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Wind | Fuel cell innovation
Ensuring a "bright" future for Wisconsin
Changing the nature of business
Inside three German family homes | Helpful energy websites
Part One: "The complex business of keeping the lights on"
In the December 2002 issue, we introduced some of the energy challenges Wisconsin faces and reported on innovations used in Germany to create a cleaner, more reliable energy supply. In this issue, we look at the role of renewable energy sources – wind, solar, biomass – as alternates to additional coal-fired power plants. When considered in conjunction with energy conservation, renewables can take a big bite out of future energy demand. However, costs rise when electricity goes green.
According to Datamonitor, a market researcher, 37 percent of customers in Germany and 46 percent in the United Kingdom said they would pay up to 10 percent more for green energy. Are people in Wisconsin willing to do the same?
In rural areas of Germany – and especially in the windy north – it is not uncommon to see dozens of 200-foot-tall wind generators dotting the landscape. In fact, with nearly 10,000 wind farms, Germany is number one worldwide in wind power production. With a total capacity of more than 6,100-megawatts these wind generators meet 2.5 percent of the German electricity demand.
While wind power is bound to increase as a result of the Renewable Energies Act of 2000, the potential for even wider scale growth has been dependent on land with access to prevailing winds. Many coastal areas offer large wind-energy potential from offshore systems.
Some of the largest wind turbines stand 325 feet tall, with blades 170 feet in diameter. Depending on model and wind speed, each turbine can produce enough electricity to annually power about 450 homes. To generate electricity, wind turbines require a wind speed of nine to nearly 60 mph. A smaller, 75-foot blade can maintain about 29 revolutions per minute.
These are not the old Dutch-style windmills. They are sleek, tower-mounted blades that look like airplane propellers. These windmills can produce electricity without emissions that contribute to air pollution. However, windmills bring other controversies in Germany, just as they have in Wisconsin. Some consider them eyesores, complain about the sound and the shadows created by the blades. Others worry about injury to birds. Design and careful siting are paramount to address these concerns.
Although you can hear the sound of the rotor blades, the noise level of modern turbines is lower than that of a normal conversation 325 feet from the turbine. Federal law requires that wind generators not exceed 35 dB in residential areas and 45 dB in industrial areas 600 meters away. For comparison, a nearby whisper is about 20 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB and busy street traffic emits about 70 dB of sound.
Many windmills are now designed with underground wires to minimize birds' interest in perching on them. And their appearance seems to be a matter of personal opinion.
"I think they are okay," Franz Rudolf, a tax lawyer from Dusseldorf, says while watching some windmills at work at a roadside rest area. "You cannot put all your eggs in one basket. To just rely on nuclear or oil is the wrong thing. Wind is another part of the mix – another possibility to create energy into the future."
In the small village of Altweidelbach in Western Germany, windmills bring revenue to the 250 residents and the church, which are leasing their land to wind companies. Each wind tower requires about 2.5 acres of land. While a wind farm can cost millions – about $750,000 for each windmill – maintenance costs are minimal.
Mayor Peter Geller says since 1999 the church has leased land for two windmills and the city for five windmills. A 20-year rental contract provides about $3,000 per windmill per year. The lease revenue was used to build a town hall.
"We discussed this with the people here and they are very satisfied," Geller says. "There is some noise from the windmills, but it depends on the wind direction. Some people may have shadow problems if windmills are [sited] near their homes, but we are far enough away that it is no problem."
Geller says even the deer and wild pigs have become accustomed to the windmills and returned to the area within two days – calming the fears of hunters who thought they would be permanently scared off.
Fuel cell innovation
The 250-kilowatt fuel cell located in the Bewag Fuel Cell Innovation Park in Berlin has been running since June 2000 to show the public what a future hydrogen economy could look like. It is complemented by a 10-kilowatt photovoltaics plant.
Fuel cell technology was first developed in 1839 by Welsh justice and physician Sr. William Robert Grove. His contemporaries largely underestimated the importance of his discovery, and fuel cells were forgotten. The technology was resurrected in the 1950s, however, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Space travel and military technology required compact and powerful energy sources and fuel cells fit the description.
