Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union

Just sat through the State of the Union address. Tongues are wagging as always, but I'm rather nonplussed. I'll confess I'm an energy nerd, but even so, I'm not sure that much of what Bush said came as a surprise to the American people.

Here's the comment that really made me slap my forehead and say "doh!":
"America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment — and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."
Great, he's uttered "global climate change" - he's now caught up with members of his own party and the vast majority of the nation. At the same time that that revelation occurred, he should have made the rallying cry for a national renewable energy project - something visionary like the Apollo Project. Let's see some meat! And what's this about "America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs?" We're there NOW - Texas is leading the country with wind power, California is going all-out on solar, and the Midwest is driving the switch to homegrown fuels. Where has he been?

Speaking of fuels, it was good to hear him talking about ethanol made from materials more sustainable and efficient than corn. And reducing gasoline consumption 20% in the next 10 years is impressive - let's see the details. His mention of battery research for plug-in hybrid vehicles is also encouraging, although concrete market incentives to get these things on the road would be more impressive than continuing to study them in the ivory tower.

Unfortunately, "clean coal" topped the list of ways to "change the way America generates electric power." As soon as "clean" coal exists, I'm sure the President will be the first to show us. In the meantime, let's use renewable energy that's already clean and cheap to power our lives and drive our economy.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Curious to know what all these new tech developments might be -- and where they could come from?

Or as science historian James Burke once said, "If you know where you came from, you know where you are. And if you know where you are, you have a much better idea of where you might be going."

Check this interview (http://www.wealthtrack.com/transcript_01-12-2007.php) with Bill Paul who just released Future Energy: How the New Oil Industry Will Change People, Politics and Portfolios.

It was good to hear Bush talking about ethanol made from materials more sustainable and efficient than corn -- so-called cellulosic ethanol. But will next generation of plant based fuels be based on a process called biobutanol? Very similar to ethanol but using a different fermentation process it's much less water soluble which means you can use existing infrastructure -- existing pipelines -- to transport it.

Will these plant-based solutions make a dent in Bush's goal to reduce gasoline consumption 20% in the next 10 years?

So how about at a new version of a much older technology: diesel fuel - not refined from hydrocarbons, but made from coal. Diesel can no be made with essentially zero pollution emissions by CTL (coal-to-liquids) -- and America has coal reserves to last 250 years at current consumptions levels. That should give us a bit of time, eh? Mercedes' diesel technology (among others) can pass emission standards in all 50 states...although diesel cars are still banned in five! Combined this with the fact that diesel engines provide more torque at the same rpm and provide significantly better fuel consumption, and we may be looking at a viable answer to reducing oil imports. CTL can also be used to make jet fuel.

Diesels makes up 50% of the transportation in Europe. Yet only 5% in America. GE, a year or so ago, bought a coal gasification technology. Hmmm...

Bush's mention of battery research for plug-in hybrid vehicles is also encouraging. Mike Millikin, editor of Green Car Congress says the future automobile will be electric -- the only question remains what "the source of that electricity is going to be". We've already got some interesting candidates. Millikin notes a lithium ion battery cell produced by a company called A123 Systems which is a spin-off of MIT. Bill Paul mentions the privately held EEStor and its work at the molecular level in creating ultracapaciters which may change the storage parameters at this level. And I written a lot about VRB Power with its flow through vanadium based units that are targeting mass electrical storage for both intermittent renewables like wind and solar as well as the utilities in traditional power generation.

It's All Coming Together

The three key circumstances that have converging together:

* Chronically high oil prices (as we deplete "conventional" oil sources, unconventional hydrocarbons come with a much higher price tag.)
* Environmental anxiety - of which an increasing number of scientists are concerned about...and now apparently "W" as well.
* The national insecurity of America's hydrocarbon sources -- and all the geopolitical headaches that "oil addiction" implies.

And when the stars have so aligned, it usually means just one thing: Big Money is pouring in.

The venture capitalists were among the first here. The big players on Wall Street are now behind it -- the Goldman Sachs’s of this world are seeing the advantages and placing big bets.

And Big Oil? They're not fighting the change this time. As they're increasing being shut out of key hydrocarbon areas by governments who are nationalizing their reserves or dramatically changing the terms and conditions, they're looking for ways to diversify future revenue streams. Witness Beyond Petroleum's (BP) biobutanol venture with Dupont. We're in the first innings of a decade long cycle of what I think will be a totally, radically restructured oil industry.

Lots and lots of money is being poured into promising new technology on a host of alternative energy fronts.

These guys want in at the ground floor.

The W's have now aligned: Wall Street, Washington -- and oh, and finally "W" himself.