by Richard T. Stuebi
Generalizations are always tricky, but it’s safe to say that many employees of many electric utilities whose generation plants are mainly coal-fired have a hard time feeling very enthusiastic about renewable energy. You can imagine the rants: renewables are tiny and negligible, renewables aren’t baseload, renewables are for wimps.
So, it’s interesting to me when coal-based utilities can find something nice to say about renewables. Last week, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) — the U.S. R&D organization funded by companies in the electricity industry — announced its efforts to test the addition of solar thermal collectors to fossil-fueled powerplants, in an effort to reduce the amount of fuel that these plants need to burn for generating electricity.
The test project involves powerplants operated by Progress Energy (NYSE: PGN) and Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, and is co-sponsored by The Southern Company (NYSE: SO) — all sizable coal-based utilities.
Of course, these utilities are motivated by practical considerations more than they are by being viewed as “green”. For them, the important green is money: the use of solar thermal can reduce per-kilowatt-hour variable costs, which can increase plant profitability in wholesale power markets. And, the use of solar thermal will reduce the per-kilowatt-hour emission rates of fossil powerplants, which will reduce compliance costs under a likely future cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions.
Not to mention, the installation of solar thermal at existing fossil powerplants may qualify for compliance with renewable portfolio standards that now exist in many states — and that may come into law nationally under the Obama Administration.
It may not be as sexy as photovoltaics or wind turbines, but the economics of solar/fossil hybrid power generation should be pretty compelling. If so, solar thermal augmentation at fossil powerplants may become very widespread, perhaps unseen and out-of-mind, but nonetheless making sizable dents in the energy industry’s emissions footprint.
Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become a Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.