Cleantech Innovation Strikes the Balance Between Traditional and Renewable Energy

By Chris Shapard
Executive Director – Colorado Cleantech Industries Association

With world energy demand projected to increase by 40 percent in the next decade, we’re going to need all the power we can produce. To get there, energy industry silos will disappear. There won’t be a separation between “traditional” and “new” energy sources – only profitable companies generating all the cheap, cleaner energy they can.

The gaps are closing quickly, and the political, operational and competitive lines between technologies are blurring. With the rapid maturation of wind and solar power production, the established power grid is awakening to open market competition. With regional networks of state governments, entrepreneurial innovators, and national research and university systems, a mix of competitive yet collaborative commerce promises cheaper, cleaner energy to both industrialized and developing countries.

Power producers and technology companies that would never have imagined working together are taking tremendous strides toward common goals and balanced energy portfolios that make traditional energy cleaner, and renewable energy more affordable.

As cleantech companies are pressured to build profitable businesses, and as the incumbent utility operators feel the heat of politics, pricing and the need for balanced energy portfolios, a new revolution is taking hold. Five years ago we would never have imagined that natural gas would break the back of oil prices, the perennial last straw that has, until now, determined the fate and rate of new energy adoption. But with new fracturing extraction and drilling technologies, natural gas has leapfrogged the last paradigm, resulting in cheaper, cleaner, better, faster, and much closer-to-home energy feed stock.

The natural gas revolution can’t be stopped, nor will wind, solar or other renewable generation solutions drift away, for the simple reason that you cannot stop American inventors and entrepreneurs from creating new efficiencies, opportunities and economies. This means a cleaner, safer path to a secure energy with natural gas as a major driver in building the bridge toward the development and adoption of renewable energy on the nation’s existing power grid.

New Promise from R&D
There are a variety of Colorado companies and research organizations making the existing power grid and its energy sources more efficient, clean and affordable. New developments in areas such as geothermal energy and solar fuels are becoming integral to natural gas production and oil field utilization, and research and development within these areas are accelerating quickly at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The new Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) on NREL’s Golden, Colo., campus epitomizes the nation’s interest in exploring and exploiting the relationships between electricity, thermal, gas transmission and fuel systems to achieve optimal integration and interoperability across the entire energy spectrum.

On and off the grid, from residential and commercial to campuses, cities and communities, NREL and the scientists at the ESIF are developing new efficiencies and finding ways to co-produce energy. An important example is NREL’s demonstration project at the DOE’s Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center in Wyoming. Hot water coming out of the ground as a byproduct of pumping oil residue and other chemicals out of pipelines and oilfields is being used to power electricity-generating turbines. This unique utilization of geothermal energy illustrates how scientists are finding new ways to squeeze energy out of existing processes, and moving the industry toward the next step of installing hot-water-based geothermal turbines in commercial oil and gas operations.

Making Traditional Energy Greener
In addition to market-driven collaborative efforts, traditional energy companies are exploring clean technologies to stay out in front of emerging environmental and energy regulations. To control air emissions, the Nebraska Public Power District will utilize a new technology developed by Boulder’s ION Engineering. ION Engineering’s technology enables the company to capture post-combustion carbon dioxide (C02). Supported with a $15 million cooperative funding agreement from the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, ION will direct the construction of a large slipstream capture unit to help the public utility meet and exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) accelerating requirements for lowering the cost-per-ton of capturing, storing and ultimately using compressed carbon as a new resource and revenue generator. The solvent-based carbon capture technology represents the state-of-the-art in reducing water use and emissions, and has been proven to work at a smaller facility at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. The much larger-scale project will be built by a European engineering firm, incorporating ION’s design and solvent processes, as the company continues to advance its chemical engineering solutions with scientists at the University of Colorado, the University of Alabama and other cooperative institutions.

“Producing cleaner coal- and natural gas-generated power by retrofitting the hundreds of existing plants in the United States will help us bridge to a cleaner future as the power grid evolves toward solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen and other renewable energy solutions,” said ION CEO Alfred “Buz” Brown, PhD. “To build totally new plants and transmission systems without retrofitting the existing grid is one of those ‘you can’t get there from here’ problems. We’ve established the carbon capture science to help put the existing power grid on the road to sustainability on a magnitude on par with previous revolutions in biotech and computers that Colorado’s entrepreneurial ecosystem had a hand in as well.”

