NEW YORK —
“Things don’t always scale from the petri dish to the demo plant and then to the commercial plant. It’s just part of building up a new industry,” Aldous says.
Range went out of business in 2011, and it was hardly alone. Dozens of biofuel, battery and solar companies failed even though federal and state governments supported alternatives with loans and grants, and mandated their use. Others are limping along.
Pacific Ethanol, which traded near $300 per share in 2006, now trades for 28 cents. Amyris, an advanced biofuels company, traded near $34 a share as recently as last year, but now trades at $2.74. The battery maker A123 was forced to file for bankruptcy protection last year, three years after going public. An index of clean energy companies that was first traded in March 2005 is down 69 percent since then. A similar index of traditional energy companies is up 75 percent over the same period.
THE NEXT 10 YEARS
This dark period for alternative energy could last for years. With government debt soaring and no more worries about running out of oil, many renewable subsidies are being scaled back.
“The world is completely different now,” MIT’s Greenstone says.
But there are still hundreds of companies, including fossil fuel giants, working on new renewable-energy projects. ExxonMobil is investing in Synthetic Genomics, a company started by the geneticist J. Craig Venter to try to create strains of algae that will produce fuels. BP and Shell continue to work on ways to turn plant waste into fuels.
California, meanwhile, set the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy goals and is on track to meet them. One-fifth of the power delivered by the state’s three biggest utilities now comes from renewables, not including large hydroelectric dams. By 2020, that portion will rise to one-third.
President Barack Obama in March proposed using $2 billion in federal oil and gas royalties to invest in clean energy technology research. Obama is also expected to promote renewables through pollution regulations, if not with new laws.