Renewable resources in our own backyard
By Riley Mackenzie
As Kermit the Frog sang, it's not easy being green.
But now that a barrel of crude oil costs as much as a BlackBerry, the economics are turning in favor of environmentally friendly energy. New technology, consumer demand and the end of the cheap petroleum era are changing the energy-supply landscape. Renewable energy may still come at a premium, but in this volatile sector of the economy, it's increasingly possible to make a buck-and make a difference as well.
One way to do that is to wrest energy from sources other than fossil fuels. That's what happens at Covanta Energy in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where David M. Burke, MBA '94, is business manager. Covanta is an energy-from-waste facility-it generates electricity and steam by burning 750,000 tons of household waste each year.
"We're trying to be as efficient as possible and extract everything out of this waste that we possibly can."
David M. Burke, MBA '94
"We're trying to be as efficient as possible and extract everything out of this waste that we possibly can," Burke says. That includes 20,000 tons of ferrous metals, and another 1,000 tons of non-ferrous metals, that are sent for recycling each year. After the trash is burned in a 2,000-degree boiler that flames like the gates of hell, the remaining inert ash is trucked to landfills for use as filler. The whole process, from trash to ash, takes just 40 minutes.
The sprawling plant runs twin steam turbines with the capacity to power 50,000 homes. It also pipes high-pressure steam in a closed loop to nearby industrial customers, which use it to de-water paper pulp or heat chemical ovens. "All of these industries are very energy-intensive," Burke says. "They use a lot of electricity, but they also have a lot of thermal needs. Without steam, they would have to go out and buy fossil fuels."
Trash haulers pay to tip their loads, and Covanta collects for the electricity and steam it generates and the metals it recycles. "We're getting paid to take our fuel, as opposed to paying for it," Burke says. "But you pay for it in materials handling."
"An active landfill will continue to produce gas for another 40 or 50 years. We're talking about 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in large quantities."
Matthew Frank, MBA '05
Another way to mine energy from waste is by capturing the energy-rich methane gas emitted by landfills. As asset manager for Horizon LFG, a division of National Fuel, Matthew Frank, MBA '05, oversees operations at seven short-distance pipeline projects across the Midwest.
"The good thing for the end-use customer is that this displaces natural gas," Frank says. Methane, he says, is essentially the same fuel as in commercial natural gas, but it has half the energy value. At the landfill, methane is treated in a garage-size processing station to remove impurities and water, then pressurized and piped as far as eight miles to industrial customers. Such users as General Motors, Chrysler, a Sunoco refinery and a General Electric appliance park burn the gas to make electricity.
The process is good for Mother Earth, Frank says, because methane that escapes into the atmosphere is 20 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And there are economic advantages: The landfill operator is paid for the gases, customers pay less for methane than for natural gas, and there is no shortage of the stuff.
"An active landfill will continue to produce gas for another 40 or 50 years," Frank says. "We're talking about 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in large quantities."
"Some people think this technology is about where cell phones were in 1985; it took 20 years, but now you can't live without them."
John A. Olenick, CEL '04
At his Buffalo start-up company, ENrG Inc., John A. Olenick, CEL '04, is bringing new technology to bear on the challenge of making energy-related systems work more efficiently. ENrG looks to collaborate with companies or universities that have good ideas or good technology, and takes that basic research through the engineering development and manufacturing phases.
A major focus is creating a more efficient fuel cell-a device that produces electricity directly from a fuel such as natural gas. The technology may be on the verge of taking off. "There are now about 9,000 demonstration fuel cell systems in place throughout the world," Olenick says. "Some people think this technology is about where cell phones were in 1985; it took 20 years, but now you can't live without them."
And if the technology can reach full flower, the possibilities are vast. "If you had a Bic lighter full of methanol," Olenick says, "you could run a cell phone for a month, or a laptop for a week. You are not burning the fuel, so it's a cleaner reaction-it uses the gas more efficiently."
ENrG is also working on carbon sequestration technology for coal-fired power plants-developing a membrane that feeds pure oxygen into the chamber where gasified coal is burned. Coal burns much more cleanly in oxygen, producing less greenhouse gases.
"Corn needs carbon dioxide to grow, and after it's converted to ethanol, it releases carbon dioxide when it's burned. It's truly carbon-neutral."
