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Picking the Winners

The alternative energy technology with the fewest barriers will win

By Joseph Lado

In economics, barriers are those things that impede products and services from readily entering the marketplace. This concept can be expanded to help us understanding why some technologies for alternative and renewable energy will be readily adopted by the greater society and others will not.

Barriers to having renewables are those things that make access difficult by degree. Typically the more barriers there are to overcome facing a technology the higher the chance that the product or service will not be adopted. The more barriers to overcome for a technology to enter into wide use, even if they are relatively easy ones to overcome, the lower the probability that that technology will enter into the marketplace.

For this article I am going to substitute “marketplace” with the word “adoption,” since energy markets typically have a lot of non-market variables such as scientific and technological factors, economic factors such as being sanctioned and regulated monopolies, and laws and subsidies that preclude them from being pure market entities. Referring to energy alternatives as entering into the “market” wouldn’t be as accurate as referring to the process as a wide use adoption or implementation. I will be using adoption here mostly.

We understand now that having a preponderance of barriers lowers the probability of widespread adoption of an alternative energy technology. There are other factors to consider as well. Whether a technology has many barriers or only just a few some barriers are very difficult to over come. Let me give you an example of a situation where something is close at hand and yet difficult to exploit. Let’s say that you were snorkeling in the Gulf of Mexico and while underwater you observed in a fissure a glob of crude oil periodically let go. You would now have the knowledge of a specific place with exploitable petroleum, but, would you have the means to exploit that resource for its full value? You may not have the equipment, to extract the oil, to ship it, to refine it and distribute it to customers. The barriers for you personally to compete with established oil companies are the barriers for you of entry. The costs of oil rigs, tankers, personnel etc. are all barriers to entry. They may not be insurmountable for established oil companies, but for you as an individual they probably are.

With alternatives the cost of exploitation may be equal to the barriers you would have faced trying to exploit that oil source on your own. Since alternatives are relatively new technologies they typically don’t have large established businesses with equipment and people with core competencies capable of easily exploiting the new resource. Often because the newness of the technology alternatives have few financial backers even when the technology is pretty sure. These factors make for barriers to entry and, the larger or more costly that these barriers are the more likely that these technologies are not going to be exploited. Their probability, without help, will not reach wide adoption. I want to emphasis “without help” here.

Some barriers are nearly impossible or insurmountable to overcome. Technologies that face these types of barriers are referred to as “dead ends.” No matter how much progress is made on removing or engineering around the other barriers to these technologies they will never be adopted by the greater society because the barriers are insurmountable. In economics cost is the most common insurmountable barrier. Simply put, if a technology cost too much to enter into then the technology will not be adopted. An example of insurmountable or nearly impossible barriers is one that was put forward by an author a few years ago as a solution to our current energy crisis. The article talked about the use of Helium 3 as a powerful new fuel source. He talked about the possible development of a Helium 3 reactor. That much progress had been made in developing ways to extract energy from this substance. A He3 reactor could provide electricity at many times that of a current nuclear power plant. The author continued by saying that He3 was a common molecule found on the Moon and with a mining operation on the moon the Earth could easily find enough He3 to meet all its needs for energy. Unfortunately, creating a mining operation on the moon where a substance could be extracted, containerized and transported by spacecraft back to earth is way beyond a relatively easy barrier to entry to overcome. In fact almost any technology accessible on Earth would be a lower barrier to entry than going to the Moon for supply. While in the author’s imagination pursuing He3 as an energy source may be a worthwhile endeavor to solve the world’s energy problems, the reality is that needing to mine it from the Moon makes it a “dead end” technology, since the likelihood of doing so is so improbable.

To recap there are three main characteristics of barriers to market for alternatives. They are; the number of barriers to overcome, the difficulty of overcoming those barriers and whether any barrier is insurmountable. As we go on from here we will see that there are four types of barriers any combination of which could be either too numerous, difficult or just plain impossible to overcome.

Types of Barriers

In December I sat in on a presentation on plastic solar cells at National Science Foundation (NSF). The scientists began their research using polymers. After a years worth of work they discovered that polymers by their very nature produce a random output of voltages. What they wanted was to start with the highest voltage that they attained in their tests, 3.8 volts and then work upwards from there, but every time they made the polymer it would give them anywhere from 3.8 volts to 1.8 volts randomly. Not salable or usable parameters for a marketable product. They abandoned the use of polymers for another substance that would be more consistent in its voltage output. Plastic solar cells weren’t a scientific dead end, the research for that goes on; however, the use of polymers in the hopes of getting to a usable and saleable product wasn’t going to happen. Polymers for use in plastic solar cells were a scientific “dead end.” If this research had been pursued by a polymer making company in hopes to find new uses for their product, this scientific discovery would have been heartbreaking. It would have meant that all their research was for naught, useful in the greater body of knowledge but useless for their purposes. However, since it was a discovery made by a research grant from NSF to a university seeking to produce plastic solar cells, the fact that polymers have this curious characteristic of randomly producing different voltages, just expands our knowledge of that material. From this point forward investing more money into researching polymers for their use in solar cells may be seen as putting good money after bad and, making investments in polymers so that they can be used in solar cells would not make any sense since polymers don’t display the characteristics necessary to be used in sellable plastic solar cells.

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