View Single Post
Old Posted Apr 23, 2009, 1:10 PM
LouisianaRush's Avatar
LouisianaRush LouisianaRush is offline
Join Date: Jan 2003
Location: Baltimore
Posts: 2,807
Alternative energy ideas brewing at LSU conference

Posted by Rebecca Mowbray,
The Times-Picayune
April 22,

BATON ROUGE -- As Congress contemplates requiring utilities to generate or purchase a certain amount of power from renewable sources, using dead plants as fuel may be one of the most logical starting points for Louisiana, speakers at Louisiana State University's annual alternative energy conference said today.

Twenty-eight states already have renewable portfolio standards, but none of them are in the Southeast, where the sun isn't as abundant as in some other parts of the country and the onshore wind isn't as strong. Bills pending in Congress such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 could force Louisiana and its neighbors to act.

As Congress was debating the initial draft of the climate change legislation this week, dozens of entrepreneurs, financiers, utility executives, environmental advocates and state agencies gathered today, on Earth Day, to hear the latest at the LSU Center for Energy Studies' Alternative Energy 2009 conference.

Jeremiah Haswell, a research engineer at the Southern Co., a regional utility serving parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, said his company is focusing on biomass because it's currently the only large-scale renewable power source that's economically feasible in the region.

"We know an RPS is coming, biomass is our most economic option at this point," Haswell said. "It boils down to what is the cheapest route of supply."

The Southern Co. has been making wood chips out of dead trees and mixing it in with coal at one of its plants, and is converting another plant to run entirely on biomass by June 2012. But it's not as simple as it sounds.

There are logistical challenges, such as setting up systems to allow 160 trucks to deliver wood chips each day, and economic problems once a new fuel source comes into favor. The Southern Co. realized that if it tried to meet its renewable power needs with wood chips, the price of wood chips would rise with demand, rendering biomass power production unaffordable, and driving the region's pulp and paper industry out of business.

Another speaker, Kelly Tiller, said that the University of Tennessee ran into a similar problem in ramping up a five-year $70 million state pilot program to farm a hardy form of grass called switchgrass and turn it into ethanol for transportation.

Seeds cost $6 a pound when the project was being planned. They jumped to $20 a pound as soon as it was announced and rose to $30 a pound, making the project more expensive. Tiller said that the research company created to carry out the pilot project managed to lock in prices at $20 a pound, and considered it an important lesson in the economics of bio-fuels.

David Dismukes, who ran today's program as assistant director of the LSU Center for Energy Studies, said that competition for biomass sources, the impact it could have on other industries or food sources, and land use questions mean that biomass cannot be the only answer.

To make progress on viable renewable power sources, Louisiana needs to make investments the way the state of Tennessee has done in Tiller's project to begin learning what works and what doesn't.

"We can't just sit around and say, 'Oh, we've got a lot of opportunities.' We've got to start testing them out," Dismukes said.

If Louisiana doesn't start trying things, local utilities will probably end up buying renewable power or credits from states that have invested in it, leading to a outflow of money from the state.

"If the state wants to develop homegrown renewable energy, it isn't going to come for free," Dismukes said. "If we don't make investments, we'll probably export lots of dollars."

Dismukes believes that geothermal power, or capturing heat energy trapped inside the earth to turn a turbine and generate electricity, will be promising in Louisiana. Oil and gas exploration has often turned up thermal energy deposits, and the state has the technical expertise with drilling and a blueprint for a regulatory structure to handle such finds.

Paul Thomsen, director for policy and business development at the Nevada geothermal company Ormat Technologies, also said that geothermal is promising for Louisiana because of the state's geology. The main problem with geothermal power, he said, is that it's impossible to know whether heat sources will last for two years or twenty, and bankers don't want to take the risk that sources could run out quickly.

Thomsen also said that Louisiana should try to convince Congress that trapping the heat released from pipelines and using it to generate electricity should be considered a renewable fuel source rather than an energy efficiency to help states meet any future renewable portfolio requirements.

Another speaker, Deborah Deal Blackwell, said that her company, Hyperion Power Generation Inc., is commercializing a technology from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that will allow tiny nuclear power plants buried under ground to power the equivalent of roughly 25,000 homes.

Nuclear is necessary to meet the nation's power needs, she said, but the problem is that plants cost billions and it will be 12 years before the ones under consideration now are operational. Her company's mini-nuclear plants will cost about $25 million apiece and will be available for deployment in 2013.

"This type of producer would be a lot more affordable and economical" than large scale nuclear, she said.
Reply With Quote