Energy experts like to arm themselves with factual curiosities—little tidbits designed to make the general population think more about energy production and their own consumption.

Recently, I read such a fact in a promotional document published by Vattenfall. According to the Swedish power company, “every day more solar energy reaches the earth than 5.9 billion people could consume in 27 years.”

What an incredible assertion. Given that most of the world’s current production of energy relies heavily on coal and other fossil fuels (the relics of sunshine past), we are clearly not very efficient at converting the vast potential of what is presented to us each day at sunrise.

It’s not for a lack of good intentions. Vattenfall, for example, is wholly owned by the Swedish government and arguably one of the most progressive and diverse utilities in the world. Although the company has invested in new technologies like offshore wind energy, more than half of its generation mix still comes from fossil fuels. As of 2010, its portfolio included coal (44 percent), nuclear (25 percent), hydro (21 percent), natural gas (8 percent), wind (1 percent), and biomass (1 percent). While the company clearly embraces the future, its carbon footprint reflects the real struggle global energy producers face when legitimately trying to employ new technologies or convert new sources of energy.

Risky routes to change

Changing the way we generate and distribute energy is not easy. It requires long-term planning, efficient financing, and careful management of existing assets—many of which still have a lot of useful life left in them. Some countries, like Spain and Germany, have taken bold steps to accelerate change, but the Spanish stumbled when the financial burden of their actions put too much pressure on the country’s balance sheet. As a result, private investors learned a harsh lesson on the realities of political risk.

Spain’s experience was unfortunate. While the country’s leaders should be applauded for creating the ideal environment to accelerate private investment and promote the development of cleaner renewable sources of energy, they must also accept responsibility for letting the situation escalate beyond their control. Governments are consistently walking a tightrope of affordability while trying to incentivize meaningful change. If they do not get the balance right, there is a very real risk that the whole policy might collapse with painful consequences.

This is why, despite the nearly universal public desire to generate and distribute cleaner, more efficient energy, it may seem at times like the world is standing still. Power stations operate for decades—a half-century, even—and the coal-fired plants being built today will still be part of the energy mix in 2050 and possibly even 2075.

A role for coal

Coal is still a popular choice for new power capacity. The need is great, the resource is plentiful, it’s cheap to operate, and it generates an awful lot of capacity in a relatively small space. Until we value air on par with land, the carbon footprint of an energy project won’t matter as much as the physical one.

That is not to say that the world of energy isn’t changing, but exactly how much or how fast is open to debate. Generation and distribution are still largely the domain of big utilities like Vattenfall. The business model remains fairly straightforward: generate large lumps of electricity (slightly more than demanded) and distribute it to consumers at the lowest possible cost. While renewable energy, smart grids, and efficiency technologies are clearly driven by climate change awareness, the reality is that people mostly want reliability at a low cost.

Our expectation—particularly in the developed world—is that energy is automatic. Flip a switch and the lights come on. We typically give it about as much thought as we would the sun rising each morning. You would only notice if it wasn’t there (or if it failed to cut through the smog). This is why energy experts peddle their incredible facts. They want to grab our attention. Warm, fuzzy marketing may be a less effective approach than, say, a 7 percent rate hike, but it does offer consumers a less jarring and more fascinating window into a world they often take for granted.

Yet not everyone gets this essential level of service. For some, the annoyance of poor power infrastructure struggling to cope with rapidly growing demand is an unfortunate fact of life. The exhaust from millions of resulting backup generators is far worse, in my opinion, than the smoke billowing out of massive chimneys at a coal-fired power station. I’m dumbfounded by how much petrol is wasted, and carbon emitted as the result of poor power infrastructure. A recent blog written by Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development states that while a coal power plant might produce around 1,000 grams of CO2/kilowatt hour, an individually-owned 5 kilowatt diesel generator emits twice as much.

There has to be a better way to serve our energy needs and tap the incredible abundance of what Vattenfall says we ignore every day. The global demand for power will never cease. In order to keep the lights on (and our digital devices charged), governments and the private sector must work together to provide sensible economic and environmentally-friendly solutions. We have both already, but rarely in a single form.

This must be our ambition, and the path to succeed is as clear as the light of day. Of the many diverse sources of energy already available, only nuclear, tidal, and geothermal do not originate from our sun. We just need to get better at bottling sunshine.