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Recession isn't Hurting Some Alt Energy Movements

by Jim Ostroff
The Kiplinger Letter, January 15, 2009

Hydropower, solar power and ocean-bed energy are gaining momentum.

There's plenty of action on the alternative energy front despite the considerable downdraft in most energy-related industries created by the severity of the recession. Here's a sampling of what will stir the pot for hydropower, solar power and ocean power over the next few years:

Hydroelectric power is getting renewed life. Electricity produced by dams on rivers and streams will climb 50% over the next decade, to around 10% of all power and up to 20% by mid-century. It can cost less to replace old or shuttered hydro systems than to build wind turbines, for example. Plus new technologies ease concerns about the potential impact of dams on fish and wildlife.

Projects revving up include five new facilities on Ohio River dams and upgrades in the Northwest. Hydro Green Energy will build the nation's first hydrokinetic power plant, capturing the energy of water that flows through an existing hydropower plant on the Mississippi River in Hastings, Minn., to squeeze even more electricity from the dam.

The spur to a wave of new hydropower projects: Looming federal restraints on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Electric utilities know they will have to make or buy power created from renewables in order to lighten their carbon footprints. Also coming is a national Renewable Portfolio

Standard that, by 2020 or so, likely will mandate 20% of electricity sold by power companies must be generated without using coal or natural gas, since burning both produces CO2.

Renewables currently generate around 8% of the nation's electricity. Generators that use coal or natural gas as fuel now produce nearly 70% of the nation's power needs. Nuclear power accounts for most of the rest.

Dams have environmental issues, but they're unlikely to delay most projects. None can be built without an OK from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It now insists hydropower operators do environmental impact studies (EIS) and implement strategies for mitigating potential harm to aquatic life before granting a new operating license, or relicensing existing power plants. The agency has required EIS and remediation for a number of years for new and/or the relicensing of hydropower plants, but so far there have been relatively few applications.

"Typically, hydro operators reach agreements with river [protection] groups as part of the process and have various strategies to deal with their concerns, such as agreements [that] there will be guaranteed minimum river flows, or installing elevators to lift fish" over dams, says

Jeffrey Leahey, legislative director with the National Hydropower Association, a trade group. Symbiotics, a hydropower company, inked an agreement with Trout Unlimited, a river protection group, as part of the company's application to add new generating capacity on a tributary to Idaho's Snake River.

Ocean-bed generators show promise as well. They're likely to gear up over the next decade to feed power to cities within a few hundred miles of U.S. coasts. Long cylinders anchored to seafloors harness the energy from eddying water.

A few dozen in a one-square-mile bed could supply 100,000 homes with power year-round. It's cheap, too, about 4¢ per kilowatt-hour. That compares with 8¢ to 25¢ per kilowatt-hour for coal- and gas-fired plants, roughly 8¢ for wind power and at least twice that for solar.

Solar power isn't standing idly by, letting hydro eat its lunch. Southern California Edison and Duke Energy soon will lease rooftops from homeowners and businesses in California to install solar cell panels at no cost and channel electricity to the grid. The utilities feed the electricity directly onto the grid. For businesses, this is a golden opportunity to generate revenues from large assets that otherwise are depreciating in value: buildings.

ProLogis, a developer of distribution centers, figured this beats offers to corral its buildings' roofs to erect billboards or cell phone towers, says Drew Tobin, the company's sustainability manager. It inked 20-year agreements with California's Edison and Oregon's Portland General Electric, allowing the utilities to harvest rooftop solar-made power that's routed directly to the grid. ProLogis' Fontana, Calif., building makes enough juice to power about 1400 homes for a year. With 45 million square feet of rooftop space in Southern California alone, the area's solar-fitted buildings potentially could churn out more than 100 times more electricity -- roughly equal to the power produced by a small natural-gas-fired generator.

For homeowners, Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., have launched programs offering discounts to buy solar panels. The cities pay for the installation and let homeowners pay off the panels over 20 years. The incentive for homeowners? They get to use every kilowatt and on most days needn't buy any from their local utility.

Jim Ostroff
Recession isn't Hurting Some Alt Energy Movements
The Kiplinger Letter, January 15, 2009

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