Energy of the Future

Chattanooga Companies Burn Bright with Alternative Energies.

Energy: it provides the fuel needed by industries, mass transportation systems and militaries. It provides the power needed to run automobiles, cook our foods and light and heat our homes. Since the beginning of time, it has been the single most important necessity for sustaining life on earth as we know it today.

By Pamela Perkins

 

Sources for the creation of energy come in many forms including the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil), nuclear power, hydroelectric power, bio-fuels and waste, solar, wind and geothermal.

With the world’s population increasing at a rate of 1% a year (or 75-80 million people a year) and as developing countries such as China and India continue to industrialize, the world’s use of energy sources is skyrocketing. In 1973, the world’s supply of energy sources was 6,111 mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent or the energy released by burning one ton of crude oil) and in 2009, it was 12,150 mtoe, an increase of nearly 100%. During the same time frame, the world’s population increased by roughly 70% to 6.8 billion.

As energy consumption has grown, air pollution and greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment and harmful to human’s health have increased, too.

In response to growing concerns over emissions generated by conventional power, alternative fuels to coal and oil are increasing around the world. These fuels include nuclear power, gaseous fuels such as hydrogen, natural gas, and propane; alcohols such as ethanol, methanol, and butanol; and renewable energy sources such as sun, wind, moving water, organic plant and waste material (biomass), and the earth’s heat (geothermal).

A recent projection by the International Energy Agency shows that by 2035, alternative energy sources (other than coal and oil) will account for as much as 58% of the world’s total energy supply, up nearly 18 points from 40% percent in 2009 (based on plausible post-2012 worldwide climate policies to stabilize greenhouse gases at 450 parts-per-million carbon dioxide equivalent). The same report shows that renewable energy will grow from 13% to 26.5% of total energy sources.

In response to these global trends, energy supply companies are gearing up to meet the expected demand for alternatives to coal and oil. Here in the Scenic City, several major companies such as Wacker Chemie AG, Alstom, Westinghouse Electric, Signal Energy, TVA and Chattanooga Gas are providing products and services to meet the needs of these emerging energy sources across the U.S. and around the world.

 

Solar

One of the primary renewable energy sources and the most abundant is the sun. Solar technologies are broadly characterized as either passive solar or active solar, depending on the way they capture, convert and distribute solar energy. Active solar techniques include the use of photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors to harness the sun’s radiation to create electricity. Passive solar techniques include orienting a building to the sun, selecting materials with favorable thermal mass or light-dispersing properties, and designing spaces that naturally circulate air.

According to SolarBuzz, a solar market research and analysis company, demand for solar electric energy around the globe has grown at a rate of 30% a year for the last 20 years. Top capacity countries now include Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the USA, and China.

Meeting the needs of this growing market is Chattanooga-based Signal Energy, a subsidiary of EMJ Corporation, one of the largest general contractors in North America for renewable energy. Since it was formed in 2005, the company has completed, or is under contract to complete, over 200MW (MW, or megawatt, is equal to one million watts) of solar power capacity in the U.S. One of these projects is the $30 million West Tennessee Solar Farm in Stanton, featuring 21,000 photovoltaic solar panels spread across more than 25 acres. The facility is one of the largest solar electricity-generating projects in the Southeast.

In Bradley county, Wacker Chemie AG, a worldwide-operating company in the chemical industry, has broken ground on a new $1.8 billion facility to manufacture polycrystalline silicon, or polysilicon, a material used for photovoltaics in the solar panel industry. The corporation operates 24 production sites in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and for decades has been at the forefront in the development of products needed to generate power from renewable resources in a way that is environmentally friendly and economically efficient. The new plant is now slated to be completed by mid-2015. Changing solar market conditions and current overcapacities have affected the demand for polysilicon. However, Wacker expects continued growth in solar power. Its Bradley County facility is the single largest investment in the company’s history.

 

Wind

Wind power has been used since ancient days to propel ships by sails and create mechanical power by windmills. Now the world has wind farms with flanks of wind turbines—many taller than the Statue of Liberty—spinning with ballet-like grace and synchronicity to make electricity.

According to IHS Emerging Energy Research, it is expected that global investments in wind energy will exceed $30 billion dollars in 2012 and will more than double to $68 billion in 2025 as countries around the world expand wind capacity along with other renewable forms of energy to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In 2010, China became the largest wind energy provider worldwide. Pointing to the country’s large land mass and long coastline, researchers believe that China could meet all of its electricity demands from wind power by 2030.

Next to China, the U.S. is the second largest producer of wind power generation. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE), among energy capacity additions in 2011, the amount of wind capacity installed in the United States (32% of energy capacity additions) was second only to natural gas capacity (49%). Another report by the USDOE shows that wind power could provide 20% of the United States’ electricity by 2030.

Enter Signal Energy. Initially founded as Signal Wind Energy, the company has completed wind farms in Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Wyoming, Oklahoma and other states across the U.S. as well as in Canada for clients including BP Wind Energy, ENEL, Chevron Global Power, and John Deere Wind Energy. Altogether, installations completed by Signal Energy and its affiliates in the U.S. represent 10% of total wind turbines installed domestically.

 

Hydroelectric

Water has been a renewable energy source almost since the beginning of civilization, as people have used the energy of fl owing or falling water. Hydropower, the process of harnessing water power to create energy, is the world’s largest source of renewable energy and the largest provider for electricity production from renewable energy sources. It is also the largest renewable source of electricity in the United States.

According to the Institute for Energy Research, Tennessee is among the top hydroelectric states east of the Rocky Mountains with 12% of its electricity generated from water power. In 2011, Tennessee’s 9.4 million megawatt hours in net electricity generated from water power was the second highest of any state east of the Mississippi River, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (USEIA).

