Alternative technology

From ArticleWorld

The Big Picture

Because traditional, nonrenewable energy sources such as oil and coal harm the environment in their extraction, processing, delivery, and use, customers say they are willing to pay more, if necessary, for cleaner energy. "Green" energy comes from the sun, wind, water, the burning of organic matter, and the heat of the Earth. These resources are cheap, abundant, and sustainable.

The Context

Using energy from fossil fuels causes air, water, and soil pollution and contributes to global warming because of the release of carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions. Moreover, these energy sources are not sustainable: The World Bank shows that global electricity use continues to increase as supplies of fossil fuels -- currently our primary source of electricity -- decrease.

Alternative energy appears the obvious savior. In Europe, renewables comprise the fastest growing segment of the energy market. Group Planning at Royal Dutch/Shell says it is “highly probable” that renewable energy will, in the next 50 years, fill at least half of the world’s energy needs.

To get there, alternative energy must be further developed and made available to consumers at a competitive cost. Businesses can begin to utilize renewable energy in areas such as heating and cooling, vehicles, lighting, and hot-water systems -- and in doing so, create market demand. In short, the private sector stands to play a vital role in the energy revolution. Key Terms

Biomass is any organic matter available on a renewable basis, including: agricultural crops, wastes, and residues; wood and wood wastes and residues; animal wastes; municipal wastes; and aquatic plants. Biomass can be used to produce electricity, transportation fuels, or chemicals. This latter group, biochemicals, can replace petroleum and other nonrenewable materials in wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation.

  • Biofuels, mainly ethanol, are mixed with gasoline resulting in less carbon-monoxide emissions from vehicles.
  • Sunlight, or solar energy, can be used directly for heating and lighting homes and other buildings, heating water, generating electricity, and for a variety of commercial and industrial uses.
  • Wind, driven by the sun’s heat, produces energy that can be captured with turbines and converted into electricity. Wind turbines function alone or can be connected to a utility power grid or combined with a photovoltaic system. Stand-alone wind turbines are used for pumping water and for communications.
  • Geothermal energy taps the Earth’s internal heat to produce electricity and to heat and cool buildings.
  • The ocean’s tidal energy and wave energy, as well as the temperature difference between surface and ocean depths, can be used to produce electricity.

Key Players

  • Consumers, at least 70% of Americans, favor renewable energy. Fewer, however, may be inclined to put their money where their beliefs are until renewable energy is widely accessible and benefits other than market cost are valued.
  • Federal, state, and local governments can mandate the deregulation of the utilities industry and offer economic incentives to facilitate the development of renewable energy. Government can also establish environmental regulations such as requiring that a certain percentage of power be derived from renewable energy.
  • Green power marketers are stepping up to compete against traditional power conglomerates and offer customers renewable-energy packages.
  • Major companies are positioning themselves to take advantage of the move toward clean energy. Eleven major corporations -- including IBM, DuPont, General Motors, and Johnson and Johnson -- formed the Green Power Market Development Group in an effort to develop worldwide corporate markets for renewable energy.
  • Producers of biomass feedstock and developers of solar, geothermal, and wind-energy technologies continue to refine and market their products.
  • Utility companies control the generation, transmission, and distribution of power. Deregulation opens the field for renewable-energy suppliers to compete for consumer dollars. Deregulation will also lead to technology and resource development of alternative energy sources.

Getting Down to Business

  • A 2,000-acre cattle farm in western Australia installed a wind-turbine system and solar modules that produces between 20 and 40 killowatt-hours a day, depending on wind speed and solar radiation.
  • In California, the city of Oakland approved a plan to power all of its municipal facilities with green energy, making it the world’s largest municipal purchaser of energy exclusively from renewable sources. Green power will run all of the city’s administration buildings, street lights, and traffic lights.
  • The corporation of London is the biggest buyer of green energy in the U.K., through service from London Electricity and Power. Since May 1999, when the U.K. deregulated its electricity market, every customer may sign up for green energy.
  • Ford Motor Co. was the first to install solar panels at an auto-manufacturing plant. Ford’s Bridgend Engine Plant in Wales produces electricity for the 108,000-square-foot facility -- electricity that would have generated 4,400 tons of greenhouse gases had it been produced through nonrenewable means. Ford also uses landfill gas to provide electricity for the Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant in Michigan; it diverts excess energy to Detroit Edison, the local utility.

The Upside

  • Economic stimulus: A large-scale embrace of alternative energy is sure to create new jobs in the design, manufacturing, installation, servicing, and marketing of new energy technologies and products. Jobs also will arise indirectly from businesses that supply renewable-energy companies with raw materials, transportation, equipment, and professional services.
  • Environmental benefits: Clean energy technologies produce heat and electricity with very low or no amount of carbon-dioxide emissions. This not only helps curb global warming -- carbon-dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels accounts for one-half to two-thirds of our total contribution to global warming -- but also reduces risks to human health from pollution-related illnesses.
  • Financial rewards: Companies that invest in renewable-energy systems can look forward to reduced energy bills and possibly even increased revenues from selling unused energy to local utilities.
  • Infinite resources: Our supply of fossil fuels is estimated to run out in the next 20 to 60 years. Energy from the sun, wind, biomass, the ocean, or heat in the Earth’s crust will last as long as our planet.
  • Self-sufficiency: Companies that generate their own green energy are provided protection from fluctuations in the energy market and from crises over dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.

Reality Check

  • Artificially low cost of “traditional” energy: Market prices of renewables are currently higher than the cost of traditional energy -- but this is in large part because environmental and other costs aren’t reflected in the price of power from fossil fuel.
  • Initial investment: Installing renewable-energy conductors, such as solar panels, requires an up-front investment, though such costs are falling.

Underdeveloped infrastructure: The infrastructure for using and delivering renewable energy doesn’t exist yet for economies of scale or widespread use.

Action Plan

  • Investigate if your state has deregulated its utilities, or if it soon will. If it has, investigate sources of renewable energy offered by green marketers.
  • Choose green power when possible. With deregulation, alternative energy companies are moving in with wind, solar, small hydroelectric, and geothermal generated power options. Choose the renewable energy over nuclear or fossil fuels.
  • Be prepared to pay more for renewable energy, but recognize that this cost will even out over time, as demand and markets increase and as fossil fuels become more scarce, driving up their price.
  • Identify incentives and other assistance programs to offset the cost of installing alternative energy systems. Many states and the federal government offer financial incentives, tax breaks, and other tools to get more people using renewable energy; these incentives will not last forever.
  • Research national, state, and local policies regarding tax breaks for choosing green energy.
  • Research green energy providers — Make sure the potential retailer provides energy that is 100% renewable. A logo on a green energy product does not necessarily mean that the product is 100% renewable.
  • Look to your competitors — Determine whether others in your market segment are considering a green power program or purchase. Being the first of your kind to do so may provide you with a strategic advantage.
  • Calculate cost/benefit — Determine whether increased customer loyalty, authenticated environmental image, possible expansion into new markets, and being on the forefront of a worldwide trend offsets the cost of premium pricing for green energy.
  • Implement energy-efficient practices in combination with using renewable energy to reduce overall energy needs.

Bottom Line

Alternatives to fossil fuels make obvious sense but haven’t yet fully pervaded our marketplace. As large consumers of electricity, heat, and fuel, businesses and industry should be at the head of the line requesting alternative energy from utilities and advocating for utility deregulation. Those who do won’t be left in the dark and cold when our supply of fossil fuels is exhausted.