They are always harbingers of boom. They are also harbingers of hype. I have been covering business professionally for nearly 30 years now, and I know whereof I speak.
Alternative energy is getting a host of hockey stick charts right now. Here is one, from an outfit called (you guessed it) Clean Edge Research. It shows sales of $55.4 billion in 2006. This sounds like a lot, but then consider that $20.5 billion, over a third, was in biofuels, which environmentally are little better than coal. The report estimates $2.4 billion in venture capital went into companies in this area last year, so the returns here will be real (unlike most of those in the dot-boom of 10 years ago).
Elsewhere, politicians are busy patting themselves on the back for passing "alternative fuels" bills. These are usually thinly-disguised pork bills doled out to the same old crowd. Take Florida's Alternative Energy Act, HB549, which passed a House committee yesterday. It's literally a subsidy for coal-fired power plants!
Or take $2.9 million in grants made by North Carolina's "Golden Leaf Foundation," which spends that state's tobacco settlement money. All of it is going into biomass, half of it into a plan to turn things like sweet potatoes, switchgrass and loblolly pine into ethanol. (The rest is also going into ethanol projects.) They could have been just as "environmentally sensitive" sticking the money into tobacco subsidies -- why not ethanol from tobacky? (You get a better yield with wacky tobacky, sonny.)
Fortunately ordinary citizens know the difference between faux green and the real thing. Some 80 folks showed up in Great Falls, Montana (Montana!) yesterday to protest construction of a new coal-fired plant there.
The fact is that only energy sources that avoid carbon entirely, like solar, can do anything about the CO2 problem. There are many aspects to this kind of research, including nano-structures that can handle the job more efficiently. That's where the money should be going. Not into hockey sticks.