Is Occupy Wall Street occupying the wrong street?

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My Dad and I have a running joke when we’re in the car together. “Look,” he’ll say. “Gas is cheap. It’s down to $3.39.” Cheap, he means, compared with the month before when it was $3.79 per gallon.

The joke illustrates a good point. A few years ago we were flabbergasted by gasoline prices that exceeded $3 per gallon. Now we’re really happy when it doesn’t hit $4 per gallon.

When it comes to energy, we’re like frogs in water coming to a slow boil. We’ve gotten so accustomed to high oil prices, we don’t notice anymore that we’re cooked.

In my two decades writing about energy, this is one of the most poignant facts I’ve run across: Oil price spikes preceded 10 of our 11 last recessions. This statistic portrays in a nutshell the grip that petroleum holds on us.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not letting the banks off the hook. But by focusing so much passion on the banks in casting blame for today’s economic downturn, is Occupy Wall Street letting a major culprit slink off unnoticed down the alley?

The Econbowser.com, source of the 10 out of 11 stat, says that in 2008 high oil prices caused a drop in overall spending, which served as “the knockout punch for an economy that was already wobbly.” The article goes on to say that “there’s no question that more favorable fundamentals are exactly what we would have had if the price of oil had never gone over $100 a barrel.”

But there’s good news too. When oil prices are high, the innovators emerge. And that’s what is happening today. Over the last few months I’ve run into some pretty intriguing – possibly game changing – new energy technologies. Here are a few.

This week I interviewed Riggs Eckleberry, CEO or OriginOil, a company that has found a highly efficient way to harvest algae and extract its oil, a process that takes advantage of algae’s sensitivity to electrical fields. The approach promises to save both energy and water in processing algae. As Eckleberry puts it, algae is a renewable “petroleum that is being made fresh instead of fossilized.” He sees algae becoming an important part of the energy mix in the short-term and a serious competitor to petroleum in the long term.

In working on an article for an upcoming issue of Renewable Energy World magazine, I learned about Dyesol, an Australian company that uses dye sensitive solar products to generate electricity. Dyesol describes the process as ‘artificial photosynthesis.’ It uses an electrolyte, in this case a layer of titania (a pigment used in white paints and tooth paste) and ruthenium dye sandwiched between glass in a window. Light strikes the dye and excites electrons that are absorbed by the titania to become an electric current many times stronger than that found in plant photosynthesis. The window creates electricity using both the artificial light in the building and the sunshine outdoors.

Meanwhile, Swapnil Shah, CEO of FirstFuel, described to me how his company conducts in-depth energy audits on commercial buildings without ever setting foot in the building. FirstFuel’s analytics software offers a “zero touch” alternative to cumbersome building energy audits. Already being used by several utilities, the software program also provides specific recommendations for efficiency improvements. To run its analytics, FirstFuel only requires easily accessible information about the building, such as its billing history and address. The program relies on the Web and GPS to obtain the rest of the data it needs. (More on FirstFuel in next week’s blog.)

Innovators like these folks worry that when oil prices drop, investors and policymakers will lose interest in finding energy alternatives. It’s a pattern we’ve fallen into before. Just as high oil prices precede recessions, low oil prices precede periods of apathy. Maybe we’ve been cooked enough this time to reverse the pattern.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

photo: farhan.amoor

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

2 Comments

  1. Dustin Muscato on

    It seems to me that this article poses that there is a disconnect between Wall Street and oil prices. Obviously there are other factors (OPEC to name one) but ultimately, big banks are some of the major driving forces behind oil prices from their investment portfolios. The bankers WANT oil prices at $100+ a barrel and they would love $200. It seems to me that the article poses a disconnect and that simply is not true.

  2. At least in the UK, around 65% percent of the fuel price is government tax, not oil company pricing. Nonetheless, the problems are widepread, due to deep roots: capitalism and plutocracy. It’s time for a fundamental change to a better system, not just to bitch about gas prices and wait for the next price rise.

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