Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Energy technology and energy prices

In recent conversations with investors and investees, one question that often comes up is "what is going to happen if and when energy prices drop again?"

It's not just an academic question. So many energy-related technologies derive their economic value out of high baseline energy prices that it could potentially affect market growths and thus the value of clean energy investments.

Now, first of all let's note that this isn't just a question of oil prices (in fact, in many ways natural gas prices are more important in regards to clean energy technologies such as energy efficiency or solar). And let's also note that the consensus is that over the long run the trend is going to be higher energy prices versus recent past periods where energy was a cheap input. But within that trend, there will likely be periods where energy prices fall significantly as well.

Will these periods hinder the adoption of clean energy technologies?

Some that I've spoken with suggest that volatility, instead of decreasing demand for clean energy technology, may actually spur faster adoption. The hypothesis is that consumers of energy will be drawn to making investments that either stabilize their energy prices (such as installing solar), or decrease the impact of price volatility by reducing the importance of energy as a critical input (such as adopting energy efficiency technologies).

That's where this study out of the Netherlands becomes very interesting -- the researchers suggest that this hypothesis doesn't hold true, that instead you need to see consistently high energy prices to really move technology adoption and investments. That the uncertainty of volatility may hinder adoption of new technologies rather than accelerate it.

It's an interesting point for more discussion...


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