada has the pleasure of being the first utility in the world to go live with the technology at utility scale. SaskPower retrofitted the tech onto an existing 110 megawatt coal-fired power plant at a cost of around $1.2 billion (U.S.). It is expected to capture up to 90% of the carbon dioxide produced from the plant. The captured carbon will be sold into the energy industry for use in drilling activities.
While SaskPower may be the first to flip the switch, it isn't the only power company working on carbon capture. For example, Southern Company (NYSE:SO) is in the process of getting its 580 megawatt Kemper coal-fired power plant up and running. The big difference here is that Kemper has been built from the ground up to include carbon capture. NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG) is also working on carbon capture at a 240 megawatt coal plant, though, like SaskPower, it's a retrofit. Both Southern Company and NRG Energy plan to sell the carbon dioxide they capture to the energy industry. The takeaway here, however, is that, despite high costs and no track record at the utility scale level, carbon capture is gaining steam.
Clean coal to the rescue?
While you may hate coal, this enabling technology is one to watch closely because it could be huge for the environment. Why? Because around 40% of the world's power comes from coal and roughly two-thirds from carbon-based fuels.
In other words, despite all the money being spent on renewable power, carbon fuels still rule the roost. Cleaning these up, then, would have a much bigger impact today than waiting for renewable power to displace carbon fuels.
But the fly in the ointment is the cost. According to the Congressional Budget Office power from coal plants with carbon capture is likely to cost as much as 75% more than power from a coal plant without. And, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's projections, power from coal with carbon capture would cost roughly 80% more than onshore wind and just under 15% more than photovoltaic solar. Offshore wind and thermal solar would remain more costly.
But the cost overruns and delays at Southern's Kemper plant paint an ugly picture of the reality of carbon capture. The plant was expected to cost $2.6 billion, but is going to cost more than $5.5 billion. The SaskPower plant also saw a price increase, though a far more modest 10% or so. Essentially, both projects highlight the problem: an already expensive technology that winds up costing more than projected. And both got a helping hand from their respective local governments, though the same could be said of many renewable power alternatives.
Although carbon capture proponents say costs will come down as more companies invest in the technology, that may not happen because costs are currently so high. A chicken and egg conundrum. However, if a price tag is placed on carbon and experience allows for costs to drop, it's reasonable to believe that the cost of carbon capture technology will fall. The second round of carbon capture installations will be the real test.
If you're interested in getting involved, Southern Company is a part owner of the technology it's installing and hopes to license it to other utilities. If you'd prefer to avoid a direct investment in a utility investing in carbon capture, Southern's partner at the Kemper plant is engineering and construction player KBR (NYSE:KBR). KBR will clearly have developed important skills that it can offer utilities looking to build carbon capture plants, once Kemper is complete.
Even if you don't want to get involved, and still hate coal, don't overlook the massive impact that cleaning coal, and other carbon fuels, could have on the environment. Like renewable power, carbon capture could truly be a transformational technology.
Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends SolarCity and Southern Company. The Motley Fool owns shares of NRG Energy and SolarCity. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.