LOS ANGELES — The latest surge in oil prices may help the renewable energy industry reach a turning point after years of boom-and-bust cycles dictated by the rise and fall in gas prices.
Solar, wind and biofuel investors and analysts said the latest runup in prices caused by unrest in Libya and other oil-producing nations could lead to lasting interest in alternate sources of energy.
They point to several factors converging at the same time that give the industry such hope. Public awareness and worries about climate change, pollution and dwindling resources are at an all-time high. Government funding for alternative energy projects is also on the rise.
Concerns that the country's addiction to foreign oil could pose national security risks and that the environment is fraying are stronger than ever, said Denise Bode, chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association. Bode is also the former president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
"We've gone from a relatively secure position to a very insecure one," Jim Boyd, vice chairman of the California Energy Commission, said in a statement. "Our exposure to the vagaries and instability of the world oil market has increased by a factor of 10 since the early 1990s."
Since then, the renewable energy industry has compiled a stable of high-profile supporters. President Barack Obama said he wants 80 percent of the energy in the U.S. to come from "clean" sources by 2035. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger regularly visited wind and solar energy production sites cropping up throughout California.
Various guidelines, mandates and subsidies exist to encourage green energy, including a Navy plan to run half of its fleet on renewable fuel by 2020.
"There's no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot," Bode said. "Alternative energy is changing the way people look at things."
But there are also signs that a permanent renewable energy renaissance is not yet at hand. Fossil fuel-powered generators are still common in rural parts of the country. Oil is still the preferred energy source for heaters on the East Coast.
Alternative power accounts for just 8 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to 2009 government data. Petroleum commands 37 percent.
A limited supply of renewable energy is one of several roadblocks to widespread use. The renewable energy infrastructure is still shaky. Solar and wind projects are often at remote sites and often aren't connected to modern transmission lines. Public charging stations for electric cars and biofuel stations for other vehicles that run on renewable energy are scarce.