From solar panels to clean coal, betting big on the future of energy.
Most Americans agree that it would be ideal to retire coal as an energy source. But in a country that burns 1.1 billion tons of coal a year and relies on it for more than half of its electricity, the ideal is clearly a long way off. "Incremental change is better than no change at all," says Chris Poirier, president of CoalTek. Founded by an astrophysicist and oil and gas veteran, the Atlanta-based company uses low-frequency, high-power electromagnetic energy to zap the moisture out of low-grade coal, resulting in a sort of designer coal that is more fuel efficient and cleaner burning. This relatively simple process can increase BTU content by up to 33 percent while reducing sulfur dioxide and other impurities by up to 70 percent.
CoalTek kept a low profile until it had a facility up and running. It has that now in Calvert City, Kentucky, where it plans to process two million tons of coal per year. The company also has the distinction of being one of 10 clean energy start-ups chosen for California's $30 million Clean Energy Fund investment portfolio. Right now, the only competition in the coal-processing field is Evergreen Energy (NYSE:EEE), a publicly traded company that produces a similar product using a different process. With a potential market so large, however, competition is not really a concern. "There could be a hundred of us and we would just be scratching the surface," says Poirier.
One of the most troubling realities of the power industry is that it has to produce more than we need. There's no way to store electrons for later, so energy providers produce enough power for peak hours virtually 24 hours a day. Gridpoint of Washington, D.C., may have a solution. The company's CEO, 28-year-old Peter Corsell (whose resumé includes a stint with the CIA), calls his product a "thinking" power storage device. It's a refrigerator-size box that does three things. It provides homes and businesses with backup power, for use in an outage or when prices are high. It regulates that power, allowing customers to pick and choose when their house pulls in energy. And it eliminates the complex installations required by wind and solar--when the masses are ready for renewables, they'll have a plug-and-play appliance to link up with. Corsell also likes to call his product "the TiVo of electricity."
Gridpoint's early investors include Esther Dyson and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley; more recently Goldman Sachs kicked in some $18 million. The big emissions payoff, however, will come when Gridpoint shifts its focus from selling to contractors and busts into the utility market. The plan: Power companies will lease the $10,000 Gridpoint boxes to customers the way Comcast leases its cable box, creating a smart grid of hundreds of thousands of nodes that can draw enough waste out of the system to preclude building more and more smokestacks.
Silicon Valley is placing some big bets on renewable energy, and Cilion, an ethanol start-up in Goshen, California, may well be the biggest one yet. Founded last June, the company has raised some $200 million from some of the industry's most powerful players, including venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Richard Branson's Virgin Fuels.
Khosla's goal is to make ethanol so prevalent that gasoline becomes an alternative fuel. By January 2008, Cilion plans to have three plants in California that will make ethanol from corn and other feedstocks, and they'll do so in a far more efficient manner than current plants. After the fuel is made, the distiller grain that's left over will be used to feed cows on California ranches. The company is led by CEO Kevin Kruse, former president of Western Milling, a California grain company, which co-founded Cilion in partnership with Khosla Ventures.
Cars in the state already are fueled by gasoline blended with 5.7 percent ethanol, creating demand for 900 million gallons of the fuel per year. Currently, less than 5 percent of that ethanol is produced in California, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently mandated that the state produce 20 percent of its own biofuels by 2010. When Cilion's plants are up and running, the company, which now has just 10 employees, could meet the governor's goal all by itself.
Every year, North American wastewater treatment plants generate some 50 million tons of treated sewage. Municipal governments like to refer to it as "biosolids," but this sludge is primarily human waste matter that generally is used as fertilizer or sent to the landfill. Either way, it threatens to seep into the groundwater and contaminate local water supplies. "We just don't know where a lot of this stuff goes," says Kevin Bolin.
Bolin's company, Atlanta-based EnerTech Environmental, is looking to answer that question by creating an environmentally friendly way to dispose of biosolids--and generate energy in the process. The company's first commercial facility, set to open in 2008 in Rialto, California, will take some 675 tons of biosolids per day from three cities and two counties, apply heat and pressure, and convert the sewage into something called E-fuel, which EnerTech will sell as a clean replacement for coal in industrial settings like power plants and cement kilns, sharing sales revenue with its clients. The potential savings are huge: The city of Riverside projects that its 20-year contract with EnerTech will save $20 million from disposal costs alone.
At GreenFuel Technologies, it's all about the algae. The company uses the slimy stuff to create biofuels, while at the same time reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The technology captures the carbon dioxide-rich gas emitted from power plants and pumps it through algae-rich water. Aided by photosynthesis, the algae feeds on the carbon dioxide and other pollutants, cutting power plant emissions. And while it does this, the algae doubles its mass every few hours. The technology to turn it into biofuel has existed for some time.
Isaac Berzin founded the company while doing postdoctoral work in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and GreenFuel, which is based in Cambridge, maintains close ties to the university. In fact, GreenFuel's first working bioreactor was on the roof of an MIT power plant. The company also has projects at power plants in upstate New York and in Arizona. "It's like using corn to make ethanol," says GreenFuel's president, Cary Bullock. "Except you don't have to wait to harvest your crop based on seasons; you can harvest it every day."
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