Wanted: Partnerships to develop energy alternatives

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

The development of practical energy alternatives is a burgeoning growth market. The automation industry has all the background knowledge and experience needed to make a significant impact in this technology arenas. Automation companies should look for and develop partnerships for this market.

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Automation.com, March 2008

The development of energy alternatives is a big, new market with major opportunities for automation companies, an inflection point that could bring burgeoning growth for leaders and innovators who are willing to develop partnership and take bold new steps.

The Oil Crisis

The world is running out of oil. While people keep pointing out the tar-sands in Alberta, Canada, and other potential resources, there is no major underutilized oil source left anywhere in the world. 95% of all available oil has already been discovered. Oil company proponents suggest that when oil prices go up, more reserves will magically appear. But the curve is steep. China and India are developing a vast appetite for oil and the shortages will only get worse.

The fundamental problems are centered around the facts that we are already embedded in enormous oil infrastructure investments made over the past century – exploration, extraction, refineries, pipelines, storage and distribution, down to several gas-stations on every street corner. This represents tremendous inertia which cannot and will not be overcome without broad, concerted action. Only major Government involvement can bring solutions. And even that will take decades. The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes. Perhaps it is inevitable that revolution will come only after the situation becomes a major crisis.

By mid-century, the world will need to double energy production from its current level. Somehow, humanity must find a basis for energy prosperity in the 21st century. For worldwide peace and prosperity, it must be cheap, clean and sustainable.

Problems generate Solutions

In the automotive sector, gas prices will begin to matter less and less. Oil will steadily become less important. Of course, these statements seem strange, even paradoxical, in the midst of recent escalating gas prices. But consider this: Already, the sales of gas-guzzling SUVs are declining steeply, while smaller cars are becoming a necessity. And you may have noticed that hybrid vehicles are now increasingly popular. The latest news is that, because of high demand and the long wait for delivery, used hybrids are now selling at a premium over the new vehicle price.

Today’s hybrid automobiles are gasoline powered, with battery power as an adjunct – the battery gets charged by the gas-powered engine and by braking energy, and provides some auxiliary and acceleration power. Gas mileage is improved by some 30-35%, with estimated savings of about $ 1,000 a year (at today’s gas prices) with an automobile that costs about $ 5,000 more. This is good, but not revolutionary. As gas prices increase, the demand will soar and improvements will follow.

During the next decade, new engine designs will lead increasingly to cars propelled by hydrogen and other fuels, with much less oil-based fuel consumption. As technology advances, the automobile will transform steadily into a sort of giant electrical appliance. Not just for their fuel efficiency, but because the new electrical drive trains offer much better performance, lower cost, and less weight.

As more people begin to use electric cars, people will increasingly be topping off their batteries from the power grid, and filling up less frequently at the gas station. Within a decade, we will be shifting more and more of a typical driver's most fuel-hungry miles from the gas tank to the electrical grid. And the related infrastructure will grow inexorably.

Although road transportation will steadily rely less and less on oil, the solution for air transportation is not yet on the horizon – battery-operated aircraft engines are clearly not practical yet. Here again, one wonders what new technology surprise will yield a solution for that seemingly intractable problem in this new century.

Energy alternatives

The problem with developing new energy sources is that everyone expects things to be done with short-term capitalistic motivation. And that is simply not possible when competing with the current costs of oil, and the tremendous investments already made in the infrastructure – extraction, pipelines, transportation, refining, and distribution.

America already has the technology needed to develop practical energy alternatives. Take solar energy – the US can get 100% of its energy requirements from the power released by sunlight radiating over the desert regions of the Southwest. American solar energy would be cheap, renewable and under our own control.

Electricity generated from solar energy can produce hydrogen gas by electrolysis of water. Hydrogen can also be made from many different sources of energy such as wind, biomass, geothermal, fossil and nuclear. Hydrogen is a clean universal fuel that can be used to power cars, trucks, planes, trains, buses, boats and ships. It can heat homes and commercial buildings, and generate electricity. It can replace all forms of fossil fuels.

