If you drive anywhere these days, no one has to tell you just how costly a petroleum-based energy economy can be. It becomes painfully apparent every time you pull up to the gas pump where prices this summer topped the $4 per gallon mark, and in some regions kept on climbing.
Indeed, record-setting oil prices have touched nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from curtailing our driving behaviors to inflating the prices on the grocery store shelves. Even the cost of producing surfboards has gone up 1,000% due to the price of petroleum-based raw materials. Then there's the bigger picture of international political ramifications of importing millions and millions of barrels of crude oil and the environmental aftermath of a century or more of operating vehicles and polluting manufacturing practices. Not to mention the fact that our presidential candidates constantly point out what they believe to be the downfalls of our current energy policies. When you take everything into account, it's no wonder there's an escalating cry for alternative energy sources.
Since the early days of the environmental movement of the 1970s, activists have touted the benefits of solar and wind power. Now, others have climbed onto the bandwagon promoting the advantages of natural gas, ethanol, and bio fuels. What really distinguishes the alternative energy industries between then and now is the seriousness with which they're taken today. Thirty years ago, such ventures were viewed as something only the fringe element embraced. Currently, they are regarded as profitable businesses with sustainable futures, including new jobs for engineers and Information Technology (IT) experts.
A Natural Choice
Because natural gas (NG) is technically a fossil fuel, its history reaches almost as far back as oil, but its use as a motoring fuel is quite young. Rather, we're more used to the idea of natural gas heating our homes and water, and cooking our food. The truth is this substance operates well as a motor vehicle fuel, and is perhaps one of the least polluting alternatives that's viable right now.
Generally speaking, NG produces virtually zero hydrocarbons and other smog-emitting elements. It also functions as a feedstock, or source, for hydrogen creation—another alternative researchers hope will prove fruitful. And with 85% of the country's natural gas produced domestically, you might ask why don't we see more automobiles using this fuel source? The simple answer? A current lack of infrastructure, but that's changing.
The number of natural gas filling stations pales in comparison with the traditional gasoline sites: 1,600 versus 190,000, respectively. What's encouraging, though, is that more than 50 NG vehicle makes are currently manufactured, making it the leader among the alternative fuels gang. In fact, you probably have driven past some of these cars, trucks, and buses without taking much notice. The thing is, these vehicles aren't necessarily sold at the regular dealership. Instead, the primary customer base so far has been organizations that operate large numbers of vehicles regularly and locally.
"We have focused more toward fleet service customers because the vehicles can return to a home base. You don't need a huge amount of infrastructure to support a large number of vehicles," states Denis Ding, P.Eng., assistant vice president of engineering and construction for Clean Energy Fuels, located in Seal Beach, Calif. "Whenever we put in a new fleet-based station, we also create a public access portion to it so we can grow the infrastructure at the same time." With this approach, the industry is making strides toward reducing the gap.
Indeed, Ding has focused most of his career on constructing and overseeing NG filling stations. "I have built over 170 stations, including one of our most recent in Lima, Peru," he notes. "The geography of the work has expanded dramatically. Plus, we are building larger and better stations." Geography and size, however, aren't the only factors affecting the growth of the NG industry. For years, it appeared companies' efforts were stymied by operational limitations, both in station design and maintenance. "We used to have to find out the operational parameters before we could even begin our design," says Ding. "Now we have come up with three adaptable compressor designs that allow us to adapt to site conditions, which makes implementation faster."
One of the most influential developments for NG providers actually came from outside the industry in the form of advanced controls systems. For example, a controls technology that may have been created with one intent in mind, can be sometimes applied in a non-related function at NG stations. Such crossover is becoming more and more prevalent among many businesses. "We try to take advantage of related technologies from other industries," admits Ding. The significance of better controls means Ding and his crew can remotely oversee stations' functions and troubleshoot solutions. This saves time and money. He explains, "Ten years ago, when we had a station problem, we had to send a technician out there. Right now, though, I can look at a Lima site through video feed and check the controls and operating parameters from 4,000 miles away."
In addition to building more NG filling sites in the U.S. and abroad, the Clean Energy Fuels team is looking into how they can advance the fuel itself. "We are working at the forefront of many of the technologies and creating renewable solutions to natural gas," says Ding. After all, just like oil, it too is a fossil fuel.
