Solar Power Plant (Photo: Solargenix)
By far, the majority of America's electricity comes from burning coal, splitting atoms and burning natural gas. But partly through federal subsidies, renewable energy is getting more commercially competitive. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, 350 thousand homes in Nevada and California may get their juice from the sun and from hydrogen
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The holy grail of energy production is generating power without pollution. Right now about two thirds of the industrial sulfur dioxide emissions and around 40 percent of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide gasses produced in the U.S. come from power plants. Clean energy is literally a drop in the bucket: Hydropower generates less than seven percent, solar and wind, just a fraction of that. But as Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports, two new projects in the southwest are generating clean power, and buzz.
LOBET: We've all seen rooftop solar collectors. But there's another kind – industrial strength. It's called concentrating solar. High-tech collectors, like mirrored tanning beds spread over acres of desert land, track the sun across the sky.
MYLES: They operate almost exactly the way a sunflower operates. It wakes up in the morning, facing the east, and tracks to the west.
LOBET: John Myles is president of Solargenics, a North Carolina-based company that's just broken ground on a 350-acre array of concentrating solar collectors in the Nevada desert. With parabolic precision, the mirrors focus heat on a line filled with oil that runs through the center of each unit, heating the oil to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot fluid is then exposed to water flashing it into steam, which drives turbines, just like any other power plant, only you didn't have to burn any coal or gas.
MYLES: Our plant in Nevada is the first plant in 15 years. It's the third largest solar plant ever built in the world and it represents a real resurgence in the industry. We think there will be other projects in Spain very soon, and more plants in the United States.
LOBET: The Nevada One solar project will produce 64 megawatts of power. Small for a power plant, but very large for solar: enough electricity for 50,000 houses. It will need water for it's cooling towers, but so do most power plants that turn heat into electricity. News of most renewable power projects crosses the desk of Jesse Broehl. He edits renewable energy access dot com, and this one caught his eye.
BROEHL: I'd say it's pretty significant. Not just in its size – this is commercial scale solar power – but I think it's also significant in terms of representing a shift for solar, where this new approach, concentrated solar power, has been around for awhile but we haven’t seen a facility like this built in 15 years. So, to see this go up now bodes well for solar in the future.
LOBET: Everyone agrees one big reason this project is being built now is that Nevada requires a quarter of its new green energy to be from solar power.
Not quite as far along on the project table is another new kind of power plant, this one is next to an oil refinery about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Edison Mission Group and BP are planning to build the world's largest hydrogen-fired power plant. Hydrogen only occurs bound to other substances, and this new plant will get its hydrogen from a waste product known as coke.
PARNELL: It is a black, almost coal-looking substance that is a byproduct of the refining process.
LOBET: Charlie Parnell is Vice President of government affairs for Edison Mission Group. Using coke from the refinery next door will be cleaner than the status quo. Currently, it’s being transported to China, burning heavy ship fuel the whole way.
PARNELL: About 1,000 truckloads a day take the waste petroleum coke from the Carson refining facility to the Long Beach harbor, so we’ll actually have the benefit of no longer using those thousand diesel trucks to deliver that petroleum coke to the harbor.
LOBET: In China the coke is burned. But the part of this hydrogen project that's got energy experts' attention is what BP and Edison plan to do with the remaining waste product, which is carbon dioxide.
PARNELL: The CO2 will be captured after the gasification process. It’ll be put in a pipe and then shipped offsite to existing oil fields where it will be used for further recovery of oil from those fields and it will be sequestered permanently.
LOBET: Oil companies often force gas underground to try to push out thick oil deposits, especially these days, with every barrel worth more than $60. But it's not yet known whether this is an effective way to permanently dispose of the world's surplus carbon. Again, Jesse Broehl.
BROEHL: That's probably one of the things that no one knows about this. How effective is it? Can you just pump gas into the underground? And will it stay there forever? At what point in the future could that be released?
LOBET: That's a question a lot of people would like to see answered. In the meantime, if they can persuade investors, they'll be using refinery waste to produce energy cleaner than natural gas, but dirtier than wind or solar, to serve 300,000 households.
For Living on Earth I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.
[MUSIC: Gorillaz "O Green World" from ‘Demon Days’ (Virgin Records – 2005)]
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