Rick Smith, CEL '05
Seven miles to the south, Rick Smith, CEL '05, is deep into a $180 million venture to brew a replacement for gasoline. Smith and partner Greg Stevens are repurposing a series of century-old grain elevators on the Buffalo River to manufacture corn-based ethanol, which powers vehicles including the Chevy Tahoe that Smith drives.
The geography that made Buffalo a leading port for grain in the early 20th century now is an advantage in the ethanol business. Most ethanol plants, Smith says, are built near cornfields; RiverWright LLC will take advantage of lake access to ship in corn by lake freighter and ship out ethanol by barge. "We're building our plant nearer to the market," Smith says. "The big thing for me is not creating sprawl."
And the market is growing. A gallon of E85 fuel-85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline-costs as much as 85 cents less than straight gas. By 2010, the Detroit automakers have pledged to produce 2 million flex-fuel vehicles a year.
The process, Smith says, uses field corn grown for animals, not edible sweet corn. The kernels are mashed into a coarse powder, fermented, distilled and then blended with a little gasoline. "Instead of Mideast oil, we want Midwest moonshine," Smith says. From a 56-pound bushel of corn kernels, 18 pounds of high-protein meal is returned to the farm as animal feed. "You really don't have any waste from the production of ethanol," he says.
"When you burn oil, it's brontosaurus breath-it's those dinosaurs exhaling all at once. But corn needs carbon dioxide to grow, and after it's converted to ethanol, it releases carbon dioxide when it's burned. It's truly carbon-neutral."
"For residential customers, they are interested in doing the right thing. For a company, it's a public relations issue. They need to weigh what the additional cost of using renewable energy is and what that means to their customers."
Robert J. Kreppel '79
U.S. Energy Partners
A deregulated market for electricity supply has led to a business opportunity for Robert J. Kreppel '79, president of U.S. Energy Partners in Clarence, N.Y. A sister company, Envirogen, enables commercial and home customers in New York and New England to buy energy generated from renewable resources, such as hydropower and wind turbines.
In this case, going green comes at a premium-such electricity costs about 1 cent per kilowatt-hour more than conventional power. For a typical home, that might add $5 to the monthly bill.
"When they hear renewable energy, people think it must be really, really cheap," Kreppel says. "After all, you're not paying for the wind or the water, right? But all the other costs of construction add up."
Some consumers are willing to pay the premium. "For residential customers, they are interested in doing the right thing," Kreppel says. "For a company, it's a public relations issue. They need to weigh what the additional cost of using renewable energy is and what that means to their customers.
"There's a lot of interest in these programs, but when it comes down to more money, a lot of them step aside. You've got to find the right company and the right situation, then it sells itself. You can't talk people into it."
"Last year in the United States, the amount of wind power installed doubled. And of the electricity production that was installed last year, almost half of it was wind."
Derek R. Bateman, MBA '96
Lake Effect Energy
Envirogen sells mostly hydropower, but a new initiative is looking to increase the amount of wind-generated electricity available to Western New Yorkers. Lake Effect Energy, whose principals include Derek R. Bateman, MBA '96, and Janet Meiselman, MBA '95, owns land options in three areas and is gathering capital to install wind turbines that would feed electricity into the local power grid.
"Last year in the United States, the amount of wind power installed doubled," Bateman says. "And of the electricity production that was installed last year, almost half of it was wind."
Lake Effect aims to join that trend by harnessing the vigorous winds that blow in from the west across Lake Erie. Buffalo has another advantage as well: Because it's on the lake, it's possible to ship in huge turbines and windmill blades, some of which are so big that they won't fit sideways under Thruway overpasses.
Bateman argues that, for businesses, wind power helps to level out the volatile cost of energy. "We are all more or less exposed to fossil fuel-induced price spikes," he says. "Our electricity now is produced mostly by burning natural gas and coal, and there's nothing we can do to control that. But once you factor in capital costs, you pretty much know what wind energy will cost over 20 years. If I were running a business, I would want to have 20 or 30 percent of my energy from wind." If Congress passes a carbon tax on fossil fuel emissions, he says, wind starts to look even better.
Lake Effect is also exploring "behind the meter" projects that would generate electricity with smaller turbines in, for example, industrial parks, where the lure of cheap power can be used to attract tenants.
"The more renewable energy we have, the stronger economy we're going to have," Bateman says. "Our whole economic model is very, very vulnerable. We have bet the farm on fossil fuels, and we're about to lose that bet."
Riley Mackenzie is a Buffalo freelance writer.