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Beyond Wind and Solar, a New Generation of Clean Energy

Magn?s J?hannesson, Iceland America's chief executive, said the facility will pump naturally heated water from underground, run it through turbines to generate electricity and re-inject it into the earth, "making it a renewable, giant battery that can run for 20, 30, 50 years."

Iceland America has several other U.S. geothermal projects in the works, including a potential second Salton Sea plant that would serve Los Angeles and a home-heating plant for the ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

"There's huge potential for geothermal energy in this country, especially on the West Coast," J?hannesson said.

It is hard to predict what portion of the country's needs could be met by these emerging technologies. The United States is already the world's largest producer of geothermal electricity, with 212 plants generating 3,119 megawatts. A panel convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded in a recent report that by 2050, geothermal plants could produce 100 gigawatts, which would be equivalent to 10 percent of current U.S. electricity capacity.

"That level would make it comparable to the current capacity of all our nuclear power plants or all our hydroelectric plants," wrote the panel's chair, MIT chemical engineering professor Jefferson W. Tester, in an e-mail.

A 2005 report by the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry consortium, said there is "significant" wave energy potential along America's coasts, predicting that it, too, could eventually generate as much electricity as the entire hydropower sector.

Both the Bush administration and Congress are promoting renewable energy through a mix of federal largesse and mandates.

Last month the House passed, as part of its energy bill, a requirement that by 2020, renewable energy must account for at least 15 percent of private utilities' energy supply, and authorized $50 million for marine energy research over the next five years.

Over the next two years, the Energy Department will offer up to $13 billion in loan guarantees for energy ventures that "avoid, reduce or sequester air pollutants and greenhouse gases," said department spokeswoman Julie Ruggiero, "to make new and emerging clean-energy technologies cost-competitive with traditional sources of energy."

Still, it will be years before many of these projects will come on line. Oregon Iron Works is nearly done constructing the AquaBuOY prototype, which will be 72 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, and Finavera hopes to install it off the Oregon coast as early as next week. After testing the technology and applying for the necessary federal permits, Finavera officials hope that by 2010 or 2011 they can operate two wave parks -- one off Bandon, Ore., and another off Trinidad, Calif. -- that would each span two to three square miles and produce 100 megawatts, enough for 35,000 homes. They plan to start up another wave-power operation in British Columbia around the same time.

Operating equipment in the hostile environment of the ocean poses challenges, however. Josh Pruzek, who oversees government contracts as military marine manager at Oregon Iron Works, said the company uses high-grade steel that is less vulnerable to corrosion, and designs parts to be easily maintained.

The power of moving water can also overwhelm high-tech equipment. In December, Verdant Power placed turbines off New York City's Roosevelt Island amid much fanfare, promising to harness the tides of the East River and convert that energy into electricity. By last month, all six of the turbines, battered by the current's strength, had been shut down. The company is repairing and redesigning its equipment.

Still, such projects are popular with politicians across the nation, from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D), who is hoping to make his state a breeding ground for renewable-energy projects. David Van't Hof, Kulongoski's sustainability policy adviser, said government officials are exploring ideas, from solar projects on the eastern side of the state to biomass energy culled from Oregon's forests, in an effort to generate 25 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2025.

"Wind's going to continue to be the king, both in Oregon and the nation, for the next five years," Van't Hof said, but that will last only for so long. "People are already asking, 'What's next after wind?' "

Staff writer Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.


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