Because batteries are too heavy for spacecrafts, NASA decided to use electric power from fuel cells beginning with its Apollo program. Today, energy and space efficient fuel cells are being used for vehicle engines, residential heating, systems as big as power stations and as small as mobile phones and computers.
The Bewag project is a joint venture of five power utilities at a cost of about $350 million – about 40 percent funded by the European Commission since the project is expected to help the regional European economy. The fuel cell is only several feet long – about the size of a bathroom or utility room. The photovoltaic demonstration project is a pyramid-shaped room of glass windows that is no larger than an annex of a large office building and it looks much like a greenhouse.
While there are many types of fuel cells, this one is a PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell, which is a small space-saving system that operates at about 90° C (194° F). The cell can be used to heat water for residences to 75° C (167° F).
In principle, all fuel cells consist of two electrodes, which are separated by a medium, called an electrolyte, that produces and conducts electricity. Hydrogen (or other fuels such as ethanol, methanol and gasoline that can be converted into hydrogen) is fed to one of the electrodes and oxygen to the other. Without the electrolyte, the two gases would mix and rapidly combust or detonate in a reaction.
The electrolyte (which can be liquid or solid with a membrane structure), causes a controlled electrochemical reaction. Instead of burning violently, hydrogen ions with a positive charge accumulate at one of the electrodes (anode), and negatively charged oxygen ions at the other electrode (cathode). This creates an electrical voltage between the two electrodes, similar to the poles of a battery. This voltage can be put to use by connecting the electrodes to an exterior circuit. The PEM used at Bewag is coated with a thin platinum catalyzer and a gas-permeable electrode made of graphite paper.
The fuel cell process basically reverses the process of electrolysis, which many may remember from school experiments. In electrolysis, electric power decomposes water into oxygen and hydrogen. The fuel cell, however, generates electrical power and heat from hydrogen and air.
The fuel cell demonstration we saw was surrounded by an educational park, about the size of an average school playground project. Bright posters explain how fuel cells work. Today, fuel cells have many applications from powering spacecrafts and submarines to running vehicle engines, residential heating systems, mobile phones and computers. Some day large power plants could be replaced by millions of residential fuel cells. A good source of information on fuel cell projects worldwide including the Bewag project in Berlin is Bewag Fuel Cell Innovation Park.
The Munich airport houses a hydrogen fuel cell project that started in 1997 at a cost of $40 million – half funded by the state and half by industries. The project features buses that are powered by fuel cells.
Ensuring a "bright" future for Wisconsin
Already, some of renewable energy innovations and conservation programs are finding a home in Wisconsin, and many utilities are offering green energy to their customers – wind, biomass, hydro and landfill gas power among them.
Perhaps the most popular option is wind power. Where wind blows constantly, an abundant and clean energy source is viable. Wisconsin ranks 18th among the top 20 states for wind energy potential with an estimated annual energy potential of 58 billion kilowatt hours, according to an assessment by Pacific Northwest Laboratory.
For example, Madison Gas and Electric's wind farm is producing energy at a record-setting pace. Wind generated electricity in 2002 was 15 percent higher than expected. MGE owns a 17-turbine wind farm on a high ridge in Kewaunee County, which has sites with some of the best, steady wind supplies in the state. About 4,600 MGE customers have chosen to purchase wind power.
Until the program was filled, MGE offered its customers the option to buy blocks of wind power at $5 per block per month. A block is 150 kilowatt-hours, about 25 percent of the typical MGE residential customer's monthly electric use. Thus, for a $10 per month surcharge in your energy bill, you can have half of your electricity provided by wind power. The program has been very well received and there is a long waiting list of Wisconsin customers who are ready to pay a little more to buy a cleaner energy source.
Alliant Energy Corp., whose customers use five percent of the nation's wind energy, offers its customers the chance to buy 25, 50 or 100 percent of their residential power from renewable sources through the firm's Second Nature program.
In August of 2002, Alliant Energy-Wisconsin Power and Light, RMT, Inc. and the Sauk County Landfill announced plans to capture methane gas produced by decomposing waste and burn it to generate electricity. Eight 30-kilowatt Capstone Microturbines are expected to generate enough electricity to power about 100 average homes.
