December 6, 2000
Beyond Fossil Fuel: The Alternatives Are Growing
With the convergence of strict environmental controls,
electricity deregulation, and high oil prices, renewable
fuels are back in the limelight -- likely for good
If you lived through the '70s, you've
heard it before. And once again, experts are predicting
that alternative fuels are about to become cheap,
plentiful energy sources.
While such oil companies may be just playing defense,
big utilities are embracing alternative energy as
a means of growth. Enron Corp. has founded Enron Wind
and is partnering with FuelCell Energy to develop
fuel cells for power plants and other big users. Last
summer, Reliant Energy of Houston formed Reliant Energy
Renewables to produce electricity for Texas consumers
using wind and methane gas from landfills, enough
to power 80,000 homes.
Here's a look at the hottest alternatives:
Advances in fuel cells for automobiles are driving
the technology for stationary fuel cells, used on
a small scale to run, say, traffic lights, and on
a much larger scale, power plants. In a fuel cell,
hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, and the
energy released in that reaction produces an electric
current. The hydrogen can be used directly or extracted
from natural gas, ethanol, or even gasoline. Because
the fuel isn't burned and doesn't leave pollutants
and the cells' energy can be stored long-term, fuel
cells have an advantage over wind and sunshine.
Thanks to advances in turbine technology, wind power
is much more price competitive than fuel cells. The
fastest-growing energy source in the world, wind power
costs about 4 cents per kilowatt hour, the same as
natural gas, coal, or oil. In the past two years,
worldwide wind-power capacity grew by one-third, to
about 20,000 megawatts (enough to power about 6 million
homes), according to the American Wind Energy Assn.
One of the biggest wind projects, being built on the
plains of West Texas by Reliant Energy Renewables,
will have 160 turbine generators, each capable of
putting out 1.3 megawatts.
Ten years ago, outfitting a typical three-bedroom
house with solar panels cost about $300,000. Today,
new technology has brought that figure down to $30,000.
Forecasters expect it will be two to three decades
before solar energy costs less than burning coal or
oil, but in regions with long, sunny days, such power
is a considered a viable supplement to the main energy
The heat and steam in underground geological formations,
mostly in the western U.S., can be harnessed to produce
electricity. The world's largest geothermal field,
The Geysers in California, was developed 40 years
ago. Such power plants built today would produce power
at 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour, making them more
expensive than coal and oil. But the Energy Dept.
and the utilities are working to bring that figure
down to 3 cents per kilowatt hour, the point at which
large-scale production could take off.
Bioenergy is the combustion of plant matter to produce power, including the burning of wood, ethanol, and methane gas, a naturally occurring byproduct of landfills and sewage-treatment plants. For now, bioenergy provides less than 1% of the nation's electricity, but Reliant Energy Renewables is exploring this option, too. The utility plans to extract methane from 12 landfills in Texas and convert it to electricity, starting next year.
Neither Main Street nor Wall Street has any appetite
for building new nuclear plants in the U.S. after
well-publicized disasters such as the meltdown at
the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union
in 1986 and the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania
in 1979. The country has about 100 operating nuclear
power plants, which altogether produce some 100,000
megawatts of electricity. Because they don't generate
greenhouse gases, such plants "probably won't become
much of an issue unless you propose building another
one," says Merrill's Brothwell.