Sunday, January 01, 2006

Things to Watch in 2006 - Trends, Predictions and Premonitions

In honor of the new year, I thought I would point out a few things I think we all should keep our eyes on in 2006. If nothing else, this ought to provide some entertaining reading a year from now as 2006 comes to a close...

-> First off, China will continue to be extremely interesting to watch. Their attempt to continue a breakneck development pace while avoiding the environmental destruction and degradation that has accompanied their past development could be considered the largest and certainly one of the most crucial sustainability expirements in the world. (India will be interesting to keep an eye on as well, for similar reasons).

China's economic development demands an ever increasing supply of energy and how they meet this demand will have global implications. China could become a world leader in renewable power and alternative fuel technologies, pushing the development of wind and clean coal (gasification) technologies in particular - both resources are plentiful in China - driving down global prices and encouraging innovation in the process.

Or, China could rely more and more on cheap coal-fired steam plants for the bulk of this new power and oil to fuel a rapidly growing personal transport fleet, a scenario that could go a long way towards undermining any emissions reductions made by Kyoto signatory countries and accelerating global climate change, oil depletion and global resource conflict.

Which path China takes remains to be seen and 2006 will be full of indications as to where China is headed - and as the gang at WorldChanging aptly put it, "As China goes, so goes the future." Let's hope China continues to change its color from red to green...

-> Also exciting to watch this year will be concentrating solar power (CSP). CSP refers to solar power technologies that concentrate incident solar radiation onto a smaller area. Some place photovoltaics (usually of high efficiencies) at the concentration area while others use the heat to create steam and run a turbine or instead run a Stirling engine.

These technologies rely on lenses and mirrors to do the concentrating and recent advancements in production techniques and materials, particulalry the development of cheap plastic fresnel lenses, have driven the costs of CSP down to a very competitive level, both compared to regular photovoltaics as well as traditional power generation sources and other renewables like wind.

Large scale CSP technologies, including Stirling Energy Systems' (SES) dish-stirling solar collectors (see picture above), International Automated Systems, Inc's solar thermal concentrator and Solargenix Energy's parabolic trough generators will be featured in several large solar farms to be built this year. All of the above technologies do not use any silicon thus avoiding the supply shortages and high materials prices that plague silicon-dependent photovoltaics (PVs) and claim that they will produce electricity at rates far lower than PVs.

Look for these large scale CSP technologies (and probably others in the works) to drive a major expansion of solar power in the U.S. and the world. For example, SoCal Edison has contracted with SES to build a 500 MW dish-stirling plant near Victorville, California which alone would more than double total installed U.S. solar capacity and would be the largest solar farm in the world. SES has also contracted with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) for a 300-900 MW dish solar facility to be located in the Mojave Desert of CA. SES also claims that they will be able to produce their dish-stirling units at a cost competitive with conventional fuel technologies like natural gas (i.e. $50,000 per 25 kw unit or $2.00/Watt), even without subsidies.

A couple of small-scale (i.e. suitable for distributed generation) CSP technologies are nearing commercialization as well and offer prices significantly cheaper then PVs. Australian Green and Gold Energy, for example, is bringing its Sunball rooftop solar concentrator (see picture) to market this year (Deliveries to Australian customers begin in February and export orders in July of 2006) and are offering their units at the competitive price of $3.33/Watt (traditional PVs cost around $4.00/Watt these days).

Energy Innovations is also working on a rooftop solar concentrator, the Sunflower 250 and according to their website, they plan to ship the solar concentrators in volume during 2006. Both technologies use lenses (the Sunball) or mirrors (the Sunflower) and two-axis tracking to concentrate solar radiation onto a small high-efficiency PV cell.

Whereas traditional PVs have been handicapped by their reliance on large quanitites of high-grade silicon, CSP technologies are beginning to exhibit the same kind of economies of scale and continual decrease in price that made wind power a competitive and rapidly expanding power source. It is my hope that 2006 is the year that CSP techs bring solar into the ranks of truly competitive power sources.

