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Strength in Numbers: 5 Partnerships That Could Expand Renewable Energy

Today, there is no perfect form of energy. Fossil fuels are abundant but dirty. Solar and wind are clean but intermittent, and geothermal is cheap once its running but difficult to get started. Yet, as technologies evolve, so do creative partnerships that maximize an energy's potential while hedging against its shortfalls.

Perhaps another sign of the continuously maturing renewable energy industries is their ability to form new relationships with each other while exploring relationships with other more established forms of energy. We’ve seen this with natural gas, which is valued for its ability to team up with with solar and wind technologies for combined cycle power plants. The last few weeks have opened the possibility of new creative ventures beyond natural gas. Two industries in particular — solar and geothermal — seem to be making the most waves in linking their technologies with new partners.

Here’s a quick peek at some developments that may raise acceptance and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Geothermal and Batteries

If the electric vehicle market is to take off, it may get an unexpected boost from geothermal power.

California-based Simbol Materials plans to tap into existing geothermal plants to extract lithium to be used for batteries for electric vehicles and portable devices. The company says it can do this — waste-free — by separating high-quality minerals that are found in brine from geothermal power production. According to the company, the newly opened 500-ton capacity facility near the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, Calif. is the first battery materials producer of its kind.

“The market continues to look for new, innovative and higher quality materials to increase the efficiency and quality of battery performance,” said Josh Green, General Partner of Mohr Davidow, a lead investor in Simbol Materials.

According to published reports, nearly 75 percent of the world’s lithium once came from the United States. Now, it hovers around five percent, with most production found in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. The United States, meanwhile, is the world leader in geothermal power production.

Geothermal and Solar

For an industry that has seen one new plant come online since the end of 2009, much of the difficulty can be attributed to the cost associated with exploration and permitting. But some of it also speaks to the unpredictability of a geothermal resource 20 years down the road. How can a development promise how much power will be produced decades from now when negotiating a power purchase agreement?

Well, what’s more predictable than the sun? That’s not expected to go anywhere for a few billion years. Enel Green Power North America just might be onto something with the company’s decision to co-locate a 24-MW photovoltaic solar farm on a 240-acre parcel adjacent to its 60-MW Stillwater geothermal plant in Churchill County, Nevada. Conceivably, solar could offset concerns about resource predictability while contributing to a plant’s capacity.

The solar power produced will integrate into the existing plant, allowing it to produce more power, especially during periods of peak energy. It also saves the power producer the costs associated with interconnection and operation. This is the first such project in the United States, and according to company officials, likely the first in the world. Construction is ongoing, and the company hopes to bring it online by the end of the year.

The questions will now focus on how to take advantage of this technological marriage beyond this one PV addition. Will there be a natural marriage between geothermal and concentrating solar power (CSP)? Will solar see geothermal as an answer to its intermittency problem, and will geothermal turn to solar to make it more bankable?

Solar and Wind

Until storage becomes a cost-effective option, wind and solar will share the same difficulties. Their intermittency is pointed to by critics as proof of their lack of reliability. But they also perform best at different times. While the sun shines during the day, winds are generally most reliable at night.

Using them in combination has proven beneficial so far for Western Wind Energy, which recently opened its Kingman I solar and wind project in Kingman, Ariz. The 10.5-MW facility is the first utility-scale operation designed to use both technologies. The facility uses five Gamesa wind turbines and a 500-kW solar PV array.

The hope is that the Kingman project will allow Western Wind Energy to better understand how wind and solar can complement each other for a 24-hour power cycle, and how they can be combined from a land-use perspective.

Solar and Oil

One of America’s oldest oil fields is the site of one of its newest partnerships.

BrightSource Energy’s 29-MW facility has been built to help Chevron’s oil recovery in Coalinga, Calif, which has been ongoing since 1890. BrightSource’s CSP plant will produce high-pressure steam that will be pumped deep into an existing oil reservoir, which increases pressure underground and makes it easier to bring the oil to the surface. The steam is then cooled and recirculated in a closed-loop system. Traditionally, the steam at the Coalinga plant has been generated by burning natural gas.

“The energy intensity associated with extracting heavy-oil is extremely high. This presents a significant challenge to containing emissions and to the supply of fuel — such as natural gas — for this process,” said Paul Markwell, a senior research director with IHS CERA. “Many of the known heavy-oil reserves around the world have limited access to cost-effective fuel sources and are located in areas with high solar resources. This provides an ideal environment for the use of solar thermal technologies for enhanced oil recovery.”

Geothermal and Oil

The geothermal industry is patiently awaiting movement of a Senate bill that would allow those with federal oil and gas leases to produce geothermal power. The current system requires a competitive lease be issued to produce geothermal power on federal land.

So far, there has been little practical traction in the field, but the geothermal-oil relationship has made some strides in demonstration facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Wyoming.

According to Karl Gawell of the Geothermal Energy Association, the typical oil well in West Texas produces eight gallons of hot water for every gallon of oil recovered. Right now, they have to pump those oil wells with electricity, and for many of the oil fields, that represents their largest cost. So geothermal power would seem to be an ideal fit for an operation looking to secure its bottom line.

While this bill may never make it out of committee, it could lay the groundwork for yet another emerging energy partnership.

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