A selling point of President Barack Obama’s historic campaign for the presidency was converting the national energy system from one reliant on fossil fuels to one that uses renewable resources, which he said would also create jobs.
Since Idaho does not produce fossil fuels, it is in a unique position to look to other sources. In 2005, 48 percent of Idaho’s electricity came from hydro-electric dams throughout the Northwest. It also has the second lowest electricity costs in the country.
Still, Idaho suffers from an energy deficit. Demand for electricity is growing faster than Idaho’s supply. Forty- five percent of Idaho’s energy was imported from out of state in 2003.
Some Idaho researchers are on the leading edge of alternative energy development. These technologies may provide the energy and economy that will fuel Idaho’s future.
From the forests
Jay O’Laughlin, a University of Idaho professor and chair of the Forestry Task Force of the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance, proposes using waste wood from forests and sawmills to fuel boilers. These would provide steam heating to buildings and residences in Idaho’s communities. This potential energy source has been utilized in Idaho for decades.
Modern steam heating, such as the UI’s Steam Plant, can be used in a closed system with little water loss. It can also utilize reverse processes to cool buildings.
“I don’t call it wood waste,” he said. “What we have is a resource.”
O’Laughlin said burning wood as a source of energy will thin forests, helping to prevent forest fires, create a renewable energy source and create more jobs in the lumber industry.
“The best way to create new resources is to use what we have more efficiently,” he said. “This is the future — taking things we consider waste and using it for energy.”
Burning wood in a controlled manner would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said. Fewer pollutants are released when burned in a high temperature environment such as a boiler, he said.
“I call it ‘wood bio-energy,’” he said.
Although burning wood produces carbon dioxide, considered a greenhouse gas, O’Laughlin said it is part of a natural cycle that occurs when wood decays on the forest floor or was burned in a wildfire. In contrast, fossil fuels take carbon out of the earth and release it into the atmosphere, a process known as carbon sequestration.
“Carbon emissions are biogenic rather than entropic,” he said. “It’s part of the natural carbon cycle.”
The problem with a secondary product such as waste wood as an energy source is its dependency on the market whims of the primary commodity. Since the collapse of the housing market, demand for lumber has decreased, causing many lumber mills to close down or reduce operations.
“Lumber production is half what it was two years ago,” he said. “That’s a big hit.” Still, O’Laughlin expects the lumber industry in North Idaho to bounce back. “Wood is such a versatile material,” he said. “There will always be a need for it.”
O’Laughlin points out that although the industry is in a lull, that does not necessarily apply to the resource. “The trees are still out there and still growing,” he said. “The resource is still there.”
O’Laughlin said wood-fired boilers can also be used to create steam, which generates electricity, but using the steam for heat is more efficient. A hybrid system which uses both is optimal, he said.
Wood fuel will gain an economic advantage over coal if a tax is placed on carbon emissions, he said.
Coal power plants could combine wood to the coal they burn to reduce emissions and costs, O’Laughlin said. Up to 15 percent wood can be burned without any modifications to existing coal plants.
One of the challenges of collecting waste wood from the forest is the bulk and difficulty of transport, because most the mass of wood is air and water. O’Laughlin said one solution is to chip the wood or turn it into pellets for transport.
Wood can even be chemically broken down into bio-diesel, a process used by Russia during World War II. However, the process is not very efficient or economical, he said.
ISEA receives no state funding for expenses or wages. O’Laughlin said members pay their own expenses.
“We do it because we think it’s important,” he said.
From the sky
Turbine wind farms produce renewable electricity, which could be the next cash crop for Idaho, said Boise State University researcher Todd Haynes.
“Every kilowatt hour of electricity that we import, we’re sending money out of the state,” he said. “Every time we put up a wind farm, we’re keeping dollars at home.”
The U.S. Department of Energy Web site stated that wind power is the cleanest and most economical source of renewable energy. Idaho ranks 13th in the nation for wind power potential — as much as Washington and Oregon combined, Haynes said.
“A problem in Idaho is that we don’t live up to our potential,” he said, citing the need for development of wind farms and transmission infrastructure.
Haynes proposes developing wind farms to not only provide energy for use inside the state, but for export to neighboring states during times of high production.
“We should be taking advantage of wind when we have it,” he said. “Demand is growing rapidly in other states. They pay much more than Idaho … a lot of that is driven by policy.”
Due to government policies and taxes against non-renewable energy, some states in the Northwest pay more for renewable electricity. Exporting wind power has the potential to bring in economic revenue, he said.
“(Idaho residents) don’t sell potatoes to each other,” he said. “They sell them to other states.”
Even if Idaho doesn’t produce wind electricity, it can still benefit from the manufacturing and service of wind turbines and equipment, Haynes said.
Europe-based Nordic Wind Power Ltd. recently selected Pocatello as the location for its North America wind turbine manufacturing plant. Also, CPM Precision Machine Inc., stationed in Boise, manufactures the Blackhawk Vertical Axis Wind Turbine for individual home use.
Haynes said this type of manufacturing will create jobs for Idaho citizens.
Idaho’s location near fast growing wind energy states in the nation make it ideal for the production of wind generators, Haynes said.
Maintaining wind turbines and infrastructure can also provide jobs for Idaho graduates. Idaho State University is considering developing a wind technologies degree programs, Haynes said.
The main drawback of wind power is its intermittency due to the unpredictable nature of wind. This creates problems for power grid operators, because power grids cannot store electricity, they can only transmit it from a provider to a user.
Haynes compares operating a power grid to walking a tightrope — with electricity being produced on one side and electricity consumed on the other. He said with traditional generators, such as coal power plants, grid operators are able to keep at least one side of the equation stable and predictable. With wind energy, this is not possible.
To offset this, Haynes is developing processes to store wind energy and better forecast the behavior of winds.
To store wind energy, Haynes is looking to a method that involves using a wind turbine to compress air, which can be released later to turn a turbine a produce electricity. The problem with this technique is it traditionally uses underground caverns as a place to store the compressed air. This makes it location specific, and when compressed air is released, it comes out at a colder temperature, which hinders the efficiency of the generator. To offset this, natural gas is often burned to warm the generator.
Hayne’s model moves the storage of compressed air to above-ground tanks and uses the compressed air to push water through a turbine to prevent cooling.
“We can improve it by not making it site specific, and not using natural gas,” he said. “We think it is a practical solution.”
Other methods of wind-energy storage are also being looked at by researchers, such as fly wheels and batteries, he said.
“In every case, there’s a cost,” he said, citing monetary and energy costs. “Everybody is trying to see if they can come up with the best way to store wind power.”
Even with effective forecasting and storage of wind power, Haynes acknowledges that Idaho cannot be powered by wind generators alone, but as a supplemental power source that can stimulate the state’s economy.
“Wind power is the most competitive on an economic scale,” he said.
Reid Wright, Argonaut – http://www.uiargonaut.com/content/view/8078/48/