Embracing Clean Energy Solutions
Embracing Clean Energy Solutions
By Ann-Marie Fleming, December 2005
As the nation works towards meeting the growing energy demands while maintaining security, energy independence and environmental protection, many industry participants are turning towards cleaner sources of energy. Some are looking at better ways of utilizing existing supplies of power producing material like coal and natural gas and others are embracing alternatives such as renewable energy technology. While the future landscape for the energy industry has yet to be determined it appears that a diversified portfolio of cleaner and safer means for the production of electricity is a realistic expectation.
The Drive towards Clean Energy: There are many factors that can be attributed to the energy industry's movement towards cleaner energy. The environment has long suffered and society is less willing to allow its harm to continue. Higher energy prices due to growing demand and constrained supply has fueled the debate for alternative solutions and security efforts to reduce the nation's reliance on foreign sources of energy has become a priority. These themes have become intertwined throughout government initiatives and consumer sentiment. As described by Jamie Wimberly, CEO of the Distributed Energy Financial Group LLC and Founder of the Distributed Energy Stock Index (DESI), "For the next three to five years, the major drivers toward the pursuit for cleaner sources of energy as an end unto itself would include, in this order: government policies and regulation, corporate strategies and customer preferences. For most customers, however, concerns over high prices and the reliability of supply are the drivers to seek alternative sources of energy or solutions. Fortunately, this is a virtuous circle. New energy technologies which match those needs are generally more efficient and thus cleaner, which will make it even easier for a customer to make a decision to change. More customer acceptance, in turn, will drive economies of scale and scope to make the new, cleaner energy technologies even more competitive over time. But it is going to take awhile."
Alternative Energy: Over the years, as innovation has led to practical alternatives for energy production, a diverse set of technologies has arisen in the renewable energy arena. Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. (ECD Ovonics) is a developer of alternative energy solutions that includes a diversified selection of solar, fuel cell, battery and hydrogen innovations. ECD's Stanford Ovshinsky, President, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder describes the Company's technology portfolio as being able to provide the complete energy loop. "We generate electrical energy with our thin-film photovoltaic products. We store electrical energy in our NiMH battery products. We distribute hydrogen through our Ovonic metal hydride storage materials technology. We use hydrogen to power a wide range of stationary and mobile devices through our Ovonic metal hydride fuel cell technology or as a fuel source for internal combustions engines. Hydrogen-powered products produce no pollution and no global climate changing CO2 emissions. Additionally, hydrogen is practically limitless. We can and must reduce our dependence on oil to reduce the potential for energy-related wars, inflation, and economic instability," explains Ovshinsky.
Over the years natural gas has become a prominent source of energy in large part due to the fact that it burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels and has lower emissions than traditional coal or oil. While natural gas is a much cleaner source of energy, a key challenge for this industry has been the reduction of harmful effects that are associated with the escape of methane, a form of greenhouse gas. Technology has enabled participants in this industry to control its impact on the environment through innovations in detection and analysis to more accurately identify natural gas reserves, reducing the number of drilling required. Improvements in storage and transportation pipelines have also helped to reduce the amount of natural gas leaks. "The development of extremely efficient, combined-cycle turbine (CCT) technology has been a breakthrough for natural gas electric generation, which some energy analysts see as an important stepping-stone away from coal. The latest CCTs can convert about 60% of natural gas' heating value into electric energy, nearly twice what a typical coal boiler can do. Gas burns cleaner than coal, too," states Hammerschlag.
Petrol Oil and Gas, Inc., a Coal Bed Methane (CBM) producer, utilizes progressive technology to address the environmental concerns associated with CBM dewatering and carbon dioxide issues. Paul Branagan, Petrol's CEO explains, "Petrol transports water produced from our CBM fields through underground pipelines and safely re-injects that water into our salt water disposal wells. Our operations area located in rural southeast Kansas and Petrol tries to minimize our impact on the farmers and ranchers fields by handling our water disposal in this manner. It essentially eliminates the need for tank batteries, trucking and handling which ultimately reduces the risks of spills, environmental hazards and cleanup. Although carbon dioxide production is relatively small, averaging between 1-8% of the produced gases we recently added a processing plant to strip carbon monoxide from our natural gas stream, reducing it below 1%. This process increases the heat content of the sales gas as well as reducing any potential hazards to the interstate pipeline."