-> I would expect to see some interesting new policy proposals on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions from several Kyoto-signatory countries struggling to meet their reduction targets this year. Several EU nations as well as Canada (and likely others) are not on track to meet their Kyoto targets and they will have to adopt some tough measures to get back on track to fulfill their commitments.

Let's hope 2006 will see these countries renewing their commitment to combatting global warming with some serious policies to reduce their emissions, particulalry from the transportation sector. I think that Kyoto signatories are starting to realize that its going to take a bit more effort than they may have thought to meet their targets...

-> On a local level, I hope to see Oregon join California, Washington and much of the Northeast this year by moving forward on adopting California's stricter tailpipe emissions standards (that also include standards for GHG emissions). OR Governor Ted Kulongoski has made it a priority to take steps to combat global warming including the adoption of the CA standards and has instructed the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to write a California-type emissions standard for Oregon.

I hope that 2006 will finally see Kulongoski fulfill his promises and enact the new standards. Incidentally, Washington passed legislation to adopt the CA standards but only after OR does so. If OR adopts the standards, it would thus create a region spanning the entire Pacific coast of the U.S. committed to reducing tailpipe GHG emissions.

-> I expect to see sales of hybrid cars continue to skyrocket in 2006, driven largely by the upcoming release of the 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid. The Camry is an extremely popular model - it has been the best-selling car in America for seven of the past eight years - and I would expect the new hybrid version to boost hybrid sales substantially.

Furthermore, the price premium for hybrid cars should begin to fall as technologies develop, supply chains mature and economies of scale are realized. Honda has pledged to reduce the price difference between its regular and hybrid Civics models by a third in the next 5 years, for example, and Toyota also indicated that it aims to increase hybrid production by 60% in 2006 and cut costs and prices to make them more affordable. Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe has said he aims to halve the premium in price of hybrids over conventional vehicles as soon as possible.

-> Biodiesel use, which was projected to triple in the U.S. during 2005, will likely continue to rapidly increase in 2006. With its expanded use will hopefully come a strong debate over the sources and sustainability of biodiesel feedstocks. If we are not careful, growing feedstocks for biodiesel could become a major environmental disaster as vast tracts of rainforests in developing countries like Brazil and Malaysia are slashed and burned to make way for soybean, canola, rapeseed or oil palm plantations to meet the growing thirst for biodiesel.

I hope to see a productive discussion of this potentially disasterous scenario during the coming year as well as legislation and policies from developed countries to make sure that their supplies of biodiesel come from sustainable and ideally domestically produced feedstocks.

-> While 2005 was one of the hottest years on record, I don't expect 2006 to go off without giving it a run for the title. With the 10 hottest years on record all having occurred since 1990 (see graphic), the trend seems too strong to expect 2006 to be significantly cooler than other years in the past decade.

I also would not expect the 2006 hurricane season to be much calmer than this year's as high sea surface temps in the Gulf of Mexico will likely continue, fueling more strong storms. Let's hope that we will be a bit more prepared this year when the storms of 2006 make landfall.

-> Look for the fight over the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to continue in 2006. If the past is any indicication, I don't imagine drilling proponents will give up on this issue simply because they've been continually defeated for the past decade ... that would be far to sane.

-> And as with this year, keep your eyes on the headlines over at Green Car Congress for the latest developments in alternative transportation technologies. There'll be plenty of fun surprises in store for us in 2006... (Perhaps a commercial plug-in hybrid model? A guy can wish right?)

-> Oh, and if everything goes right, I just might earn my undergraduate degree during 2006. Here's hoping this one at least turns out to be true.

Well, that's all my crystal ball and tea leaves will give me for now. I hope we're all still here in another 365 days to look back at this post and see just where the year has led us. A healthy and happy 2006 to all of you. Cheers...

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