As has become my custom, with the year drawing to a close, I now look in the rear-view mirror and try to distill what I see. In no particular order, here are my top ten reflections on 2007:
1. Popping of the ethanol bubble. Not long ago, it seemed like anyone could get an ethanol plant financed. Now, no-one will touch them. Why? Corn prices have roughly doubled, and producers can't make money selling ethanol into the fuel markets when having to pay so much for feedstock. Along with the increasing realization that public policies so far to build ethanol markets has largely been for the financial benefit of big agri-businesses such as Arthur Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM), ethanol has now become a dirty word to many. Progress on cellulosic ethanol technologies may not happen fast enough to redeem seriously diminished public perceptions about ethanol generally.
2. Continuing photovoltaics bubble. For illustration of this phenomenon, let's take a look at First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR). Nothing whatsoever against the company; indeed, they make a very fine product. It's just that their share price has increased by a factor of 10 -- from $27 to nearly $280 -- in one year. At current levels, the company's market cap is $20 billion, at a P/E ratio of over 200. I know the solar market is hot, but geez, c'mon. A 10x return in one year on a publicly-traded stock is simply not supposed to happen.
3. Increasing costs for wind energy. For many years, wind energy has become more competitive, as the industry matured and production efficiencies were tained. However, with increasing prices for virtually all commodities (e.g., steel, copper, plastics) and a weakening dollar against the Euro (note that most turbines are made in Europe), the economics of wind are unfortunately moving in the wrong direction right now.
4. Gore as rock star. First, an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth. Then, the Nobel Peace Prize. To top it off, becoming a partner at top-notch venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. What next for the what-could-have-been 43rd President? Whatever it is, at least the cleantech sector now has its iconic poster-child.
5. Cheers to Google. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has gotten into the cleantech game in a big way by creating an initiative with the mission to develop and launch renewable energy technologies that produce electricity more cheaply than coal. Once that aim is achieved, renewable energy will rapidly become ubiquitous, and we really will start getting on a path of serious carbon emission reductions.
6. Death of the incandescent lightbulb. Early in 2007, Australia led the way to ban incandescents, to force a shift to more energy efficient lighting technologies (fluorescents for now, perhaps eventually LEDs). Amazingly quickly, the U.S. followed suit, passing an energy bill by year-end that effectively phases out incandescents by 2014. This should have a major energy efficiency impact, and yield a big cut in greenhouse gas emissions, in a relatively short amount of time.
7. Tightening CAFE -- finally! After decades without change, the U.S. Congress finally acted to impose more stringent corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for auto/truck manufacturers. The main milestone is a 35 mpg combined car/light-truck standard by 2020. For the first time, trucks are now part of the CAFE equation, closing the loophole that helped propel SUVs to prominence. Strengthening CAFE is probably the most important thing that American politicians could do to actually make a meaningful dent in reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
8. Uncertain future for coal. On the one hand, MIT released a major study entitled "The Future of Coal" that compels a radical R&D push to commercialize technologies for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), underscoring the reality that coal-fired electricity generation is going to be a major factor for a long time. On the other hand, I don't see any such coal R&D push actually happening, nor even that much progress on CCS. A recent statement by the U.S. Department of Energy concerning its oft-touted FutureGen program for piloting CCS technology indicates a possible retrenchment. Meanwhile, Pacificorp -- which is owned by Warren Buffett's legendary holding company Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRKA and BRKB) -- recently cancelled a coal CCS project in Wyoming, with a spokesman quoted as saying that "coal projects are no longer viable." Ouch.
9. Oil at $100/barrel. Starting the year at about $60/barrel and then promptly falling to near $50, oil prices increased steadily from February to November, reaching the high-90's. I suspect we'll see $100/barrel sometime in 2008; I don't suspect we'll see oil below $40/barrel very much anymore. Even at prices not long ago considered absolutely stratospheric, it appears that there's been very little customer/political backlash so far: the world doesn't seem to be ending for most Americans.
10. Serious dollars betting on energy technology. There's been a lot written about the big surge in venture capital invested in new energy deals. I find even more intriguing the increasing amount of corporate and public sector investment in new energy R&D. As perhaps the most prominent example, in the U.K., the government has pledged up to $1 billion over the next 10 years in matching support to private investments in the Energy Technologies Institute, which includes the participation of such leading corporate lights as BP (NYSE: BP), Shell (NYSE: RDS.A and RDS.B), Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT), Electricite de France (Euronext: EDF), E.ON (Frankfurt: E.ON), and Rolls-Royce (London: RR.L). That's a lot of money and corporate weight in the mix. I can't imagine that such an initiative will produce nothing of use.
Best wishes to you and yours for 2008. Let's hope it's a good year, even better than the one wrapping up.
Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.