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Future of Renewable Energy is Now

  By Penelope Purdy
  The Denver Post

  Thursday 02 September 2004

  Someone should capture the energy generated this week in downtown Denver. A thousand people from 90 countries have gathered for the eighth annual World Renewable Energy Conference, trying to save the planet - and make money while they're at it.

  These folks are light-years ahead of the tired debate about whether renewable energy is necessary or practical. Yes and yes. Renewable energy has moved from the sidelines to the mainstream. Germany, for example, plans to install several hundred megawatts of new electrical power next year - and every bit of it will come from solar or wind. So much for the antiquated notion that renewables can't also be dependable. The questions now should be how to find the best technologies and create markets for them.

  Progress on renewable energy worldwide has come from government policies and funding in many nations - and visionary companies concerned not just with the next quarter, but the next quarter of a century.

  At the Denver Marriott, where the conference's plenary sessions were held, I button-holed executives from BP, the world's second-largest oil company. Once known as British Petroleum, BP now advertises itself as "Beyond Petroleum." It was the first big oil company to publicly acknowledge the risks of climate change, and is investing heavily in solar, wind, bio- mass and hydrogen.

  "Our long-term future as a company depends on being about to produce and supply energy in a sustainable way," explained John Mogford, BP's group vice president for gas, power and renewables. "Our short-term future depends on winning trust by addressing the concern of customers, shareholders and all those with whom we do business."

  So investing in renewables is about getting ahead of the curve and ensuring that customers have dependable and affordable energy, regardless of what happens to crude oil or natural gas supplies. And it's about being the good guy in the minds of consumers and policymakers who (globally if not in the United States) consider global warming a real threat to the planet

  BP also had to make a decision involving a debate that underlies much of the conference: Is it better to take small steps and make some progress on renewable energy, or to push for quantum leaps that will take longer to achieve?

  Nowhere is the controversy more intense than over hydrogen fuels. Renewables like solar and wind have a firm foothold in electric power generation. Hydrogen is different because it could also fuel vehicles - it's the best long-term bet to replace gasoline.

  Hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, has the power to set stars ablaze. But here on Earth, it's usually bound to other elements, so it must be extracted to make energy. The basic science has been around for 170 years, but turning it into a practical business technology has been tough. Still, hydrogen is alluring because it burns so cleanly that its only leftover is water. It sounds like something out of Harry Potter: Take water, make energy, get water. But it's real science, not fiction.

  Yet making hydrogen fuel, ironically, requires energy. If the process uses natural gas or coal, the result is to create more greenhouse gases in the quest for a clean fuel. But if the world waits until the process is perfected using solar, wind or biomass, hydrogen fuels may not hit the market for many decades, delaying progress against climate change. So BP's current research uses natural gas. The pragmatic decision, Mogford said, was that it's better to do some near-term good than wait too long for a perfect answer.

  Still, BP wants renewable energy for its hydrogen work. It's teamed with Frontline Bioenergy, a tiny Longmont firm, to apply for a U.S. Department of Energy grant to find ways to use bio- mass for the projects. Frontline is developing ways to use wood chips, grass clippings and sewage sludge to generate energy. Still, it likely will be decades before consumers can buy hydrogen-fuel cars, said Carol Battershell, BP's director of alternative fuels. The obstacles aren't just engineering issues, problems that BP has teamed with DOE, Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler Corp. to solve. They're also about educating consumers and creating places where customers can refuel the vehicles.

  A final note: Hydrogen can be made from many sources, so if the research pans out, the world's economic future will no longer be wedded to the vast reserves of crude oil in the politically unstable Middle East.

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