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Strength in numbers: 5 partnerships that could expand renewable energy

New Hampshire, U.S.A. -- Today, there is no perfect form of energy. Fossil fuels are abundant but dirty. Solar and wind are clean but intermittent, and geothermal is cheap once its running but difficult to get started. Yet, as technologies evolve, so do creative partnerships that maximize an energy's potential while hedging against its shortfalls. Perhaps another sign of the continuously maturing renewable energy industries is their ability to form new relationships with each other while exploring relationships with other more established forms of energy.

Here’s a quick peek at some developments that may raise acceptance and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Geothermal and Batteries

If the electric vehicle market is to take off, it may get an unexpected boost from geothermal power.

California-based Simbol Materials plans to tap into existing geothermal plants to extract lithium to be used for batteries for electric vehicles and portable devices. The company says it can do this — waste-free — by separating high-quality minerals that are found in brine from geothermal power production. According to the company, the newly opened 500-ton capacity facility near the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, Calif. is the first battery materials producer of its kind.

Geothermal and Solar

Enel Green Power North America just might be onto something with the company’s decision to co-locate a 24-MW photovoltaic solar farm on a 240-acre parcel adjacent to its 60-MW Stillwater geothermal plant in Churchill County, Nevada. Conceivably, solar could offset concerns about resource predictability while contributing to a plant’s capacity. The solar power produced will integrate into the existing plant, allowing it to produce more power, especially during periods of peak energy. It also saves the power producer the costs associated with interconnection and operation. This is the first such project in the United States, and according to company officials, likely the first in the world. Construction is ongoing, and the company hopes to bring it online by the end of the year.

Solar and Wind

Until storage becomes a cost-effective option, wind and solar will share the same difficulties. Their intermittency is pointed to by critics as proof of their lack of reliability. But they also perform best at different times. While the sun shines during the day, winds are generally most reliable at night. Using them in combination has proven beneficial so far for Western Wind Energy, which recently opened its Kingman I solar and wind project in Kingman, Ariz. The 10.5-MW facility is the first utility-scale operation designed to use both technologies. The facility uses five Gamesa wind turbines and a 500-kW solar PV array.

Solar and Oil

One of America’s oldest oil fields is the site of one of its newest partnerships. BrightSource Energy’s 29-MW facility has been built to help Chevron’s oil recovery in Coalinga, Calif, which has been ongoing since 1890. BrightSource’s CSP plant will produce high-pressure steam that will be pumped deep into an existing oil reservoir, which increases pressure underground and makes it easier to bring the oil to the surface. The steam is then cooled and recirculated in a closed-loop system. Traditionally, the steam at the Coalinga plant has been generated by burning natural gas.

This provides an ideal environment for the use of solar thermal technologies for enhanced oil recovery.”

Geothermal and Oil

The geothermal industry is patiently awaiting movement of a Senate bill that would allow those with federal oil and gas leases to produce geothermal power. The current system requires a competitive lease be issued to produce geothermal power on federal land.

According to Karl Gawell of the Geothermal Energy Association, the typical oil well in West Texas produces eight gallons of hot water for every gallon of oil recovered. Right now, they have to pump those oil wells with electricity, and for many of the oil fields, that represents their largest cost. So geothermal power would seem to be an ideal fit for an operation looking to secure its bottom line.

While this bill may never make it out of committee, it could lay the groundwork for yet another emerging energy partnership.

Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements

The following article is excerpted from a report of a study done by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with contributions from the Institute for Sustainable Communities and Green for All.

Policy makers and program designers in the United States and abroad are deeply concerned with two interconnected questions.

  • The first is how to scale up energy efficiency to a level that is commensurate with the energy and climate challenges we face.
  • The second is how to realize the potential for energy savings that efficiency advocates have touted for decades.

When policy makers ask what energy efficiency can do, the answers usually revolve around the technical and economic potential of energy efficiency. Rarely do they address the factor that matters most for changing energy usage in existing homes. That factor is the consumer.

A growing literature is concerned with the behavioral aspects of energy consumption. We examine a narrower, related subject: How can millions of Americans be persuaded to spend time and money upgrading their homes to eliminate energy waste, avoid high utility bills, and spur the economy?

With hundreds of millions of public dollars flowing into incentives, workforce training, and other initiatives to support comprehensive home energy improvements, it makes sense to review the history of these programs and glean the best practices for encouraging homeowners to make these improvements. How do we cost-effectively motivate customers to take action? Whom can we partner with to increase program participation? How do we get residential efficiency programs to increase in scale?

Marketing and Outreach Lessons

It is not enough to provide information; programs must sell something people want. High home energy use is not currently a pressing issue for many people. Find a more appealing draw, such as health, comfort, energy security, competition, or community engagement to attract interest.

Program Design and Implementation Lessons

Make it easy, make it fast. Offer seamless, streamlined services—package incentives, minimize paperwork, and preapprove contractors. Give people fewer reasons to decide against making home improvements by making it simple.

Contractors are the key point of sale for home energy improvements. They already understand the traditional renovation and home improvement market, and they have access to customers who may initially just want to replace a furnace but may be open to other improvements. It’s imperative to design a program that contractors want to sell — and convince them that the opportunity is worth the time and money it will take to get the appropriate training and equipment.

Rebates, financing, and other incentives do matter. Past energy efficiency program experience shows that incentives do motivate the choice to do home upgrades and can be extremely important in getting a program off the ground.

Conserving Land to Prevent Global Warming

The legislation in question is called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. It was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama in the spring of 2009. The Act protects some two million acres outright as wilderness in nine different states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia) and requires the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize conservation on another 26 million acres of mostly Western lands. The bill also established three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, over 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails.