In President George Bush's Energy Policy cleaner sources of domestic energy is a key focus to try and take advantage of local supply in a manner that does not compromise the environment as the nation works towards energy independence. "This bill will allow America to make cleaner and more productive use of our domestic energy resources, including coal, and nuclear power, and oil and natural gas. By using these reliable sources to supply more of our energy, we'll reduce our reliance on energy from foreign countries, and that will help this economy grow so people can work. Coal is America's most abundant energy resource. It accounts for more than one-half of our electricity production. The challenge is to develop ways to take advantage of our coal resources while keeping our air clean," stated the President.
The United States congress has funded over $1.3 billion in research towards making existing coal plants cleaner and to help in the building of future clean coal plants.
American Electric Power (AEP), one of the largest electric utilities in the United States has 70% of its fuel portfolio in coal; however they are actively pursuing clean coal production to utilize domestic supplies with less environmental impact. AEP's Melissa McHenry, Corporate Media Relations describes, "There is increasing public support for environmental improvements in using coal for energy generation. We (AEP) believe that it is very important to be on the forefront of demonstrating technology and improving technology that will enable us to continue to use domestic reserves of coal, which are very important for the energy security of the country, to generate electricity."
AEP have been conducting environmental retrofits as well as pursuing new Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants. The IGCC process according to McHenry, entails approximately a 20% cost premium over conventional coal-fired plants, but efficiency advantages and a long term view on removing all types of pollutants outweigh the initial cost differential. While research-scale IGCC plants have been around for more than a decade, until recently there was no one willing to move forward with a commercial project. "In the past, you could purchase the plans for building an IGGC plant, but all of the risk of construction and hoping it would work was on you. Now GE and Bechtel have formed a consortium and other companies such as Shell have stepped up to build plants and guarantee their operation. That is critically important when you are building a regulated plant."
In China, coal dominates energy production, but is also a key driver of the steel industry. The use of coal across multiple markets is often associated with environmental destruction, but the Chinese Government's increasing focus on reducing the impact that their economic and population growth has on the environment has led to cleaner manufacturing processes. This focus has inspired companies producing the materials to pursue methods that support this progressive consciousness.
Puda Coal Inc., a leading supplier of China's premium grade coking coal for the steel making industry, uses skimping technology from Germany to produce clean coking coal. Puda's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Zhao Ming explains, "Clean coking coal is a 'must have' raw material for coke production, and high quality coke is a 'must have' raw material for steel production. Clean coking coal not only guarantees the quality of the steel product, but also reduces the industrial waste from steel production. It is very environmental friendly. Producing high quality coke will generate a low coke-over gas helping to reduce the harmful effects of air pollution."
Puda is working to take advantage of the nation's movement towards more environmentally conscious production helping firms within the steel industry reduce waste and establish a clean steel process through the use of their clean coking coal. "The Chinese government just came out with a new policy system whereby all firms that do not meet the environmental requirements will either be closed, have operations stopped or ownership changed. As for the steel industry, in order to meet the environmental requirement, they need to start working on the beginning phase of the whole production process. Therefore, clean coking coal, produced by Puda, is becoming a very popular raw material among all steel manufacturers, resulting in the overwhelming market demand for Puda's high quality clean coking coal. We will have quintupled our current capacity by early 2006 just to keep pace with this demand, from 500,000 metric tons annually to 2.7 million metric tons. Our company is showing very energetic growth and great future potential," states Ming.
It appears that the energy industry, across it diverse production avenues, will continue to evolve and adapt. While the long term landscape is yet to be determined, the direction appears to be forward moving in terms of diversification and cleaner sources and generation of energy. "I actually think the energy industry is going to go through some pretty tumultuous years over the next decade. Think about the challenges: very old and deteriorating energy infrastructure; supply constraints leading to a lot of price volatility; backward looking energy policies; security concerns; and customers who are demanding more, including more environmentally conscious production. To respond to these challenges, it is not a question of if the energy industry is going to change, but how it is going to change and how fast. New technologies, new business models and new government policies will absolutely be necessary. I find it interesting that the oil majors, with the luxury of a longer term perspective, are already placing their bets on a 'beyond petroleum' vision of the market in the future," states Wimberly.
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About the author:
Ann-Marie Fleming completed her MBA in the United States, where she attended Webster University. She also holds an Honors B.A from the University of Toronto. She has over fifteen years of experience within the financial industry to include retail banking and brokerage, investment banking, and mortgage brokerage within the United States and Canada, with a firm background in corporate research.