Electricity, not oil, is the dominant fuel

Already today, oil is not the dominant fuel of our modern economy; it supplies about 40% of the raw energy we use and is used mainly for automobiles and transportation. Coal, uranium, gas, and hydroelectric power supply the other 60%. By far the most important use of these not-oil fuels is to produce electricity to power almost everything else.

It’s clear that electricity, not oil, defines the fast-expanding center of the energy economy. About 65% percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) now comes from industries and services that run on electricity. All the fastest growth sectors of the U.S. economy, like info-tech and telecom, depend totally on electricity.

Electricity has met more than 85% of the growth in U.S. energy demand over the past 25 years. And electrification is accelerating. Almost everywhere, electrically powered equipment is steadily displacing equipment powered by other forms of energy – because electrical equipment is far more precise and ultimately cheaper. Expanding energy supplies mean higher productivity, more jobs, and growing GDP. Across the board, energy isn't the problem; energy is the solution.

Energy Efficiency of Nuclear Power

It’s been pointed out that most energy sources are "energy inefficient" – the cost to produce is more than the energy derived. Many experienced people insist that the only energy efficient source available today is Nuclear, which can easily serve all energy requirements for the foreseeable future. The problem is safety – the dangers of radiation exposure and contamination, and waste disposal. But these things are widely misunderstood, and quickly become “political football”.

Nuclear advocates point out that a nuclear power plant has the lowest environmental impact of anything available today, for the amount of energy produced. The energy density of nuclear fission (energy available per pound/kg of fuel) is the highest of any option today. This reduces both the use of natural resources and the impact of resource extraction. Clearly, a major investment in clean, safe nuclear energy production must be a major objective.

It should be noted that France is the world leader when it comes to the use of nuclear energy. Nearly 76 % of the electricity generated in France is produced by nuclear power. France even has electrical power overcapacity and provides its surplus to neighboring countries.

Automation technology provides solutions

The solutions to energy alternatives are to be found in technology. The future brings hope with several energy technology alternatives: solar cells, hydrogen fuel and energy-cells, clean coal, CO2 recycling, synthetic fuels and safe nuclear power. New nanotechnology materials and production methodologies are showing great promise. These are just examples of the possibilities.

The automation industry has all the background knowledge and experience needed to make a significant impact in these vital technology arenas. Now, I’m not suggesting that your company can develop new energy solutions single-handedly – that’s probably far beyond its scope and capabilities. What I am suggesting is that you can look for and develop partnerships to tackle the problems.

Look for new energy developments

If you’re an automation supplier, don’t chase yesterday’s customers. Simply waiting for Exxon, or General Motors to upgrade their plants and factories won’t win you much new business. Selling to the automobile companies that themselves have shrinking budgets and dwindling business won’t generate new growth and success for suppliers.

Look around for new energy projects that will bring, not just expansion of your current business but new burgeoning growth. Some of these companies may already be your customers; but perhaps you’re talking with the engineers who are involved with old, shrinking projects, not the new burgeoning developments. Take time to ask what new projects are being planned – areas your company has never been involved with before. And get involved.

When you find new energy-related projects, don’t wait to be asked to bid controls and instruments after the project is ready for production – you’ll simply be one of the crowd. Instead, seek out what your company can contribute and offer partnership involvement – proprietary information access and low-cost development involvement in exchange for preferred-supplier status. The companies which get involved in this way will be the big winners.

If you’re an automation end-user developing new energy solutions, don’t go the old-fashioned route of handling projects on your own, with proprietary secrecy. You’ll find that there are many automation suppliers who have significant, applicable experience and are willing to share their own development ideas and instrumentation approaches. Select your best suppliers as partners. Get them working with you to help develop automation solutions for new energy alternatives. This will make a difference – in budgets, timing and, more importantly, innovation.


The development of practical energy alternatives is a burgeoning growth market where immediate technology and business leadership is needed. Significant growth and success awaits the companies that succeed. Look for energy development partnerships. Find ways for your company to get involved.

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