All 10 high schools in the MGE service area now receive some electricity from the sun. The solar photovoltaic system at Middleton High School was connected in 2002 and completes MGE's solar installations on schools. The rooftop solar systems on the high schools generate electricity and feed live energy and weather data to MGE's website for student research.
Part of Evansville's (Rock County) 2000 referendum to renovate school buildings to make them more energy efficient included installing a geothermal heating system and solar energy in the new high school. Evansville joins Fond du Lac High School as the first two schools in the state to use geothermal heating.
A geothermal system (also called a ground-source heat pump) works because once one drills below the frost line (usually about four- to eight-feet-deep) the earth remains a constant temperature of about 50 degrees throughout the year. Heat, can be taken from the ground through a series of pipes like the condenser on a refrigerator and transferred to the air in homes during the winter and the process can be reversed in summer. According to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, a geothermal system can lower your heating bills up to 50 percent and lower your cooling bills up to 30 percent.
Fond du Lac draws water for its heat pump from a holding pond, while Evansville draws its heat from a well beneath the soccer field.
The Energy Center of Wisconsin, a research institute in Madison, holds more than 80 education programs annually to introduce Wisconsin communities to energy-saving projects. Among the highlighted projects is Wisconsin's first manure-to-energy digester showcased at Tindale Farms in Kaukauna.
A "We the People/Wisconsin" program (forums for citizens to question political candidates, meet public officials and learn about important policy issues) hosted a "Powering Wisconsin" conference in September 2001. During the conference participants used computer simulators to see how energy choices at home and business combine to affect fuel prices, fuel supply reliability and pollution levels. About 250 citizens from 42 Wisconsin communities plotted a hypothetical energy future for the state at the forum.
The results? People wanted to conserve energy. Instead of increasing energy use that grew about three percent a year during the 1990s, participants opted for choices that would only raise energy consumption from 1 to 2.7 percent annually.
A majority of participants also understood that Wisconsin's system of power lines and pipelines is creaky. Six of seven groups "voted," in some cases by large margins, to build a 1,500-megawatt transmission line. The group that failed to do so was subsequently forced by the computer model to add more in-state power plants, which meant higher bills.
While most groups embraced the need for more power lines, some wanted to make sure the current Duluth-to-Wausau route does as little harm as possible to residents and the environment.
Most groups also loaded their energy packages with power sources they considered environmentally sound, even though hydro, biomass, solar, PV and wind power are much more expensive than coal or natural gas. Conventional coal was the least popular choice. All seven groups voted to retire or retrofit most existing coal-fired plants. Because natural gas was considered a cleaner source, every group voted to increase its use significantly.
But meeting Wisconsin's energy challenges will require a cultural change including teaching people to make energy decisions that cut their energy use at home.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration has announced that the state will pay about $20 million over three years to promote energy conservation as part of the Wisconsin Focus on Energy program. This money will come from fees collected on utility bills – about $2.75 a month on the average customer's utility bill.
Incentive programs can help too. A Wisconsin Electric Power Co. program gave customers savings bonds to replace old appliances. Cash-back rewards and rebates are offered on energy-saving products labeled as Energy Stars. Some new appliances use only a third as much energy as aging models.
New home builders and their contractors can dramatically improve the future energy picture. In 2001, Don Simon Builders built and closed on 251 homes, all of which were Green Built and Wisconsin Energy Star home certified.
"It doesn't really cost any more money to build that way, and it helps homeowners by reducing their energy bills," explains Jeff Simon of Don Simon Builders. Homes that meet the "Green Built" and "Energy Star" standards are 25 to 30 percent more energy efficient than other code-built homes, explains Wisconsin Environmental Initiative executive director John Imes.
Changing the nature of business
The Department of Natural Resources is trying to bring the state to a higher level of environmental protection with proposed legislation called Green Tier.
