Clean Energy: At The Precipice

Clean power (which to us consists of renewables and energy efficiency) is an industry on the cusp. Announcements of advancements and new gee whiz technology come seemingly each week, and keeping current is almost a full-time gig.

The use of fuel cells and solar energy is surging as technology improves. This Pike Research report notes that fuel cells have jumped from the research and development stage to commercialization. Shipments of fuel cells - most of them stationary systems - increased an annual average of 27% between 2008 and 2010.

Japanese homeowners have embraced them - about 5,000 houses there are powered by fuel cells - and they are becoming increasingly common in hospitals and hotels. As an aside, it should be noted that fuel cells are gaining a higher profile here in the San Joaquin Valley, where Odwalla and the city of Tulare, among others, are using them.

Check out this Webinar from the Department of Energy for more on how local businesses are using fuel cells.

Solar also has advanced, as greentechsolar notes here, but 2011 and 2012 are likely to be more challenging as austerity becomes a key watchword. Oversupply is possible, greentechsolar states in the article, as funds pull back.

Whether renewables gain a stronger foothold in the next few years remains to be seen - fits and starts are to be expected in the early stages of an emerging industry - but we are encouraged by the involvement of Big Business and the military.

The other component - efficiency and conservation - clearly has gone beyond the fringe stage. Stories of minimal economic investment reaping maximum energy and cost savings are everywhere. Companies, cities and schools are discovering that weatherization, upgraded air conditioners, more efficient lighting and smarter use of electricity add to the bottom line.

Even a Journalism major like me understands that investment in energy efficiency makes sense. There are only two ways to create cash flow: get more money or spend less - conservation falls into the latter category. Businesses, landlords and homeowners who cut their power bills have more money to spend, invest or otherwise stimulate the economy.

That's why federal Department of Energy officials call energy efficiency the "low-hanging fruit" of clean energy. And low-hanging fruit is something that residents of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive farming regions in the world, know something about.

Photo of Odwalla fuel cells