Now that $25 oil is the new $200 oil, there’s concern that any strides we might have made towards cleaner fuel were all for naught, and that green is dead until oil spikes again. Many people even find the drop in oil prices unfortunate for that reason.
But the fundamental question facing any technology hasn’t really changed: Does it save you energy? If it does result in greater efficiency, then that’s compelling even with oil at $15 a barrel. If it doesn’t achieve that, then even $500 oil can’t save it.
That’s why ethanol has been a decades-long disaster. Even with $125 oil and government subsidies, the industry was a basket case. Technologies that depend on hydrogen or platinum (fuel cells) face similar economics, though that could change eventually — such breakthroughs, however, won’t be dependent on where oil happens to be trading at that time. Even with soaring oil prices, solar was helped along by subsidies, because the economics aren’t there yet — building and installing panels is too expensive compared to what you get back.
That being said, falling energy prices mean that for individuals and corporations, their monthly energy bill is a smaller slice of their budget. That does take away some of the urgency for a major breakthrough right here and now, but, then, there was always a disconnect between the hopes for a speedy green tech revolution and what was actually possible. Just cause we felt a sense of urgency didn’t mean we’d get to the promised land anytime soon.
The enemy of green is not low oil prices, it’s the recession itself, and the fear that it will be deep and drawn out. If the economy were humming along, but oil remained at $25, there’d be plenty of interest in clean, efficient technologies that saved them money. In the meantime, with things so uncertain, companies will likely opt to hold into their cash rather than invest in technology that won’t pay off immediately. When there’s more confidence, they’ll think long-term again.
And if science does hit upon a major breakthrough — like an engine that runs on water, cheap housepaint that converts sunlight into electricity, or that mythological algae that farts hydrogen — then that’ll get people going in any environment.