2010 will go down in history as the year the electric car returned to the mainstream, barely.

Nissan, General Motors, Think, Fisker Automotive and others months ago unfurled grand plans to bring plug-in hybrids and all electrics to market this year. The cars are coming. They’re just a little late and light in numbers.  

A few Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs will trickle into the market in December. Fisker, meanwhile, delayed the Karma until March 2011, while Coda punted from late 2010 to the third quarter of 2011. Think will bring its City to the U.S. this year, but only sell it to fleet customers: consumers won’t be able to get their hands on them until 2011.

Nonetheless, the momentum for electric cars, and even biofuels, continues to grow. Here are the top stories from the year.

1. The Big Electric Dividing Line. Established manufacturers in the last twelve months have shown why it will be tough to compete with them.

Nissan revealed that the Leaf will cost $32,800 before federal and state incentives, which should put it on par with standard economy cars. Toward the end of the year, Mitsubishi one-upped Nissan by announcing that its all-electric i will cost $30,000 before incentives when it arrives in the fall of 2011.

The Chevy Volt might cost $41,000, but it’s roomy and powerful and it still has a sticker price under than Coda’s $45,000 all-electric car. Think hopes to sell its car for $33,995, but it only has two seats. Aptera has moved to a holding pattern.

Nissan also plans to make 50,000 Leafs through 2011, while GM will crank out 10,000 Volts by the end of 2011 and 45,000 or more in 2012. The startups speak of more modest figures. Any way you slice it, the lower prices, larger volumes and sense of security that major manufacturers can give to customers will increasingly make life difficult for new entrants.

2. New CAFE Standards: 34 MPG in 2016, 62 MPG by 2025?

Fuel standards may not be as whiz-bang as electric cars, but the new CAFE standards from the federal government, the first in years, will likely lead to greater greenhouse gas reductions and fuel consumption than all of the electrics combined. The CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards will require car makers to hit an average of 34.1 miles per gallon by 2016. A future amendment may raise it to 47 or even up to 62 by 2025.

Ford, Volkswagen and others are all putting a heavy emphasis on new types of engines, including diesels, and body materials that can eliminate weight and/or wring out more miles per gallon. At the L.A. Auto Show, Hyundai said it wants to be the leader in 40 MPG cars in 2011, and they will have 50 MPG cars in 2025.

Side note: expect more ethanol, too, with the EPA raising the blend standard from 10 percent to 15 percent.

3. The Collateral CAFE Industry

A host of startups -- Scuderi, EcoMotors, Achates Power, Transonic Combustion, WrightSpeed, Nanostellar, PowerGenix, etc. -- hope to capitalize on the calendar crunch imposed by the new CAFE standards by licensing their technologies for energy efficient engines and other components to major car makers. It won’t be easy. Car makers are incredibly reluctant to license, but in many cases they may not have a choice.

Big companies, of course, will get in on the act, too. Panasonic has developed a car air conditioner that runs on engine waste heat while Freescale and others have developed capacitors for acceleration in gas cars.

4. Better Place Raises More Money Amid Debates About its Future

Back in 2008, most stories about Better Place read like a Superman comic book. A leader (Shai Agassi) comes from a long, long way away (Israel, SAP) to help us fight an enemy (oil) with amazing super powers (a business model for selling electric cars with swappable batteries like cell phones). Rare critical stories are usually met with caustic comments.

The charismatic force field has taken a few hits. Although Renault Nissan has agreed to make cars with swappable batteries for Denmark and Israel, most other car makers right now say they don’t have plans for swapping: even Tesla, which once talked about a swappable battery in one model of the Model S, has downplayed it. Almost none of the electrics coming to the U.S. tout a swappable battery. Go to an industry conference and everyone has a Better Place opinion.

Still, don’t count the company out. At the start of the year, it raised $350 million more, bringing the total to $700 million. It also has alliances with General Electric, and Intel, among others, will become a customer for the cars in Israel when they start to come out in the second half of 2011.

