Is Occupy Wall Street occupying the wrong street?

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.

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Comment by Maureen Kachine on November 16, 2011 at 9:07pm

Financial industry oil speculation also raises the price of gas. So there you go. Still the same darn street.

Comment by Diane Chojnowski on October 30, 2011 at 8:15am
Elisa, you always post such interesting articles! Thanks so much!

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