Those who went to the right breakout sessions also found that ethanol will continue to grow in importance as a transportation fuel, especially when new, second-generation cellulosic forms come to market. There are companies hard at work on such processes and some of them are ready to go into limited-scale production. Some companies, like General Motors and Ford, are building as many flex-fuel vehicles as quickly as they can, while others, like Toyota and Honda, are dragging their feet.
As for hydrogen, there's a mixed message. American industry makes plenty of it, but takes it from natural gas (of which we have a good supply). This works as a reasonable automotive fuel with a few modifications to a vehicle's system. Many proponents are big fans of compressed natural gas as a stepping stone to a hydrogen-based fueling arrangement. Most hydrogen is produced for the oil industry, where it is used in the refining process, so fans of the gas say we can just make more. General Motors, Toyota and Honda are optimistic about hydrogen as a future fuel, but soon back away from any estimates on timing. Even its biggest supporters say it won't be viable until 2030 and not really mainstream until 2050. A global recession caused by declining oil supplies could delay the investment needed to make hydrogen happen.
Perhaps the most important message was this: there's no 'magic bullet' when it comes to solving future transportation problems. Every calorie of energy will find a way to be used to move us forward: gasoline refined from Canadian oil sands; compressed and liquefied natural gas; propane; coal-to-liquid and coal-to-gas synthetic fuels; ethanol from corn, plant cellulose and municipal waste; methane from garbage dumps, biodiesel from soy beans and other plants; hydrogen as a combustion fuel and in fuel cells; hybrids; plug-in hybrids; and all-electric vehicles with electricity made with coal, nuclear, wind and solar sources. None of these are being ruled out and some predict that they will all find a place in the new world of transportation.
The next Alternative Fuels and Vehicles National Conference takes place in April 2009, in another fantasy land: Orlando, Florida. With oil prices reaching new highs nearly every day and a new team in the White House, it should be interesting to see how many of these fuel and infrastructure options are still on the table and if we have any winners.