Technology has made green energy more viable.

Jun 29, 2001 02:00 AM

by Clive Thompson

So we've got a new energy crisis. Electricity prices are soaring, rolling blackouts are savaging high-tech states like California-and businesses are freaking out. When the lights go out, how do you power fancy new GigaHertz computers? Rub two sticks together?
For the White House, there's only one solution: Drill for more oil, and lots of it. In May, Vice-President Dick Cheney-a former oilman himself-said the national goal would be to crank out one new electrical plant per week for the next 20 years. That means drilling for new fossil fuels in an environmentally sensitive territory near the Yukon, relaxing environmental limits, and trying to persuade the Canadian government to run more pipelines across the tundra.
And as for conservation, alternative sources, sustainable green energy, all that tree-hugging stuff from the '80s? Whatever. Cheney said, "Conservation may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy strategy." The thing is, he's wrong. Cleaner and more efficient energy sources have made huge strides in recent years. Thanks to advances in technology, some options are becoming as cheap as oil and coal, and smart companies are starting to move towards them.
"Alternative energy isn't about personal virtue any more," counters Tom Adams, executive director of energy analyst firm Energy Probe in Toronto. "It's about a couple of basic desires-to save money, and not to get blacked out. That's good business sense."

With that in mind, let's review a few examples: Wind power
Wind-powered electricity, which is almost glisteningly clean, has dropped 80 % in price in the last 20 years, as wind-turbine companies in Denmark-the world leaders-began making enormous strides in quality, both in the turbines and in software for tracking the best winds. "It's like prospecting," says Jason Edworthy, executive director of marketing for the Calgary-based wind-power company Vision Quest Windelectric.
You're looking for steady winds-like those on the prairies, where Vision Quest has already constructed 27 turbines, each pumping out enough energy for 300 homes or businesses, including clients such as Calgary's Light Rapid Transit system and a Lethbridge, Atlanta, United church. Other producers include Suncor and Enbridge, partners behind the construction of a new $ 20-mm wind farm that will sell energy to the federal government.
Although wind power is growing by over 30 % globally a year, it currently represents less than 1 % of Canada's power supply: about 136 MW worth of power. Still, the price is good. Wind-created electricity costs 5.8 cents per kW-hour, on a par with natural gas-produced electricity.

Microturbines
Traditional energy grids-with a small group of power plants supplying energy over a wide area-aren't terribly efficient. Electricity is wasted when transmitted a long distance. North American power is, on average, only 35 % efficient, which is to say only 35 % of the energy created by burning coal or oil is eventually delivered as electricity. This, of course, translates into higher energy bills.
One solution? Generate the power yourself, and pocket the increased efficiency and reliability as savings. Big, energy-hungry companies have done this for years, owning their own power plants-one example is oil-sands company Syncrude, which just bought a 265-MW power plant from TransAlta. But now mid-sized businesses like Walgreens, Blockbuster and Holiday Inn are doing the same-by buying one or more microturbines to generate up to a few hundred kW, enough to sustain a single company.
Plunk a microturbine in your basement and it burns natural gas (or other fuels), at efficiency on par with the grid. The big savings begin when you use the microturbine to heat your offices, which can raise efficiency to a stunning 80 %. And no more worries about brownouts; you control the power. "There's enormous value in knowing that you'll have energy, and what it'll cost," says Mark Kuntz, vice-president of marketing for California-based Capstone Turbine, which has sold 1,300 microturbine units since it launched in 1998.
Microturbines can even help clean the air by burning toxic "sour" gases, such as flares on oil rigs. In one case, PanCanadian Petroleum in Alberta took a highly toxic hydrogen sulphide flare and used it to fuel a Capstone turbine, thus eliminating an environmental hazard while producing electricity. "You can't do better than that," Kuntz says.

Solar power
Today's photovoltaic (solar) systems produce power at about 7.9 cents (US) per kW-hour, once you amortize the cost of the equipment. But prices are dropping by about 5 % a year, according to Allen Barrnett, president and CEO of Newark, Delaware-based AstroPower, one of the world's biggest solar manufacturers. His clients range from Shea Homes (which installs solar systems in new San Diego homes) to Parker Ranch, one of the largest cattle ranches in the US.

Fuel cells
Hacked around for decades, this technology is finally coming to fruition. The cells are powered by hydrogen, which is broken down to produce electricity and water, the only by-product. They're super clean, quiet, and start engines instantly. That's why the auto industry has invested $ 2 bn into developing fuel-cell systems for cars-almost half of which has gone to Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems and several partner companies.
But car engines aren't the only Ballard project; indeed, commercial generators will hit the market first. By 2004, Ballard will release a small, one- or two-kW fuel-cell generator under the Coleman brand; a version of this product for the Japanese market has clocked 80 % efficiency when used to co-generate heat with electricity. A much larger, 250-kW system is also in the works.
All the same, a few hurdles remain. The technology is still new, and thus hasn't reached full economies of scale; buying a Ballard fuel-cell generator costs about $ 4,000 per kW of capacity, compared to $ 1,500 for non-fuel-cell competitors. And hydrogen isn't widely available yet.

These new energy technologies are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty more, like biomass fuel-methane gas from garbage dumps can be converted to energy- or geothermal power, which uses the Earth's warmth to heat water. In fact, none other than Dick Cheney is using geothermal power. He's been using the technology to heat water at his Washington home-since it helps conserve power and cut his energy bills. Maybe he knows something he's not telling us.

Source: Clive Thompson
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