Graphic by EIA and Lippman Consulting

Energy experts agree that investing in sustainable energy technologies is a must for the United States. But amid a booming global energy market, is it a realistic investment?

That depends on which expert you ask.

"We're in our Sputnik moment" for energy and sustainable innovation, claims Lauren Azar, senior adviser to Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy. "If we don't invest in green technologies, we will be left behind. We will be clinging to the past instead of sprinting toward the future. I think that's an unacceptable way for the United States to move forward."

Azar's comments came during a panel discussion about the realities of renewable and green technology investments during Platt's 13th annual Energy Forum, held in New York City on Dec. 1. (Platt's and ENR are both owned by McGraw-Hill.)

"The Dept. of Energy is spending a lot to drive down the cost of green technologies for everybody," Azar said, a strategy designed to drive cost-benefit analyses about investing in these energy sources.

She says the approach could spur developing economies—such as in China and India, which are unburdened by aging energy infrastructure—to build first-generation energy plants that deploy sustainable and green technologies "without the need for subsidies or taxation."

Not so, countered Peter Huber, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank. "I think that it's absolutely fanciful and preposterous to think that either India and China or most of the developing world—which controls access to almost all the easily accessible oil, coal, substantial factions of gas and [other sources]"—will be going green anytime soon, he told attendees. "It just isn't happening in China or India today. China is delighted to sell cheap solar cells to Germany just as Europe used to be delighted to sell opium to China [a century ago]," he said to audience laughter, but that doesn't mean China is investing in green.

He questioned whether green technologies are realistic or sustainable without government support, subsidies or "crony capitalism," referring to solar-cell maker Solyndra, which has come under fire for how it received DOE loans of about $500 million before it filed for bankruptcy protection last fall.

Huber questioned whether a green economy can be inspired by private investors and electric utilities, rather than just government mandates.

Tight Oil Supply

"We need to be realistic" about China's and India's search for cheap sources of energy production and support for investments in green technologies, said José Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo, president and CEO of Petrobras, Brazil's state-run energy company, during a keynote address at the Platt's forum. He touched on key energy trends for 2012 and beyond.

"[Right now] fossil fuels are integral to our daily lives, and all expectations and projections point to the fact that they will still play a key role as a primary energy source over the next decades," Gabrielli said. However, markets need to adjust to the trends.

"The era of cheap oil is over," he continued. "Make no mistake: oil supply will face a lot of headwinds. And this will be especially true for non-conventional sources, such as tar sands, shale oil and shale gas, which are regarded by many as less environmentally friendly than conventional oil."

But higher demand for oil products will help develop alternative energies, which he expects to help support green technologies. "Renewable sources are increasingly seen as a vital element for building up a sustainable future," said Gabrielli.

The debate and outlook comes during a booming natural-gas market in the U.S. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, shale-gas extraction and production is expected to grow almost fourfold through 2035.

As for how long these trends might slow investment in green technologies, the debate rages on. Says Azar, "We're putting a lot of R&D into efforts that will transform our economy. It takes a lot of time to chip away at energy issues."