Lawrence Seeff, vice president of global alliances at Better Place, told us also that the company can get car batteries for $400 a kilowatt hour, which is extraordinarily low and a figure that will help its business plan. Jason Wolf at the company went through the economics of the whole system with us, too.

Is Better Place just an idea? Or is it an idea that could actually work in reality? We will see over the next two years.

5. Conglomerates Enter the Charging Market

It was fun while it lasted. Startups like Ecotality and Coulomb Technologies a few years back burst onto the scene with equipment and services for charging electric cars. In 2010, Schneider Electric, General Motors and Siemens touted their own wares for the charging infrastructure. Administrative rules also began to relax that will allow malls and parking garages to sell, or even give away, electricity to EV owners.

These shifts in the market will likely lead to a quicker rollout of the electric car infrastructure, but it certainly will make it far more difficult for startups to survive. Think of it: who are you going to buy high-powered electrical equipment that could fry a consumer from -- a startup or a company that’s been around for 100 years?

6. The IPO Market: You Can’t Win Them All

Transportation has been one of the principal themes of green IPOs, and it’s worked about half of the time. Battery Maker A123 Systems went public in late 2009. The stock jumped from $13.50 to over $20. Since then, it has seen large customer Black & Decker fade away, and in the most recent quarter, battery shipments shrunk. A123’s stock now sells for $7.90.

Biofuel maker Codexis held an IPO in April for $13 a share. The stock now sells for under $10. PetroAlgae, a company with no revenues and a controversial business plan, filed for an IPO but hasn’t held it yet.

Not everyone is underwater. Tesla went public, but then dipped below its IPO price in the summer. Since then it has rebounded on the strength of a deal with Toyota, a new factory and Wall Street analyst reports containing optimistic expectations that may have been fashioned after guzzling a quart of bong water.  

Amyris, another biofuel maker, went out at $16 and now sells for $20, or about where Amyris wanted to start out in the first place. And let’s not forget Molycorp. It wants to mine rare earth minerals in California. The stock has zoomed from $13 to over $30 in recent weeks because of fears about China crimping supplies of these materials, which are crucial for electric motors.

 7. Will China Own the Car Market?

Japanese and South Korean car brands have long been fixtures in international markets. Soon, China may join the mix. BYD, which started making cars in 2003, has laid out plans to become the largest car maker in China by 2015 and the largest in the world by 2025. It already makes electrics, hybrids, buses and gas cars. A buoyant domestic market, ideally, will pave the way for sales in India, Latin America and ultimately Europe and the U.S.

The central government has also made electric transportation a high priority.

It won’t be easy. Coda Automotive, a Sino-U.S. company, had to delay its cars, and early ride-n-drives weren’t exactly overly enthusiastic. Style, fit and finish aren’t easy to master -- it took Hyundai years. Nonetheless, Chinese companies have shown they can adapt fast.

8. Too Much, The Electric Bus.

Riding the bus has never been glamorous, but buses will likely become one of the primary early markets for electric transportation. Additionally, buses and bus companies will become test beds for high-speed charging stations. Proterra managed to put its first electric buses on the streets in southern California. Expect to see more deals and more manufacturers enter this space.

9. Next Generation Biofuels Inch Closer.

They are two to three years away. I think I said that the first time in 2005. With the credit crunch on, biofuel makers are largely still wrestling with how to raise more funds to get into production Some progress is occurring. Solazyme signed a contract to deliver 150,000 gallons of algae fuel to the U.S. Navy, which follows a successful trial of 20,000 gallons. (It also raised $52 million in a fourth round.) Sapphire Energy said they will be able to show their GMO algae process works in about 18 months.

Zeachem and Aurora, meanwhile, branched out into, respectively, green chemicals and food additives in the meantime.

10. High Speed Rail in the U.S.?

It’s weird to think that one of the big political issues of the day is whether the U.S. will begin to adopt a technology pioneered in Japan in the early 1960s. But high-speed rail appears to be gaining momentum in the U.S. California has given it a thumbs up and so has the Obama Administration. The question now is whether -- or when -- it gets built.