Going green is good business

Weaning American culture off its dependence on fossil fuels will be one of the most important processes of the modern age. Like any addiction, this Herculean task will take a long and painful course, made worse by the lack of any clear trajectory or consensus on the best way to do it.

But growing public attitude is that we must act to end this dependence, for economic security and to mitigate the effects of global warming. However, waiting for any federal government to implement a silver bullet policy solution can be like waiting for Godot. In spite of that, and encouragingly, some of the most interesting developments in the movement towards clean energy are at the municipal level and in the business sectors.

Two regions in the U.S. drawing attention for their enlightened thinking, and implementation, of clean energy technologies couldn’t be more different in terms of climate, economy, and populations: North Dakota and the Sacramento region of central California.

Amid the gently rolling prairie landscape of North Dakota (a state of 183,272-sq.-km but with a population of only 642,200), a small but growing industry of developing renewable resources is gaining momentum, based on two things the state has plenty of: wind and agricultural products such as corn.

North Dakota has the potential to be a leader in wind energy production with more available “good wind” than any other state. According to the American Wind Energy Association, as of September 2006, North Dakota had 11 wind projects generating 128 megawatts (MW) of capacity (enough to power 32,000 to 38,000 homes), with another project under construction, the Oliver Wind Energy Center, that will produce 50.6 MW. By comparison, Saskatchewan produces 171.18 MW, or 5 per cent of its energy needs, from wind (Canada’s national production is currently at 1,340 MW).

But this modest development is nothing compared to North Dakota’s staggering wind energy potential. Average wind power output is estimated to be 138,400 MW, with 1,210 billion annual kWh of potential generation, which is why the state has taken to calling itself “the Saudi Arabia of Wind.”

The wind market looks so promising that one of the largest wind turbine and tower manufacturing companies in North America, DMI Industries, has located plants in West Fargo, N.D. and Fort Erie, Ont. and Denmark-based LM Glasfiber, which makes the largest wind blades in the world (and is now operating a project on the Gasp Peninsula in eastern Canada) has also established manufacturing facilities in the state (with its products sold out until well into 2007).

North Dakota ranks high in the production of several crops, including corn and wheat, which are ideal for producing ethanol. Although several alternative fuels that can power an internal-combustion engine are readily available, including compressed natural gas and propane, ethanol (or ethyl alcohol), which burns much cleaner than gasoline, is the most promising renewable gasoline substitute. And although any gasoline-powered vehicle manufactured since the 1980s can use gasoline with up to 10 per cent ethanol (the Canadian government is hoping to achieve a 5 per cent renewable content, such as ethanol or biodiesel, in gasoline by 2010) there are millions of “flex-fuel” vehicles, which can run on either E-85 (which is 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline) or gasoline, already on the road in the U.S.

In response, North Dakota has launched the GoE! campaign to brand E-85, the state’s own form of ethanol and fuel all state vehicles with the alternative fuel. The state has three ethanol plants in operation and another under construction, with total production of ethanol in the state to increase by 330 million gallons in the next 18 months, not to mention two 50-million-gallon biodiesel plants also underway.

Here comes the sun

The economic giant that is California is also North America’s environmental technology leader, and the Sacramento County region has emerged in the past few years as a new home for green technology companies, including 30 clean energy start-ups, developing everything from wind power to bio and hydrogen fuels. Backed by groundbreaking energy research at the University of California – Davis, and incentive programs such as CleanStart, Sacramento is primed to become a powerhouse for clean energy technology in much the same manner that Santa Clara became Silicon Valley.

One way, for example, is in the harnessing of California’s most famous asset: the sun. The U.S. market is currently the third largest for photovoltaics behind Germany and Japan, and around 75 per cent of the systems currently being installed are in California. The Sacramento region already leads the nation in rooftop solar installations, and in January 2006, the state approved the California Solar Initiative, a $3-billion US incentive program to achieve one million solar roofs, or 3,000 MW of new, solar-produced electricity by 2017, which is why it is no surprise that some of the biggest international photovoltaic companies are locating offices in California. For example, the German firm SunTechnics, which recently opened its first North American office in Sacramento, is one of the industry leaders with over 5,000 solar energy installations worldwide.

In the effort to build competitive clean energy industries, both California and North Dakota present interesting parallels: California’s obsession with the automobile and North Dakota’s continuing reliance on lignite coal mining are two examples of the hurdles – economic, consciousness, and others – facing clean energy. Obviously there is no silver bullet solution to get from here to tomorrow. However, viable solutions often occur on a small scale and can still have a strong impact on their environment.

Auto alternatives

Americans love their cars, and this is clearly one addiction that must be addressed in the quest to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Interestingly, there are examples in both North Dakota and in California that are doing just that.

Global Electric Motorcars, the largest U.S. producer of street-legal neighbourhood electric vehicles (NEV), is, surprisingly enough, based in Fargo, N.D. The company has produced more than 30,000 of its button-cute electric cars since 1998, which are being seen more and more within master planned communities, military bases, college campuses, and even at several recent G8 summits.

And in California, the beating heart of the automotive world, the California Fuel Cell Partnership – a collaboration of automakers, energy companies, fuel cell technology companies, and government agencies committed to promoting the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles – has helped place more than 100 hydrogen-powered vehicles on state roads, and built 22 hydrogen fueling stations (with another 15 on the way) since its establishment in Sacramento in 2000.

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