06/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conference on World Affairs 2010: The Challenge of Renewable Energy

Produced by HuffPost's Citizen Reporting Team

Boulder, CO - There is a need for substantial and consistent long-term investment in R&D, in both the public and private sectors, to achieve alternative sources that reach the necessary scale at an affordable cost. This was the consensus of the professionals who took on the task of defining the near-term challenges for renewable energy sources and production.

Toyota's Jaycie Chitwood, a future-fuels manager in Advanced Technology Vehicles, said she saw federalism as the biggest challenge, noting the web of rate structures, rules and unaligned regulatory agencies with differing priorities.

"We are affected by shifting political agendas," said Chitwood. "That must change."

"Greenhouse gas emissions is the real challenge to me," said Doug Ray, associate lab director at the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a recognized authority on decarbonizing the global energy system.

"The US is 5% of the global population but consumes 25% of its energy," said Ray. "The biggest problem with that is the rest of the world aspires to our lifestyle."

Charles Jess, a consulate section chief in Shanghai, zeroed in on the impact of China as the emerging world consumer, while warning not to believe China's statistics, since state-owned enterprises don't give out accurate data.

"In 15 years, China will probably be the biggest oil and gas spender," Jess said. "But China also has the world's largest photovoltaic production and is working on wind, solar and bioenergy."

"The current problem is the reverse brain drain in renewables," he said. "Research dollars are being spent in the US but the results are being taken to China for production."

The speakers agreed that fossil fuels, which will dominate into mid-century, are now the only economically viable and scalable choice. Noting that 86% of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels, and only one percent from renewables, Ray pointed out people can't afford to double their energy costs. Taxing carbon would level the playing field for alternatives, which is desirable, but costs will go up, which is undesirable. Conversion is expensive and time-consuming.

Other practical challenges include the lack of large-scale energy storage ability, the fact there are several thousand independent energy grids in the country instead of a single entity, and the inability of present batteries to both propel vehicles and store energy that could be returned to the grid. Toyota is working on such a battery, Chitwood said, but does not expect to have it for another 10 years.

As for promising new alternatives, like algae as a fuel source, long-term investment will be required and it remains questionable what sources will be able to achieve the needed scale and cost. Hydroelectric and nuclear are currently the cheapest alternatives, with wind several times more costly and solar several times more costly than wind. Other options are in beginning stages.

As for the most promising future technology, it is probably a not-yet-developed hybrid, solar, and/or nuclear fusion (not fission), according to Ray.

Meanwhile, Ray, Jess and Chitwood were hopeful.

Chitwood noted under the Obama administration there is more money for renewables and less for oil and gas development.

Ray said, "It is possible for us to rebuild our manufacturing base, along the lines Germany has followed."

Jess added, "We have some comparative advantages to compete with China and the world: we have the needed infrastructure, open exchange of thoughts, and an educational system which is the envy of the world."

Moderator Bob Noun of Colorado's National Renewable Energy Lab led the discussion.