The Green Tier System Initiative in Wisconsin is voluntary for regulated organizations that want to be exemplary stewards and unregulated organizations that want to cooperate on environmental tasks. Green Tier asks what is the best environmental outcome and uses a contract to make a legal commitment to achieve that outcome. Incentives encourage parties to go beyond compliance and address priority local, regional or state environmental issues, especially those outside regulatory law. It's an idea that is already seeing results in lower emissions in Germany.
In Wisconsin, utilities may also get to experiment with technologies to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent in five years, 50 percent in 10 years and 90 percent in 15 years, if a new proposed state rule goes into effect in 2003. The mercury reductions are intended to help stem the spread of this heavy metal into lakes and food sources. Airborne mercury contaminants from burning coal for energy are deposited in lakes, absorbed in food chains, and have been found in fish in many Wisconsin waterways. This concern has lead to state fish advisories.
In October of 2002, We Energies and the Department of Natural Resources signed a cooperative agreement in which the company will voluntarily reduce power plant emissions over the next 10 years. We Energies will invest $400 to $600 million in environmental improvements at its power plants and cut emissions of mercury by 50 percent, sulfur dioxide by 45 to 50 percent and nitrogen oxides by 60 to 65 percent in the next decade. The company is the first in the state to voluntarily commit to enforceable air quality standards that go beyond current environmental requirements.
Four other companies – MGE of Madison, Cook Composites and Polymers Co. of Saukville, Northern Engraving Corp. of Sparta and Holmen, and Packaging Corporation of America of Tomahawk – have signed agreements to participate in similar pilot programs.
Changing technology also holds promise for reducing pollutant levels from coal-fired power plants. In 2001, Alliant Energy was awarded a $3.7 million federal clean coal grant to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions at the Edgewater Generation Station in Sheboygan. Similar technology cut NOx output in half at the M.L. Kapp Power Station in Clinton, Iowa at a fraction of the cost of installing catalytic equipment more typically used by utilities.
"Our goal is to create a science and technology driven business to re-engineer and reinvent today's power generation industry," says Edmundo Vasquez, general manager of Research and Development for Alliant, which provides electric, natural gas, water and steam services to more than three million customers worldwide.
Wisconsin Energy Corp. of Milwaukee plans to use advanced pulverized coal techniques to make its coal plants proposed at Oak Creek more efficient.
In 2002, another new technology gained wider use in Dairyland. Anaerobic digesters can extract usable energy while decomposing organic wastes. Such digesters hold promise to reduce animal manure odors, pathogens and pollutants while creating local sources of electricity. One natural product of that process, called "biogas," contains 60-70 percent methane, 30-40 percent carbon dioxide and traces of other gases. The Wisconsin Biogas Development Group, a broad-based public-private partnership led by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is working to make this a viable energy source with abundant sources for such fuel statewide.
In speaking to the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative (WEI) Energy Forum in October 2001, then Gov. McCallum reiterated that Wisconsin must diversify energy sources, encourage energy efficiency, increase reliance upon renewables, foster emerging technologies, and be realistic about how to use alternative sources, while keeping reliable energy supplies as our foremost concern. Energy plans formed at the time called for obtaining a modest four percent of state power needs from renewables by 2010.
"Is there an energy crisis?" Peter Asmus, author of "Reaping the Wind" and "Reinventing Electric Utilities" asked a group at the WEI Energy Forum. "Or is this actually an energy opportunity?"
During his talk, Asmus encouraged participants to take advantage of new technologies that offer smarter, cleaner and renewable energy with stable prices and high reliability. As is the case in Germany, he called a diverse and decentralized power source as key.
"Our electricity grid, with its emphasis on large polluting and centralized power plants sending power long distances over transmission lines, is an artifact that is over 100 years old," Asmus notes. "It is dramatically out of sync with information technologies."
Charting Wisconsin's energy future isn't easy. There are still many unknowns. What is known, though, is that people want a safe and reliable energy supply.
"Wisconsin should learn from California," explains Asmus. "The problem is not just a flawed deregulation scheme, but an over reliance upon a single fuel – natural gas – to generate new electricity supply. A new energy democracy that empowers all consumers, large and small, to become part of the solution, is the only way to go to deal with the root of this nation's energy supply dilemma."
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.