Transforming nature into energy is next step for West
Monday, July 26, 2004
SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. -- The National Weather Service on Thursday issued a heat alert for most of the state, with a predicted high temperature of 114 degrees under the relentless Arizona sun. Tom Hansen, of course, was delighted.
"Some states have oil. Some have coal. Here in Arizona, we've got sun," said Hansen, a vice president of Tucson Electric Power Co., as he squinted through heavy-duty sunglasses. "And now we're using that resource to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels."
On an utterly shadeless expanse of high desert plateau near the New Mexico border, Hansen manages America's largest solar-powered electric generating station. It looks at first glance like a long, long row of windowpanes propped up to face the sun. In fact, each "window" is an array of photovoltaic cells that generate electric current when exposed to the light.
The Springerville site is an experiment, an effort to transform solar energy generation from the small rooftop systems familiar today to a utility-scale operation that can eventually produce as much electricity as today's giant coal- and gas-fired power plants. And Tucson Electric's sun-powered generating station is just one experiment throughout the western United States seeking to generate electricity from renewable fuels.
The Western Governors' Association approved an aggressive new plan this summer, jointly proposed by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., and Bill Richardson, D-N.M., that commits the region to huge increases in renewable energy production over the next two decades. The plan calls for government funding, tax breaks, regulatory changes and new ways of billing customers to encourage electric utility companies to move away from oil, coal and natural gas. Here, for example, electric companies have been authorized to add a surcharge to each bill -- for residential customers, it's about 35 cents a month -- to pay for building renewable-fuel plants.
The drive for renewable fuels focuses on windmills, solar cells, geothermal energy -- that is, underground steam and pressurized hot water, such as the pools that feed Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park -- and biomass, which is any agricultural product that can be burned. Tucson Electric and some other regional utilities are also drilling gas wells in big-city trash dumps; the landfills give off a methane gas that can be piped away and burned in some power plants.
In a sense, this push seems counterintuitive. The western states, after all, have more oil, coal and natural gas that any other part of the country. Why should they lead the search for replacements?
"For one thing, we've got a more delicate environmental situation," said Dick Burdette, director of Nevada's state energy department. "In a high altitude with dry air, we can't accept a pollutant load from burning fossil fuels. We need alternatives badly."
Beyond that, the western states happen to be blessed with lots of renewable resources: the blazing desert sun, the driving winds sweeping across vast stretches of treeless prairie and the large geothermal pools boiling beneath a land that is much younger, geologically, than the eastern United States.
"The American West is the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy," Richardson said.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., tends to support that boast. Its energy maps show that the eastern half of the continental United States has the strongest potential for using biomass for power production -- growing crops specifically to burn in generating stations. The western plains and the Rocky Mountain region, in contrast, are full of potential sites for geothermal plants, wind farms -- large collections of windmills -- and for solar farms, such as the long chain of photovoltaic cells in Springerville.
Under traditional definitions, hydropower -- using a rushing river to spin turbines and generate electricity -- would also be considered a renewable energy source. But the current campaign downplays the importance of hydropower.
For one thing, water power looks less reliable right now, after five years of drought across much of the West. Generating capacity at the region's two giant hydropower plants, Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, is threatened by a sharp drop in water flows along the Colorado River system.
Beyond that, hydropower is less popular today than it once was.
"The environmental benefit is a key reason for paying the cost to switch to renewables," said Burdette, the Nevada energy director, "but the environmental community is not happy with the idea of building big dams to block rivers and flood the terrain."
For all the forward-looking experiments, renewable energy is still a tiny fraction of energy use. More than 90 percent of the region's electricity today is produced by burning fossil fuels. Hydropower accounts for most of the rest, with the more exotic fuels such as sun, wind and geothermal energy generating about 1 percent of annual electricity consumption. The nation's largest solar plant here at Springerville turns out about 4 megawatts of electricity; Arizona's total consumption on a hot summer day is about 2,000 megawatts.
But the western states have announced ambitious plans for conversion to renewable energy over the next decade or so. California's goal is to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017. New Mexico is aiming for 10 percent by 2011. Texas, despite its oil industry, has set a goal of 2.7 percent by 2009. A referendum headed for the Colorado ballot this November would require the state to get to 10 percent by 2015.
Even advocates such as Tom Hansen readily admit that such well-meaning pledges might simply evaporate in the desert sun. But Hansen says there are reasons to be confident about the conversion to renewable energy.
"For one thing, the price is going down," he said. The infrastructure cost -- that is, for erecting windmills or photovoltaic cell arrays -- is dropping rapidly as technology improves and production increases.
And the fuel, of course, is free. "I can tell you exactly how much an hour of sunshine is going to cost 15 years from now," Hansen said. "That's not so easy to predict if you're talking about a barrel of oil or a ton of coal."
Beyond that, Hansen says, both government and the power industry in the West have taken the hardest step by getting started. Expanding on the base of current research and practical know-how should be easier.
To make the point, he opens his arms wide to illustrate the seemingly endless expanse of sun-soaked desert in front of him.
"So far, we've got about half a mile of PV [photovoltaic cells] stretched out here. But if you look west, there's what -- at least 25 miles of open country before we get to those mountains on the horizon. We're going to have an array that extends that distance. And the Arizona sun will just keep shining on the whole thing."