Lots of writers splurge into ‘expertise’ with annual reviews of the past year’s events.  Most are done out of historical context, relying instead on the contemporary opinion to justify an article.  It’s very easy.  But let’s try to see what is significant.

Using the basic energy inputs we’ll start with solar radiation.  The industries, both photovoltaic and thermal were hard hit by the financial meltdown.  One can be certain that some businesses will recover handily as the economic climate improves, others will muddle through, some will reach the brink of disaster and some just fail.  The enthusiasm of 2008 enlivened with great efficiency claims has disappeared.  What seems most intriguing is progress on the low cost collector manufacturers and the gradual marketing growth from the big box stores adding products to their inventory.  Silicon based products have a price issue to cope with.  As the economy improves, this is a market to watch.

Solar thermal is also caught in the financial meltdown.  Little has been said in 2009 about technological progress, but the building went on in the U.S. Southwest.  Going straight to heat has considerable attractiveness and storage is simpler with available designs that can be built now. ‘No batteries required’ has great allure.

Geothermal too has suffered serious impact from the financial meltdown.  Yet technology in binary systems has quietly made progress opening the field to lower temperature sites.  Funding is in route to work on solving the drilling issues into hard and hot rock.  The fly in the soup is the downhole fracturing issues that in Europe has led to threatening jail terms for a suspected fracture operation doing surface damage.  In California a drilling project was stopped for reasons that have yet to be made clear, but is suspected to be based on the idea that drilling and fracturing will damage surface property and endanger lives.  The risk is in the delay, again, of getting to the full test.  Fear rules where the geology is most attractive in California, but greed rules in Australia where the location is huge and the surface risks are nearly none.  Siting is going to be the foremost consideration with the costs of binary systems a close second.  Geothermal is still a long view technology.

In the fossil fuel zone oil prices fell from near $150 in 2008 to nearly $30 stabilizing for now in the $70s as we end 2009.  ‘Peak Oil,’ a silly idea to make news was finally matched up with ‘Peak Demand’ to put some economic sense in the arguments.  Global demand has backed off by better than 2% from the 2007 peak and 10% in the U.S.  But its not at all bad news, investment by the independent companies and some national companies has increased, new discoveries are logged and higher prices have increased the efforts to recover more oil from what is already found.  Oil has been said by some to be a better investment than gold, but those fleets of oil tankers filled and circling for months owned by investors are quietly offloading in the face of steady prices and constant expenses.  Once the financial industry straightens up its act oil production could increase even more as demand firms up.  More spikes, both high and low are ahead.

Natural gas has been on a tear, increasing reserves, investment in liquefaction and transport is up and demand is following.  U.S. natural gas plummeted in price and is firming, while the rest of the world has been more stable if still as many believe, over priced.  For decades natural gas profiting has depended on economical transport to market and the U.S. infrastructure investment has paid off handsomely.  The rest of the world is catching up with both discoveries and infrastructure, leaving distortions to oligarchic types such as Russia’s Gazprom with limited time to exploit the market.  The concern isn’t the possible peaks so much as the environmentalists’ worry about hydraulic fracturing.  Bans or restrictions could have serious economic consequences and the current impulse to govern based on hysteria over good science is of grave concern in this field as well as climate.  Government activities in the natural gas business are the trends to watch in the coming years.

Coal, outside of China, is in trouble.  Use is still steady, but growth is out as no notice has been made of any new coal plants or substantial refits announced in the developed economies.  There are technological developments on offer to clean the coal before use that could bring great benefits, but the news hasn’t taken any note of any successes.  Coal burned efficiently is a great resource, but the effluents are awful.  The real issue isn’t the coal, but the perception, so until that’s addressed by the producers and users coal will be stuck.  Coal remains a carbon fuel with very little hydrogen, market salvation depends on cheap hydrogen and low cost chemical reformations, a target not attractive for now and perhaps many decades out.  There is no sign of leadership in the coal production industry; the focus seems solely on keeping what market there is, so opening the door to natural gas.

Alternatives, primarily biofuels have made progress.  Ethanol has grown so much that there is a glut on the U.S. market thus pushing an increase in the ethanol to gasoline ratio in the U.S. gasoline market.  Bio diesel producers and users are being cheated by a U.S. Congress focused on moving the power and money from the patient – provider- insurer triangle into bureaucrat hands. The business of America isn’t getting done.  Meanwhile, bio oil production worldwide is taking off and standards organizations are racing to catch up.  The cash inflows to algae production is growing and the commitments into the future are astonishing.  It’s in the choosing that will make or break investments.  More later.

Nuclear energy is a story of an impressive or frightening list of countries seeking to add nuclear power generation to their electricity production.  Its great clean news if undermined by the proliferation worries about the part of the process that yields bomb material.  Uranium mines that were closed are scheduling reopening and processor investments look less risky by the day.  For the U.S. the regulatory mountain still stands squarely in the way, perhaps the single largest impediment to economic growth seen in all history.  The capacity for leadership has been lost to the Congress ignoring its responsibilities while chasing its partisan political agenda.  The opportunity to add the much safer fuel, thorium is on the shelf, sitting, doing nothing while the opportunity slips away.  While a very intelligent few bang the drum, the mass media and the political class remain blind and dumb.  Oddly, the environmentalists could partner with the business growth community and trigger a huge economic boon.  But both groups are too big now – leading a huge herd of believing sheep is an art of very slow and gradual turns – no new good ideas are welcome.  Nuclear outside the U.S. is on a steep upward growth, based on uranium while the best prospects for growth in electricity production and economic growth languishes.

Next up, a look at the future for the science of the future. Until tomorrow . . .


1 Comment so far

  1. Credit Finance Wisdom on January 6, 2010 2:24 AM

    […] 2009 Energy and Fuel News of Note For 2010 Part 1 | New Energy and … […]

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