May 13, 2008

The key to energy is integration of renewables and fossil fuels

It's not either alternative energy sources or fossil fuels, Dr. Carl Bauer, director of the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory, told The Jerusalem Post at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya this week.

"The reality is that it's got to be a combination. The largest percentage of energy comes from fossil fuels, and the capital resources to move just to alternative sources is huge," so it's unrealistic to think that we'll be doing away with fossil fuels anytime soon, Bauer said.

Armed with that philosophy, his lab both researches how to generate energy from fossil fuels in an environmentally safe and cost-effective way, as well as alternative and renewable sources of energy such as hydrogen, solar and wind.

During a round-table discussion open to the public, Bauer said the Arizona Power Company followed a similar model.

"Notice that it is all one facility. Fossil fuels, wind, solar, CO2 capture, hydrogassification and algae," all under one roof, he said.

Bauer was visiting Israel this week at the head of a delegation from his lab. On Tuesday, they participated in a day-long session on energy at the IDC and signed a memorandum of understanding with the school.

"We are the only wholly government-owned and operated of the 17 Department of Energy laboratories," he told the Post, "and that gives us an edge. Private industry is eager to work with us because we have no profit motive and are no threat to the proprietary technologies we develop together."

The National Energy Technology Laboratory conducts research at its three locations in the US and funds academic and industry research.

"We make the use of fossil fuels environmentally acceptable and economically viable," he said.

The lab develops energy technologies and then demonstrates to private industry that they are economically viable. They also enter into partnerships with private industry. Twenty percent to 50% of the research costs are usually borne by the private sector, Bauer said.

Among the laboratory's achievements is reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants to almost nonexistent. Emissions from earlier coal factories caused acid rain over wide areas. Israel has a coal-burning plant in Ashkelon and is considering building another.

"Nox [nitrogen oxide], particulate matter and mercury have all been brought under control. There have been several generations of advancement in the market already," he said.

That is particularly important because the US has abundant coal that can now be cleanly converted into electricity.

Asked about alternatives to oil, Bauer said that was more difficult.

One possibility was bio-fuels, he said, and a promising bio-fuel project focuses on algae. Dr. Isaac Berzin of the IDC has been working extensively with algae and Bauer said he was eager to see if some sort of collaboration could be worked out. Algae could also help reduce greenhouse gases because carbon dioxide capture can be used to accelerate the growth of algae, Bauer said. Algae has great potential to be rendered into fuel and doesn't use valuable resources like land and potable water, he added.

Captured carbon dioxide might also eventually be transformed into energy through some of the technologies under development, according to Bauer.

Some of the other projects focus on using hydrogen, solid oxide fuel cells and solid state lighting.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory also focuses on streamlining buildings and electricity transmission. A lot of energy can be saved through more efficient buildings and electricity, he said.

The laboratory seeks to bring together the best minds, Bauer said at the roundtable.

"We all have one piece of the answer, now how do we address the overall problem?" he said.

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