Of all the energy harvesting technologies out there, geothermal remains the most maddening.
In fact, geothermal power in the U.S. is confined to a narrow band of Nevada and California. Reno has become a geothermal hub, and the boom there seems to have busted.
Even industry leader Ormat Technologies(NYSE:ORA) has more plants in the area of recovered energy generation [REG] than geothermal. Tom Konrad likes Ormat for its technology, especially its Ormat Energy Converter [OEC], which he calls the “gold standard” in this space.
An REG plant takes the unused energy from some other industrial process and turns that heat into electricity in the same way it would use Earth energy. It's not as green as a pure geothermal plant, but the knowledge of how to do this efficiently is valuable.
There are lots of industries that generate waste heat for plants like those Ormat produces. Cement plants, chemical plants, paper plants, steel and aluminum plants, not to mention biomass plants. OEC systems are running in a wide variety of sizes, from 1.2 megawatts of power at a solar plant to 22 megawatts at a plant in Canada.
As with geothermal drilling, REG could be powerful in the oilpatch, which wastes tons of power in the form of briny wastewater. An SMU conference this month will look into exploiting that energy using existing infrastructure. Systems like Ormat's OEC could be among them.
But there remains the possibility for very disruptive technology to emerge in this space.
Richard Langson will be among the speakers at the SMU event. His gas letdown generator [GLG] gets power directly from the pressure of natural gas wells at a price of just 4 kilowatts per penny. Gas fields, oil fields, petrochemical and industrial waste plants, and existing steam plants can all be making money using the GLG, he says.
If GLG is as good as Langson says, it could be highly disruptive. It could turn co-generation systems like Ormat's into the Stanley Steamers of the 21st century. Or, it could provide the company with the spark it needs to really grow. By maximizing the value of the heat and pressure it is already generating, the industrial plants we already have could become the energy producers we most need. It would at least make a little green from our brown industries.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.