Beyond Wind and Solar, a New Generation of Clean Energy
Saturday, September 1, 2007
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Oregon Iron Works has the feel of a World War II-era shipyard, with sparks flying from welders' torches and massive hydraulic presses flattening large sheets of metal. But this factory floor represents the cutting edge of American renewable-energy technology.
The plant is assembling a test buoy for Finavera Renewables, a Canadian company that hopes to harness ocean waves off the coast of Oregon to produce electricity for U.S. consumers. And Finavera is not Iron Works' only alternative-energy client: So many companies have approached it with ideas that it has created a "renewable-energy projects manager" to oversee them.
"In the last year, it's just exploded with ideas out there," said Vice President Chandra Brown. "We like to build these creative new things."
As policymakers promote alternative energy sources to reduce the United States' emissions of greenhouse gases and its dependence on foreign oil, entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly inventive about finding novel ways to power the economy.
Beyond solar power and wind, which is America's most developed renewable-energy sector, a host of companies are exploring a variety of more obscure technologies. Researchers are trying to come up with ways to turn algae into diesel fuel. In landfills, startups are attempting to wring energy out of waste such as leaves, tires and "car fluff" from junked automobiles.
This push for lesser-known renewables -- which also includes geothermal, solar thermal and tidal energy -- may someday help ease the country's transition to a society less reliant on carbon-based fuels. But many of these technologies are in their infancy, and it remains to be seen whether they can move to the marketplace and come close to meeting the country's total energy needs.
Some technologies are more advanced, though still small in the nation's overall energy mix. Nevada boasts 15 geothermal plants, with the capacity to generate enough electricity for 73,000 homes. California utilities are looking at solar technology that would use mirrors to heat water and spin turbines in desert power plants.
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), whose Bainbridge Island home overlooks Puget Sound, said that after being thrashed around by the ocean as he kayaked near his house, he became convinced that efforts such as Finavera's could succeed.
"There's just such an enormous power out there," Inslee said, noting that there is nearly 900 times as much energy in a cubic meter of moving water as in a cubic meter of air. "I was wondering how we could capture that."
Finavera's chief executive, Jason Bak, believes he knows how. The equipment his company designed, called AquaBuOY, aims to generate electricity from the vertical motion of waves. The buoy, anchored in an array two to three miles offshore, will convert the waves' motion into pressurized water using large, reinforced-rubber hose pumps. As the buoy goes up the peak of a wave and down into its trough, it forces a piston in the bottom of the buoy to stretch and contract the hose pumps, pushing water through. This drives a turbine that powers a generator producing electricity, which would be shipped to shore through an undersea transmission line.
"This is the new source of power," Bak said. "It's the highest-energy-density renewable out there. Wind is like light crude oil, and water is like gasoline."
In many cases, Americans are working with overseas experts who have more experience developing renewable energy. This month, Iceland America Energy -- a partnership between Icelandic and U.S. entrepreneurs -- will start drilling just west of California's Salton Sea to build a geothermal power plant to supply Pacific Gas and Electric with 49 megawatts of electricity by 2010.