When oil prices were beginning to plummet from their highs of $150/bbl about this time last year and the stocks for alternative energy companies didn’t start to go down immediately with them, talk began that the economics of alternative energy solutions were beginning to dislodge themselves from the price of oil. That kind of talk was soon drowned out when the economic crisis really began to bloom in the Autumn of 2008.While the enthusiasm for alternative energy stocks started to come down into the realm of reality, the hope that somehow nanotechnology was going to make solar power and fuel cells suddenly stand on their own two feet without subsidies and make economic sense when compared with fossil fuels continued on. It has proven much harder to dispel this notion, especially in the case of so-called “nano solar”. I just helped complete an update to a report originally published two years ago on the impact nanotechnology will have on the energy market.
Two years ago, the report presented the somewhat unpopular idea at the time that nanotechnology’s role in improving energy conversion technologies like solar and fuel cells would have a minor economic impact. Instead energy saving would be a large impact area with better insulation, lighter materials and more efficient lighting. Another area that would be key would be energy storage through improved batteries.
But as the report discovered energy conversion just was not going to feel much of an impact from nanotechnology. And it seems that over the last two years the situation has gotten a little worse when it comes to fuel cells.
While it still appears that stationary fuel cells for providing power to office buildings still makes sense, it seems that with the Obama administration’s cutting of government funding for research of hydrogen fuel cells we may finally be moving away from the diversion that fuel cell powered automobiles are going to happen anytime soon, if at all.
Add on to that carbon nanotubes have not proven to be the effective hydrogen storage material many had hoped and the prospects for nanotechnology and hydrogen fuel cells have diminished somewhat over the last two years.
When it comes to nanotechnology and photovoltaics, specifically thin film solar systems, the last few years would be trying on the patience of just about any investor as manufacturing and reliability issues still remain a significant obstacle. The result is that in reality nano-enabled thin film solar will not have much discernible impact on the energy situation until at least 2015.
Now that the context for investment in alternative energy has become a little more rooted to the realities on the ground, it will be interesting to see if the expectations for nanotech in energy (in the near term) comes back down to earth as well.