Realistically, I think FuelCell (NASDAQ:FCEL) investors have about one thing going for them right now: a whole load of accumulated losses ($342 million and counting) that the firm can use to offset taxes, if it ever reaches profitability. Note that I said if, because profits still look to be a long, long way off, if they ever materialize. You know you're reading a sad earnings release when the fourth bullet point is "9-month cash use in line with company expectations."

Revenues for the third quarter were essentially flat year over year at $8.7 million, while net losses increased to $18.7 million from $17 million. With losses of this magnitude, FuelCell has resorted to distracting shareholders from them with a tool called the ratio of costs to product sales and revenue. This ratio was essentially flat year over year at 2.83 to 1. The company has been busily working at commercializing fuel-cell technology since 1999, and certainly has made excellent progress, signing up key customers like Gills Onions this quarter, but I wager it has been a long wait for shareholders, with consistent dilution in one form or another.

For alternative energy plays like Ballard Power (NASDAQ:BLDP), Energy Conversion Devices (NASDAQ:ENER), Plug Power (NASDAQ:PLUG), and FuelCell, it's all about the Next Big Thing. The company's valuations are high by any measure, because investors at this stage are trying to put a value on potential, rather than the current financial picture. With that in mind, it might be interesting to review a survey of ChangeWave Research members -- who, not surprisingly, believe that the fuel cell sector will experience the most rapid growth of any alternative energy sector in the next few years. These industry insiders see cost as the biggest barrier to rapid adoption (which FuelCell is working on), but also see a rival fuel-cell system, PEM (proton exchange), rather than the company's molten carbonate generation, as the fastest-growing area for fuel cells.

However, investors should be concerned about the group's predictions for alternative energy and some key milestones. Now, given that this survey is from a group of mostly industry insiders and industry experts, you'd expect the results to be a little more biased toward the positive, which makes the actual predictions all the more depressing. The group predicted the development of a "highly advanced" battery in 2012, that solar cells would become affordable enough for a decent return on investment in 2014, and a hydrogen fuel mass-produced car in 2018. While FuelCell is aiming at a more marketable niche (power generators) that could experience success earlier, the story still remains the same: Investors are in for a long wait. This Fool isn't that patient.

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Fool contributorStephen Ellis does not own shares in any companies mentioned. You can see his holdings foryourself. The Motley Fool has a hamster-powereddisclosure policy.