By John Teresko
Before the presidential election, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke of creating 5 million new jobs in renewable energy and nearly tripling the percentage of the nation’s electricity supplied by renewables by 2025. Industry’s challenge now is to accelerate sustainability initiatives to gain economic, environmental and even social progress.
Don Albinger, vice president of renewable energy at Johnson Controls Inc., a manufacturer of car batteries and other automotive interior products, has some advice for material handling professionals formulating an alternative energy strategy.
“Think of it in terms of a triple bottom line,” he says. His reference is to organizations with motivational commitments to economic, environmental and social progress—triple bottom lines.
Albinger says those three factors are the consistent motivators of customers seeking development and deployment of alternative energy from Johnson Controls. He says that the high cost of electricity and volatility of natural gas and power prices, in general, is the number-one concern.
“The second factor is a growing interest among companies to identify themselves with respect for environmental issues. They would like to portray and advertise themselves as part of the global warming solution. The third reason companies want us to be involved is that renewable energy projects can be reasonably complex, both in terms of the technology and in terms of taking advantage of the growth of public backing and the expanse of federal and state incentives. These rewards include the production and investment tax credit extension for solar, geothermal and wind energy. In addition, at least 30 states require that public utilities generate a portion of their output, usually 10% to 20% [from alternative energy], in the coming five to 10 years.”
Albinger notes that not all organizations have equal commitment to the issues of cost reduction, the environment and improving their competitiveness. “Some organizations have chosen energy efficiency as a path to sustainability. Others are using on-site renewable sources such as biomass, solar and wind to generate their own sustainable power supplies. However, those organizations that have adopted both approaches are accelerating their progress toward sustainability,” stresses Albinger. He says that, in many cases, on-site renewable energy facilities can be financed through cost savings from energy-efficiency measures.
Albinger’s example of the approach is Baltimore’s Back River wastewater treatment plant. Working with Johnson Controls, the city has substantially improved energy efficiency through upgrades to the facilities and by installing an energy generation facility that is fueled by methane gas produced in the wastewater treatment process. The result: energy cost savings of $1.8 million annually.
Solar: A Bright Future
One step toward progress is the continuing groundswell in photovoltaics (i.e., solar cells), according to Bill Colavecchio, vice president and general manager for the industrial products sector at Underwriters Laboratories, a product safety certification organization. He’s referring to the number of UL certifications clients are currently seeking on products involving photovoltaics. He describes a shortage of testing capacity—“not enough testing laboratories and engineers worldwide to meet the optimal timeframes of testing and certification.” As an example of solar’s growth, he estimates that in California’s Silicon Valley alone, the last 18 months have seen 80 photovoltaic startups.
Globally, the annual growth rate is 30% for photovoltaics, according to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank. In the U.S., federal and state incentives provide additional motivation to adopt the technology, says Colavecchio. He expects double-digit global growth for all alternative energy sources at least for another decade.
Another sign of photovoltaics’ acceptance and growth is revealed in the technology’s integration into building materials. For example, chemical giant Dow Chemical Co. is developing solar energy collection technology called building-integrated photovoltaics, in which the solar cells also serve as the outer protective surface of a building. Alternative power generation is being incorporated directly into the design of commercial building materials such as roofing systems and exterior siding.
“The approach enables lower fabrication and installation costs, because both the conventional and solar roofing shingles are installed at the same time,” says Dow’s Bob Cleereman, senior technical director of building-integrated photovoltaic technology. “The result for the building owner is that solar-generated electricity costs no more than power generated by burning greenhouse-gascreating fossil fuels.”
Wind Power Advances
Analysts say 2007 marked the third consecutive year of U.S. leadership in wind power, with enough installations to serve the equivalent of 4.5 million homes. Traditional wind turbines, however, have suffered from design characteristics that tend to make them inappropriate for effective integration into urban settings, says Cleveland State University’s Majid Rashidi, professor, mechanical engineering.
For example, their large size, operating noise and safety considerations tend to restrict traditional designs to isolation in wind farms located far from population centers, Rashidi observes. Moreover, the power capacity of the traditional wind turbine is limited to the speed of the wind; slight urban breezes do little to turn the massive windmill structures, he adds.
In developing a design resolution, Rashidi’s intent wasn’t to compete or attempt to create a substitute for the conventional, large-scale wind turbines. Instead, he created a complementary design, one that can safely and easily enable wind power to be integrated into congested urban settings. In addition, he has developed a way to harness the relatively low wind speeds that cause conventional windmills to stay stagnant.
His approach leverages the Bernoulli principle, whereby any fluid flow toward and around a structure results in a higher power output and lower cut-in ambient wind speed. “Cut-in” is the minimum wind speed required to begin rotating a turbine and generate power, explains Rashidi. His design also eliminates the gearbox of conventional wind turbines. It directly couples the turbine blades to generators that are available off the shelf. He says a proof-of-concept model will be installed on a campus building in mid- 2009.
John Teresko is senior technology editor of MHM’s sister publication, IndustryWeek.