Green Energy Investment Frenzy

Billions of dollars are being poured into turning things like algae, cooking oil, corn, cow manure and even tiny microbes in lab beakers, into new sources of fuel.

The United Nations dubbed this investment stampede a "Green Gold Rush," which has been sparked by soaring gas prices.

"There's certainly a gold rush of speculation, kind of like 1849, when everyone was rushing with their picks and shovels and finding opportunities," said Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm.

Last year, according to new numbers from the U.N. Environment Program, investors around the world poured $148 billion into alternative energy. That number is only growing as more companies become invovled in this research.

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Companies are exploring a variety of well-known technologies. On the electric car front, Tesla Motors, a Sillicon-Valley company, and Norway-based Think have developed 100 percent electronic roadsters. Chevrolet, Volvo and other auto makers are working to create plug-in hybrids, and Tata Motors of India, and others, are creating cars that run on compressed air.

In addition to ventures into bio-safe corn-based fuel, developers are thinking outside the box. Companies like San Francisco-based LS9 are working at the frontier of microbe research, looking at microscopic bugs that eat things, like coal, sugar and wood, and turn it into natural gas or jet fuel.

However, these new technologies will most likely not come fast enough to relieve our current pain anytime soon.

Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who documents long-term technological change, says there is "no easy, magic technological fix" to cure the pain Americans are feeling at the pump.

"This technology is definitely not going to arrive in time to save Americans' pocketbooks, but more importantly, it's not going to arrive in time to save American foreign policy," Saffo said.

Many experts believe inflation at the gas station is the best way to wean Americans off fossil fuels, which scientists believe are leading to potentially catastrophic climate change. While people suffering because of high gas prices may cringe, these experts embrace high gas prices as the surest way to spur energy innovation.

"Absolutely, these high prices are a gift," Saffo said. "It's a gift that arrived before and we've ignored the message. Hopefully, we will hear it loud and clear this time."

Jurvetson and Saffo both view today's gas prices as a much-needed tipping point towards alternative energy.

"If gas prices stayed artificially low for the next 10 to 20 years, we probably wouldn't see enough innovation as we desperately need as a planet to stave off future global warning," Jurvetson said.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said energy demand across the globe is expected to grow 50 percent over the next two decades, and oil prices may reach $186 a barrel.

With these projections, American speculators are investing heavily in start-up technology firms. The UNEP estimates that the alternative energy industry has the potential to reach $600 billion annually by 2020.

Green technology has finally come to the forefront. While many of these companies will fail, the ones that survive might create an energy revolution.

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