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It's almost impossible to discuss green energy without talking about electricity. Not that electricity should be considered a source of energy. Electricity is generally better viewed as a convenient medium for carrying energy from one point to another, from an initial point of generation to a final point of use. But electricity, and its storage, plays a major role in most renewable energy models. From hydroelectricity, still the biggest source of renewable energy, to wind power and solar PV, electricity is the thing being generated.
This, of course, is the case with virtually all major power generation, with the exception of gasoline where power is extracted at the point of use, usually inside of an automobile, and converted directly to mechanical motion. Electricity is simply an extraordinarily useful form for energy to take. It allows vast amounts of energy to be transported over nothing more than a wire, making it eminently distributable with a minimum of infrastructure.
However, in the case of renewable energy sources, electricity often plays a special role. Not only is it the thing being generated, it is frequently also the thing being stored, due primarily to the unsteady nature of some renewable resources. The dream of every power engineer is to have the generation of power be exactly in sync with the demand for power.
With gasoline, that's exactly what happens; the energy is generated just when it is needed, namely when a driver steps on the gas pedal and the gasoline is transformed from a liquid and vapor into useful power. But, in the case of electricity, the variability of demand is much tougher to meet.
Electricity goes out to factories, stores, and homes, where the demand for it goes up and down with the time of day, day of the week, and season of the year. For example, overall electrical demand is generally lowest from midnight to 6 AM, and highest during the work day and early evening. Although it's not easy for power plants to scale up output, and then scale it back down every day, at least fossil fueled plants are able to easily store their fuel source until required. All that coal and natural gas is happy to sit and wait quietly until needed, ready to be loaded and burst into flame as soon as demand heats up.
Even hydroelectric plants can simply divert the flow of water until needed to run the turbines. With wind and solar power, it's a different story. Engineers have to deal with variable supplies, not just variable demand. The wind and sun run on their own schedule, which may or may not be compatible with the needs of consumers. Cloudy skies or quiet winds can rapidly change the electricity supply/demand dynamic.
In spite of the promise of biofuels and other more controllable renewable resources, the irregular nature of renewable energy has itself been something of a cloud over the industry. Ultimately, it adds to the total cost of each megawatt hour generated, and has been one of burdens of renewable energy. Although exact numbers vary considerably, depending upon who you talk to and what they feel should be considered, few dispute that the cost of wind and solar power generation remains higher than fossil or nuclear, with wind generation far more cost-effective than solar PV.
That's why it's worth taking a very close look at a Boulder, Colorado based company called SEFE, Inc. (SEFE.OB). SEFE stands for St. Elmo's Fire, a weather phenomenon in which a strong electrical field in the atmosphere sometimes causes a bluish glow, almost like flames, to appear around aircraft wings, chimneys, or almost any tall or pointed object. Like lightning, it suggests the atmosphere's unique electrical potential.
SEFE, Inc. has come up with a way of tapping this inherent electrical power of the atmosphere, a widespread and ever-present electrical differential that represents a true paradigm shift in the generation of electricity, a way that effectively removes both the variability and high costs that plague the most popular representatives of green energy, wind, and solar.
Basically, SEFE believes it now knows how to harvest the constant and powerful static electricity that is continually formed in the earth's atmosphere. Using proprietary technology that is currently in the process of being protected through multiple patents, the company has designed and is testing a system that is able to use the earth's massive static differential to generate a direct current from the atmosphere, and then convert it to alternating current for immediate consumption.
It's a source that they are now confirming is always on, is limitless, does not require extensive infrastructure, is available everywhere on the planet, can be scaled small or large, and has virtually no carbon footprint. In addition, when all factors are added in, the company believes it can generate electricity at a cost less than half that of wind-power, making it highly competitive with even nuclear and fossil.
The company estimates that one of its units could power approximately 140 standard homes, which represents roughly ½ to 1 square mile of typical suburb, indefinitely. There are no specific requirements regarding terrain, geography, or location, since there is no requirement for large installations, fuel delivery, or other infrastructure considerations. It could be used in a population center or on a remote island.
The SEFE system is currently being tested and developed to comply with all necessary federal, state, and local regulations, for a range of locations. While the company says the system is simple and safe enough to be deployed anywhere, they are beginning carefully, by focusing their efforts on the most viable commercial applications:
· Utility/co-op sector for augmenting the industry's electrical generation capabilities
· Heavy industry requiring on-site generation
· Military - for use in remote bases
· World relief organizations
Most recently, according to their Director of Engineering, Michael Hurowitz, they've proven the technology, and are concentrating on being the first to protect it. In a recent press release, he stated,
Since the initial tests proved that this could be a viable energy source, we have been building a portfolio of intellectual property to protect our solutions in order to ensure our place in a growing alternative energy industry. This includes patented technology to provide a low cost and highly available source of electric power.
With a clean energy market expected to top $250 billion by 2017, any emerging technology that is far greener, with no carbon footprint and far more cost effective, cheaper even than the much vaunted wind power, deserves investor attention.