Blowing in the Wind
As you drive east from Los Angeles to the desert community of Palm Springs, you're grandly welcomed by the towering white columns sporting gigantic rotating blades waving hello. No, it's not some New Age art display. Instead, it's a longstanding wind farm silently capturing the wind's power and converting it into electricity. That stretch of just a few miles is legendary for gusty winds, so officials decided to harvest the energy and put it to good use. Sites like that are popping up all over the country as companies and state and federal agencies try to work with Mother Nature. Of course, this concept is anything but new. Hundreds of years ago, settlers built individual windmills to help them tap into the earth's fresh water supply. Now, engineers are hoping to use that same core concept to run a refrigerator's water dispenser, along with the many other household items we've become accustomed to having at our disposal. Well, according to recent research, their objectives are attainable.
The negative environmental impact from wind power is basically non-existent after the manufacture and installation of the turbines. Wind itself is renewable and indigenous, which helps control costs and expands future potential. Currently, organizations generate 10,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity from wind, enough to run 2.5 million homes. Also, wind power accounted for more than 30% of new energy generation capacity in 2007, earning it second place behind natural gas.
While that looks impressive, experts believe it's only a gentle breeze-worth of wind's actual potential. They have high expectations for future power. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy recently released its "20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030" report, in which it states the goal of 20% of all electricity produced via wind power by 2030. That means wind farms would have to create 304 gigawatts (GW), but like natural gas, the primary obstacle between now and then is infrastructure. Analysts estimate annual wind turbine installation would have to grow more than threefold, or an increase of 5,000 turbines per year by 2017.
Another challenge the industry faces is limited high-speed fields. Most of these regions are already in use, so the next step is to create technology that will capture equivalent energy potential from lesser speeds. There are vast spans of lower-speed fields across the Great Plains, from the Canadian border south to Texas, but the traditional turbines aren't efficient enough.
Much of the research and development with this alternative energy resource is funded by the government, such as the projects underway at the Boulder, Colo.-based National Wind Technology Center, a suborganziation of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. However, mainstream utilities are also investing talent and funds. For example, FPL Group, the main utility business in Florida, oversees the world's largest wind farm of 421 turbines. Duke Energy, serving customers in Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio, historically has concentrated on coal-fired power plants, but recently announced it will be purchasing wind units. In fact, industry investments topped the $9 billion mark in 2007.
But that's not the only environment where engineers and IT professionals can find job opportunities to propagate wind power. Positions with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) catering to alternative energy suppliers continue to grow. One such firm is Ameron International in Pasadena, Calif., which constructs the giant towers supporting the wind blades. Nearly one-fifth of its 2007 $550 million revenue came from this endeavor. And as more wind farms are created and others age, the biggest need for technical talent will be found hard at work improving equipment and updating maintenance procedures.
Just a few years ago, the hottest, sexiest alternative fuel du jour was ethanol. Reports of Brazil converting huge portions of its autos to run off of the renewable, cellulose-based fuel had many of us here excited about domestic possibilities. One of the drawbacks, and a major reason why we haven't seen more headway on this front, is that U.S. companies rely on corn to produce the fuel. Brazil, on the other hand, uses its bounty of sugarcane, and the difference is quite significant.
Opponents claim any environmental savings ethanol-only-powered vehicles might account for are wiped out by the amount of traditional energy used to create the enormous quantities of grain required to sustain the industry. Additionally, the ripple effect on the price of the nation's food and animal feed supplies is undesirable.
That's not to say, however, that ethanol doesn't stand a chance anymore. Rather, it's already helping vehicles reduce their polluting emissions. States like California mix the substance with gasoline for cleaner burns. And while there are engine designs capable of operating off of 85% or 95% ethanol (the highest, safest concentration allowed), this industry also suffers from a lack of infrastructure to support a large cadre of cars. The good news is that OEMs have created the technology to easily modify existing vehicles for future conversions while companies continue to research possibilities.
Despite the early bubble of ethanol excitement popping, companies continue to delve into these and other cleaner fuel sources, such as biodiesel. This one comes from vegetable oils or animal fats—a la recycled restaurant greases—and can be used in traditional diesel engines. Yet others are looking into other more natural-occurring energy sources such as switchgrass. The possibilities appear to just grow, and along with them, professional opportunities for engineers and other technical employees.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," comments Ding. "There's no blueprint you can follow. We're exploring new ways to do things, and there's room for many different types of alternative fuels.