Tennessee—and Chattanooga—have been home to a national leader in water power generation for several decades with the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established TVA during the Great Depression to provide affordable electricity and manage natural resources. Now it is the nation’s largest public power provider. In addition to servicing Tennessee, TVA offers power services to an 80,000 square-mile-area that crosses six other states. It has 29 hydroelectric dams and a pumped-storage plant as part of its varied energy-creating mix that also includes three nuclear power plants, nine simple cycle natural gas combustion turbine plants and fi ve combined cycle gas plants.

 

Nuclear

While not considered a renewable energy source, nuclear energy—the energy from nuclear fi ssion in a reactor—has been a viable alternative to fossil fuels, particularly outside the United States. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, as of August 2012, 30 countries operate 435 nuclear reactors to generate electricity, with 66 new plants being constructed in 14 countries. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 12.3% of the world’s electricity production last year came from nuclear power plants, with 13 countries counting on nuclear energy for at least a quarter of their electric power.

While the U.S. is the leader in nuclear energy technology, the frontrunner in using nuclear power for a country’s electricity generation is France. As much as 78% of France’s electricity comes from nuclear energy. France is also the biggest exporter of electricity in the world with nearly 3 billion euros (approximately $3.9 billion) in sales annually.

More than half of the nuclear plants in the United States contain at least two reactors that provide the heat necessary for electricity creation. The rest, including TVA’s Browns Ferry in northern Alabama, contain three. TVA is completing the nation’s newest nuclear reactor at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant. Watts Bar 2 is slated to be the next reactor in 2015, according to the USEIA.

But Chattanooga has other companies who play key roles in nuclear energy: Alstom and Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse is a nuclear energy pioneer, supplying in 1957 the world’s first pressured water reactor (PWR) in Pennsylvania and, today, the fi rst to license passively safe technology in its newest reactor, which automatically shuts down without the need for off-site power or operator actions.

Currently, Westinghouse provides fuel, services, technology, plant design and equipment for the worldwide commercial nuclear power industry. Westinghouse is presently helping to build four nuclear reactors in the U.S. and four in China.

In 2009, Westinghouse initially invested $28.6 million into its U.S. Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) Service Center in Chattanooga’s Centre South Riverport. Today, with a total investment of $35.4 million, the facility employs 138 people to train its employees, customers and industry representatives for maintaining the safe operation of BWRs worldwide.

In 2010, Paris-based Alstom, a multinational conglomerate holding interests in the power generation and transports markets, invested $300 million in a state-of-the-art turbine manufacturing facility in Chattanooga to address the North American power generation market.

A successor to the windmill and the waterwheel, a turbine is a rotary mechanical device that extracts energy from a fl uid fl ow and converts it into useful work. Alstom’s Chattanooga facility has the capacity to test and manufacture the world’s largest turbines for nuclear power plants.

In August of 2011, the Chattanooga facility shipped its fi rst nuclear turbine rotors via barge on the Tennessee River to an Illinois nuclear power plant. Local CEO Lawrence Quinn says the plant is well-positioned to retrofit existing nuclear power plants, given the size and technical capabilities of the facility and the ongoing demand for such work.

 

Natural Gas

Natural gas, which is extracted from shale rock formations, is a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. A 2004 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that natural gas produced nearly 50% less CO2 emissions than either coal or oil.

During the past 10 years, innovative technologies have helped produce natural gas from shale more cheaply. They have also helped companies access large amounts of natural gas, revitalizing the U.S. natural gas industry. Production from shale formations, virtually non-existent just a few years ago, now represent approximately one-third of natural gas production in the U.S. In 2009, the U.S. became the world’s largest natural gas producer, exceeding Russian volumes, though Russia would return to first place in 2010.

Data from the USEIA shows that at the end of 2010, natural gas-fired generators constituted 39% of the nation’s total electric capacity. Nearly 237 GW (GW, or gigawatt, is equal to one billion watts) of natural gas-fired generation capacity was added between 2000 and 2010, representing 81% of total generation capacity additions over that period.

Locally, all of the factors noted above contributed to Chattanooga Gas cutting its rates in March due to favorable commodity gas values. Founded in 1890, Chattanooga Gas is now a subsidiary of AGL Resources, an Atlanta-based energy services holding company, with operations in natural gas distribution, retail marketing, wholesale services, midstream operations, and cargo shipping. In December 2011, AGL acquired Nicor Inc., effectively doubling the size of its regulated asset and customer base. This merge created the largest natural gas-only distribution utility in the United States, serving 4.5 million customers across seven states.

In its annual report, AGL noted the four-fold increase in the production of shale gas since 2008, and predicted an increase in users of natural gas as prices remain favorable relative to other energy sources such as crude oil and petroleum.

AGL is not the only company preparing for the explosive growth of natural gas. TVA has actively been building and buying natural gas-fired plants and retiring coal-fired units. According to an article in The Commercial Appeal, TVA’s use of gas climbed 70% in the fiscal year just ended. At the same time, TVA’s coal-fired generation declined 30% from fiscal 2011. Overall, natural gas fueled the generation of about one-fifth of TVA’s electricity generation in fiscal 2012, up from less than 1% in 2007.

Alstom Chattanooga is hoping to get a piece of the natural gas pie, too, by churning out gas turbines at its Chattanooga facility, which was sized to generate gas turbine products as well as nuclear turbine products. In May, Alstom Chattanooga shipped its first natural gas turbine assembled at the facility to Queretaro, Mexico. Future shipments are expected to reach Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia.

As global concerns for greenhouse emissions and air pollution continue, alternative energy sources to coal and oil will continue to experience rapid growth. The good news is, Chattanooga continues to attract manufacturers and suppliers who share its values and who are leading the way to provide products and services needed for cleaner energy and a healthier environment.

 

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