In addition to carbon reduction requirements, the EPA has implemented an aggressive timeline for coal-fired power plants to significantly reduce mercury emissions by 2015. Denver-based Novinda saw this as an opportunity to help these plants adhere to regulations and reduce their environmental impact with the company’s first product, Amended Silicates. This reagent removes mercury with chemical reactions rather than through absorption technologies, and was named 2012’s Air Quality and Climate “Product of the Year” by Environmental Protection Magazine.

The Old Guard and the Cutting Edge are Coming Together
A great example of the traditional coming together with the new, and with the software side of technology coming together with equipment operating and maintenance, is Dingo Software. Based in Australia and Denver, Dingo develops cloud-based analytic solutions and resource management software that work in both cleantech and traditional energy to track equipment efficiencies and predict problems before they cause system downtime. While an initial investment is required to implement the solutions, the payoff is significant when problems are addressed before issues arise. For wind power, mine operators and others, detecting problems before the turbines or mining equipment go down can save thousands of dollars in lost energy production and maintenance costs. The key is efficient, effective energy production and equipment operations for both traditional and clean energy companies.

Who brought Dingo across the chasm and into cleantech three years ago? The Danish-owned turbine manufacturer, Vestas Wind Systems, with major operations in Windsor and Brighton, Colo., approached the company looking for a traditional industry-based provider of efficiency technologies. “Dingo began in mining and rail, and then moved into wind,” said CEO Paul Higgins, who started his career in coal-based industrial management and efficiency planning. “It comes down to what we do and what we’ve always done: we make software that helps managers make smart business decisions. We help manage risk, and that is becoming a priority for today’s cleantech companies who are now owning more expensive and longer-term assets than ever before.”

Driving Transportation
One of the biggest challenges on the road to sustainability is transportation. As in other cleantech fields, Colorado is on the cutting edge, developing a range of solutions from increasing the utility of natural gas and electric vehicles, to building fuel-station corridors throughout the state, to inventing renewable fuels to establishing new transportation/supply chain management protocols for the military.

Gevo, a publicly held renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company based in Englewood, Colo., has developed bio-based alternatives using synthetic biology and advanced chemical processes. The company’s flagship product, isobutanol, is a chemical building block and gasoline blend stock that is designed to help refineries meet their renewable fuel and clean air obligations. It can be used not only as a petroleum substitute, a building block for rubber, fibers, plastics and polyesters, but also as a combustible fuel powerful enough to run jet engines. The company is securing new ethanol capacity for conversion to isobutanol production, with their first commercial plant in Luverne, Minn. “The future of the energy industry is going to be very complex, but much cleaner,” said Brett Lund, Gevo’s Chief Licensing Officer, General Counsel and Secretary. “There will be more choices, which in turn will affect everything from which vehicles people buy to what fuels are developed and refined. A variety of fuel options will give everyone more flexibility, more power and more chances to succeed.”

Rare Earth Drives Wind
Like any technology supplier, renewable energy companies require infrastructure, equipment and, sometimes, fossil fuels and non-renewable materials in their manufacturing and generation processes. As an example, Colorado’s Boulder Wind Power (BWP) develops an advanced direct-drive wind turbine generators and power converters that required the use of rare earth metals. Molycorp, the world’s largest rare earth oxide (REO) producer outside of China, invested in BWP to ensure that the company had the resources it needed to grow, while positioning Molycorp as the preferred provider of rare earth magnets and alloys materials used in BWP’s innovative drive train technology.

In today’s energy industry, traditional fossil fuel-based and renewable producers are often segmented into two separate categories despite the fact that they share the same goal – to create and distribute energy. But this won’t last for much longer. As the two industries have grown, the individual interests of the silos are coming together and forming creative, and profitable, partnerships.

It’s all coming back around to the classic goal of the industrial revolution: increased productivity gains. It’s less about who gets the subsidy, grant or tax break, and more about the fact that if you can make something cheaper, better and faster, you’ll likely find a market that needs filling. Colorado and the greater national cleantech industry is the spark behind the tools, products and services that are saving the time, money, labor and materials that will not only make energy cheaper, better and faster, but cleaner as well.

Chris Shapard is the Executive Director of the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association. In addition to her role with CCIA, Chris is also an ex-officio member of Governor John Hickenlooper’s Venture Capital Investment Advisory Committee, she chairs the Colorado Office of Economic Development’s Key Industries Network Energy Task Force and she was a 2013 finalist for Denver Business Journal’s Outstanding Women in Business award.