With provisions appealing to sportsmen and conservationists alike, the bill enjoyed broad support; drafters took into account requests from dozens of constituent groups in putting together the legislation. As such, it is one of the most significant expansions of U.S. wilderness protection in the past quarter century. “This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share,” President Obama said upon signing the bill into law.

Plants and trees utilize ground-level carbon dioxide as building blocks in photosynthesis. The more flora we leave growing naturally on the ground, the more greenhouse gas we can store (or “sequester”) there and prevent from drifting on up to the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming.

Green Chemistry

A brave new world known as “green chemistry” seeks to reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, use and disposal of products.

So many chemicals in everyday products are harmful to our health and the environment. Why aren’t we developing safer alternatives?

Researchers today are beginning to question the safety of many chemicals used in consumer products. Studies have linked Bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants, phthalates and many other chemicals found in everyday products to a wide range of health problems, including cancer, learning and behavioral problems and reproductive illnesses.

Despite the federal government’s slowness in calling for it, nonprofit labs and for-profit companies alike have been busy developing safer alternatives to some of these harsher chemicals. The brave new world of “green chemistry,” ¬in which reducing or eliminating the use or generation of hazardous substances is top priority in the design, use and disposal of products,¬ is leading to a rash of new, safer ingredients.

Companies looking to put a “BPA-free” sticker on their bottles, for instance, can make them instead with Eastman Tritan copolyester, a plastic alternative that doesn’t disrupt hormones as Nalgene and CamelBak do. Phthalates—used to soften plastic toys—can be replaced with a product called Grindsted Soft-N-Safe, made from acetic acid and castor oil from the castor plant. Formaldehyde adhesives used to make plywood and other wood products can be replaced with soy-based resins, wood fibers and plastic-wood fibers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the effort through its sponsorship of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. The annual awards program recognizes and helps fund efforts to reduce the amount of hazardous substances released into the environment or entering the waste stream, and efforts that reduce the public health hazards associated with the release of such substances¬.

But while the EPA has the power to spur green chemistry, it is powerless to ban many dangerous chemicals in widespread use. The 1976 law that still governs use of many chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), presumes that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. TSCA has failed to require basic testing for the toxicity of some 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in when the law was first passed.

Can Earthquake Energy be Harnessed?

By Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss

While it is no doubt theoretically possible to generate electricity by harnessing the kinetic energy of shifting tectonic plates below the Earth’s crust, pulling it off from a practical standpoint would be a real logistical challenge—not to mention prohibitively expensive compared to harnessing other forms of energy, renewable or otherwise.

Big earthquakes throw off vast amounts of energy. According to Beth Buczynski of the CrispGreen website, researchers have calculated that the January 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed upwards of 220,000 people in Haiti released as much energy as 31 of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. And the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck northeast Japan in March 2011 unleashed the equivalent of more than 15,000 Hiroshima bombs. That’s a lot of energy indeed.

“The total energy from an earthquake includes energy required to create new cracks in rock, energy dissipated as heat through friction, and energy elastically radiated through the earth,” reports the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program. “Of these, the only quantity that can be measured is that which is radiated through the earth.” Likewise, only this radiated energy—which is what shakes buildings and is recorded by seismographs—could be harnessed given the dedication of enough resources and the proper implementation of the right technologies.

Regarding why Japan is so reliant on nuclear power despite the tectonic risks is a matter of economics. Lacking the rich oil, coal and other energy reserves of many other nations, Japan relies on nuclear power for some 30 percent of its electricity. Prior to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan was gearing up to boost its nuclear power reserves to account for half of its electricity needs by 2030. This increased reliance on nuclear power was set to play a big part in the country’s rollback of greenhouse gas emissions.

Prior to the earthquake and tsunami, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency had modelled a 54 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 2000 levels by 2050, and a 90 percent reduction by 2100, with nuclear energy accounting for upwards of 60 percent of the country’s total energy mix. Now it looks like the country may scale back its nuclear expansion plans, which in the short term will only increase its reliance on fossil fuels which will in turn drastically limit Japan’s ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Why Sort Recycled Plastic?

According to the Colorado-based EcoCycle, the use of disposable packaging -– especially plastic –- has increased by more than 10,000 percent over the past 50 years.

The reason plastics aren’t typically melted together and then separated later is a matter of both physics and economics. When any of the seven common types of plastic resins are melted together, they tend to separate and then set in layers. The resulting blended plastic is structurally weak and difficult to manipulate. While the layered plastic could in theory be melted again and separated into its constituent resins, the energy inputs required to do so would make such a process cost prohibitive.

As a result, recycling facilities sort their plastics first and then melt them down only with other items made of the same type of resin. While this process is labor-intensive, the recycling numbers on the bottom of many plastic items make for quicker sorting. Many recycling operations are not only reducing sizable amounts of waste from going into landfills but are also profitable if managed correctly.

Manufacturers of plastic items choose specific resins for different applications. Recycling like items together means the reclaimed polymer can be used to create new items just like their virgin plastic forebears. The seven common types of plastic are: #1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE); #2 High-density polyethylene (HDPE); #3 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC); #4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE); #5 Polypropylene (PP); #6 Polystyrene (PS); and #7 Other/Mixed (O). The group adds that over the past half century, the use of disposable packaging—especially plastic—has increased by more than 10,000 percent.

Along these lines, products (or packaging) made out of reusable metal, glass or even wood are preferable to equivalent items made from plastic. For starters, an item of metal, glass or wood can be re-used by someone else or recycled much more efficiently than plastic when it does reach the end of its useful life to you. Wood products and other items crafted out of plant material—even so-called “polylactic acid (PLA) plastic” made from plant-based agricultural wastes—can be composted along with your yard waste and food scraps, either in your backyard or, if your town or city offers it, through your municipal collection system. Happy reducing, reusing and recycling!

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