The Enemy of Reasonably Priced Clean Energy: Bad Ideas


Here’s something I’ve noticed from the process of participating in a large number of energy-related conversations at the American Chemical Society Conference: some of these subjects, even those receiving funding, have virtually no chance of practical application.

I just ran into a guy who mentors graduate students in microbial fuel cells. In brief, part of a microbe’s metabolic process includes emitting an electron that can be funneled through a circuit, just like the more familiar hydrogen fuel cell. But, where a hydrogen fuel cell can be 40%+ efficient, and thus enjoy some reasonable power density, this feeble rate at which electrons are emitted from whole organisms results in power densities that are ridiculously small. Can this be improved? Sure, but it’s tough. There are obvious limits to which we can increase the temperature (something we would do with inorganic fuel cells), as we can’t harm the organisms.

Bottom line: Does this subject have a reasonable chance for commercial success, i.e., competition against the dozens of other major ideas in generating clean energy? Not in a million years. But, for some reason, it seems to be a darling of someone with some level of authority, because darned if it didn’t rise above the pack in selection process to receiving ARPA-E funding.

With this level of insanity (?) ignorance (?) corruption (?), or whatever it is that lies within the our decision-making, we’re in deep trouble. Solving our energy problems is hard enough with good thinking; with foolishness like this, it’s impossible.

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.


  1. Right on. Many of the projects being funded currently or in the recent past have been simply waste of money and have the effect of weakening the whole of “green energy”. Put more simply Lots of greenwashing. Just my thoughts. LouGage

  2. Elliot Nesspa on

    Interesting subject. The same premise is the base for numerous compliants about wind and solar. Particularly with wind, where non-sensical “storage batteries” have included pumping air and pumping water. Phd level people have wasted millions in grant money on these non-starters while we still have no way to store the stocastic product of wind or solar, thus rendering them virtually useless on the grid.