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Dispatch from World Renewable Energy Forum

Photo by Kirk Siegler

A week of delving into in-depth coverage of energy issues at the World Renewable Energy Forum was interrupted by breaking news over at the state capitol where an unexpected special legislative session was called.

But I did get a chance to pop by the Colorado Convention Center early this morning where it was quickly apparent the Obama Administration’s Energy Sec. Steven Chu and other forum speakers were coincidentally sharing the venue with a concurring conference focusing on unconventional oils and tar sands.

The irony wasn’t lost on some of the clean energy industry’s most influential executives like Santiago Seage, CEO of Spain’s Abengoa Solar, who gave this morning’s opening keynote.

“Renewable energy is even more important in this fracking new world,” Seage said to laughter in the audience. “I said fracking.”

Of course it’s hard to tell without listening, but Seage wasn’t always so deadpan during his roughly thirty minute speech. But he did focus much of his power point on natural gas. It’s clear that companies like his see new technologies leading to the boom of the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing as a clear threat.

After all, until recently, there has been quite a burgeoning societal movement toward renewable fuels.

Think Colorado’s branded “New Energy Economy” under former Governor Bill Ritter. But now there’s a shale oil and gas boom along the Front Range that’s mostly been embraced by Governor John Hickenlooper.

For his part, Santiago Seage sees natural gas only as a bridge fuel as the globe transitions to renewables.

“When we talk about shale gas, we are still at the phase probably similar to the Gold Rush in the West,” he said. “At this point in time it’s very easy to go and drill and frack, all of the environmental concerns as you know are not properly taken care of in most states.”

In Colorado, that depends on who you ask. But most people in the natural gas and clean energy sectors do agree that the two fuels are starting to become cost competitive.

Among said folk is Energy Sec. Chu, who followed Seage on the stage at the Wells Fargo Theater.

“If you think of a wind project or a solar project or any other renewable, what’s the cost of the fuel? Free, the sun is free, the wind is free,” Chu told the crowd. “It’s the cost of the equipment and the installation.”

Chu said the pool of investors needs to be expanded to overcome those capitol costs – something the government can help with. Though in the fallout of the Solyndra Solar scandal, he acknowledged the obvious political obstacles.

Listen at the link below to hear a brief exchange on the Solyndra scandal Chu had in response to an audience member’s questions.

Meanwhile, the issue of price parity for clean energy and natural gas and associated fracking is no doubt a delicate political balancing act for the Energy Secretary. The Obama Administration has sought to ramp up natural gas drilling and production in the West. But the President has also pushed to open large-scale wind and solar projects on western public lands too.

Chu wrapped up his official remarks today by saying that he thinks renewable energy is close to not needing a subsidy. He also added that natural gas, in his words, doesn’t need any subsidies.

“If the cost of finance were as low as the cost of financing a natural gas plant, we’d be even that much closer,” Chu said.

After his address, Chu then toured the vast expo hall at the forum, and briefly addressed reporters, calling on Congress to extend the stalled wind energy production tax credit set to expire at the end of the year.

"Renewable energy representatives from across the country are gathered in Denver this week because Colorado is helping to lead the way in clean energy. The state is among the leaders in installed solar capacity. It has had a renewable portfolio standard in place for many years. And it’s a hub for clean energy manufacturers from GE to Vestas. America can’t afford to miss out on the clean energy opportunity."

You can read the Secretary's full, prepared remarks here.

The World Renewable Energy Forum, sponsored by the Boulder-based American Solar Energy Society, runs through Friday in Denver.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.