There are a lot of very uneducated people in the media who do an extreme disservice to the country when they talk about the evils of oil and gas companies in regards to alternative clean energy. For example I heard a political talk radio host say “There is no reason, other than corporate greed, that we shouldn’t all be driving solar powered cars by now”. This is a completely asinine comment for someone to make.
So, Why don’t we see solar-powered cars?
Quite simply, the most advanced solar panels can generate the equivalent of one horsepower of energy per square yard. That means in order to capture enough energy to power my old tin can Kia Rio at 110 horsepower would require 110 square yards of solar panels! In fact a leading high-tech solar company was able to add solar panels to the new Prius and generate 240 watts in full sunlight. This was the equivalent of adding 9.5 miles of range to the electric motor on a bright summer day, and adds a total of .3212 horsepower. While not nothing, this does not appear to be something that will be able to power the car independent of other sources.
Don’t get me wrong, I think solar and wind energy are incredibly important, and I would like to see this country and the world, reach the loftiest-while-still-realistic forecast of 20% of total energy consumption. But like Bill Gates said, solar and wind power are not credible sources of power generation, its more like energy farming. What he is saying is that its not feasible to cover the entire planet with solar panels and wind turbines, which is what it would take to reach energy demand. Therefore we need another solution.
What about Algae? Unfortunately there we also have a problem with economics and scale. A small clean energy company says they found a way to generate bio-fuels from algae at around the equivalent of $80 to $90 dollars a barrel. With oil trading at $83 or so at the time of this writing that seems pretty competitive, however, in order to get a 10% share of the gas use in the US they would need to be able to apply that 80-90 dollars of cost on an algae pond the size of New Jersey! (insert own NJ joke here) While even a 2% share would be a meaningful cut into demand, the technology has not been proven on a larger scale. A well-known Venture Capitalist out in San Jose has said that he has been approached by many different algae companies and that he hasn’t seen one viable business model involved with the technology. We may still have a ways to go here.
Ethanol has been known to be corrosive on engines and is not viable without subsidy. Hydrogen has finally come to terms with the physics of converting hydrogen gas into a more stable fuel ready substance. You expend more energy in the process than it eventually creates. And unfortunately we have not been able to figure out a way to contain a fusion reactor and the millions of degrees it generates just yet.
The most promising alternative clean energy power generator I have seen is the slow-burn nuclear reactor, which would use current stores of nuclear waste and burn it like a candle. The most optimistic forecast on this technology being developed and rolled out is 20 years.
So the next time some media talking head goes on about “greedy board members blocking alternative energy progress” lets remember that capitalism is what has made our current progress in clean energy possible. Intelligent and hard working entrepreneurs are getting closer and closer to finding viable sources of energy. Investment tips in this arena would be to find a small cap clean energy company with a promising new technology that will eventually get bought out by one of the big boys to reach scale. If you find one, let me know. I’m still looking.