Oil has hit a record $110 per barrel. Gasoline appears headed toward four bucks a gallon this summer. And the dollar has plunged against the yen and the euro, thanks to our weakening economy and huge trade deficit -- both caused in part by our massive oil imports.
The good news is that researchers and capitalists large and small are investing billions to develop next-generation fuels -- beyond corn-based ethanol -- as well as energy-conserving and producing technologies. Promising developments are being reported weekly, from more efficient ways to produce biodiesel from scrub plants and waste products to better batteries for commuter vehicles.
"I'm just convinced that my kids, in 20 years time, will say, 'You guys got your energy how?'" Minneapolis author Jack Uldrich said. "Imports and drilling for oil 175 miles out in the ocean and then piping it or transporting it on huge ships to expensive coastal refining and all the pollution problems?''
There are better, cheaper, less-polluting, job-producing and sustainable ways to generate energy, he said, "and those solutions reside in the rapidly emerging field of clean energy."
Uldrich, a former naval intelligence officer, was director of Minnesota Planning and has been a researcher and technology consultant since 2002. He has just written "Green Investing -- A Guide to Making Money Through Environment-friendly Businesses," published by Adams Media Corp.
It's one of several new books that examine the evolving world of energy and conservation, including "Profiting From Clean Energy" by Richard Asplund, an investment adviser focused on clean energy.
Heck, last week, scientists at tiny Augsburg College announced that they have developed a new "continuous flow" process for producing more biodiesel that uses far less energy and produces far less waste.
The college and an affiliated company plan to produce 3 million gallons of the stuff this year. That's a drop in the tank, but history is full of small inventors who went on to big things.
Uldrich's book is no get-rich-quick guide. It is a first step for investors and others to get familiar with small players and big guns, private and public companies, that are going whole hog or investing selectively in alternative energy.
"The harsh reality of the marketplace is that most high-technology companies fail," Uldrich said. "Clean tech is not going to be any different. ... By doing due diligence, however, the individual investor can reduce the risk."
Uldrich suggests ways to build a portfolio of green stocks or to invest in the growing area of green mutual funds.
The well-laid-out book includes separate chapters on Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric, General Motors, British Petroleum and even oil company Chevron Corp., also a big producer of geothermal energy.
There are chapters on biofuels, solar, wind power and on conservation, where advanced lighting and home-metering systems pioneered by several companies have us on the way to potentially huge savings in electrical energy.
Battery technology is evolving rapidly. Detroit plans to debut models by 2010 that should get as much as 100 miles on an overnight charge.
Fledgling companies such as A123 of Massachusetts and EEStore of Kansas, backed by venture-capital funding, say that they will deliver batteries that will power compact cars as far as 500 miles or more on a charge.
Uldrich cites only one Minnesota company, NatureWorks, the Cargill-owned company that has developed a starch-based plastic that substitutes for petroleum-based plastic.
Minnesota is one of the country's five-largest producers of wind energy, and has a growing wind turbine manufacturing plant owned by an Indian company. But it is not an energy bastion, other than for corn-ethanol producers.
"I'm not high on corn-based ethanol but those plants are positioned to take advantage of efficiencies and to adopt to using the whole corn stover, switch grass and other cellulosic feedstocks that Minnesota has in abundance," Uldrich said.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • firstname.lastname@example.org