Sandia LabNews

Sen. Bingaman hears first-hand how Sandia researchers are tapping into renewable energy's potential

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in his first visit to Sandia since becoming chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, heard briefings last week from Sandians about the Labs’ work in alternative energy technologies. Presentations focused on concentrating solar power, direct solar water heating, photovoltaics, wind energy, and geothermal energy.

Bingaman was on a fact-finding mission to the Labs as his committee gears up for additional debate this summer about provisions of his Comprehensive and Balanced Energy Policy Act of 2001.

The act calls for renewable energy R&D spending of $419 million in FY02, increasing to $652 million by FY06. The bill also includes provisions with incentives for renewable energy investment, including a requirement that the federal government purchase a certain percentage of its electricity from renewable energy sources.

Bingaman told news reporters after the July 6 briefings that he considers the administration’s budget plan proposal to substantially cut renewable R&D funding "totally wrong-headed." (In a news release distributed during the briefing, Bingaman cited Bush budget numbers calling for a 54 percent reduction in federal solar energy spending and a 48 percent cut in wind energy spending.)

"The president has retracted a lot of that," he said. "It was clear [to the President] that Congress wants to keep funding at least at the level it’s at now." The Bush administration has subsequently indicated a willingness to support legislation that would keep renewable R&D investment at its current levels, he said.

In his news release, Bingaman said, "Sandia scientists have done groundbreaking research on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. There is no question in my mind that this technology will play a key role in helping meet our national energy needs."

Concentrating solar energy

In context-setting remarks for Bingaman, Margie Tatro, Director of Sandia’s Energy and Transportation Security Center 6200, noted that renewable energy sources represent a growing segment of the nation’s energy portfolio. The cost of renewables — a traditional stumbling block to wider implementation — has been coming down over the years and is now competitive with non-renewables in some applications. Also, she said, renewable resources are abundant in the US, particularly in the Southwest, where sun and wind are defining environmental characteristics.

Craig Tyner, Manager of Solar Thermal Technology Dept. 6216, briefed Bingaman on concentrating solar energy. Among the key benefits: the adaptability of thermal solar power. Because the technology involves heating a fluid that then is used to produce steam to turn a turbine, it can be hybridized — other energy sources can be used with the systems during darkness or excessive cloud cover. The potential of the technology has been shown on a large scale with Solar Two, a demonstration solar thermal power tower located in the Mojave Desert in California. Solar Two can generate about 10 megawatts of electricity.

Hot water from the sun

Paul Klimas, Manager of Photovoltaic System Components Dept. 6219, described for Bingaman a CRADA project between Sandia and the Salt River Project (SRP), a large public-private utility company in Arizona, to develop a commercially viable solar hot water heater. Paul said SRP came to Sandia for help because "we know solar and we know engineering. . . they wanted our systems expertise." SRP, he said, had an idea of what it wanted in a solar water heater: It would last for 30 years; it would be designed to be built as part of a home’s roof during construction so that it could be factored into the first mortgage; it would cost no more than $1,500 installed. Sandia came through, developing a system that meets SRP’s requirements. That system is in testing in Maricopa County and could be deployed commercially in the next two years. SRP estimates the market for the heaters to be in excess of 20,000 units a year in the Phoenix area alone, saving substantial amounts of energy.

Elegant photovoltaics

Beth Richards of Photovoltaic Systems R&D Dept. 6218, described the "very elegant" technology of photovoltaics. Unlike concentrating solar energy technologies, which use the sun’s heat, PV technologies convert photons directly into electricity. The technology first found wide application in stand-alone systems — lights for highway signs in remote locations, electricity systems for remote homesites such as those you might find on the Navajo Nation. Now, however, PV systems are more and more being tied into the energy grid and are, in fact, well-suited to a 21st century distributed energy model. Though much of the breakthrough R&D has been conducted in the US by DOE labs, PV systems are being adopted in other nations.

"We don’t want this to go the way of the VCR," Beth said (a reference to the fact that although videotape recorder technologies originated in the US, the huge world market for video appliances was dominated by foreign firms).

Margie said PV technologies — indeed, all renewable technologies — have a natural R&D fit with improved storage technologies, some method to store energy when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Geothermal bits

John Finger of Geothermal Research Dept. 6211 noted that while geothermal energy has the advantage of being utterly reliable, it has the disadvantage of being difficult to tap into. Unlike drilling for fossil fuels, geothermal drilling requires boring though hard, tough rock, in a hot environment that might even involve corrosive gases.

"For geothermal work, we need tougher tools," he said. And Sandia has done a lot of work in that area. He showed Bingaman an old-fashioned well-drilling bit based on geared roller cones that grind up the rock. The drill bit was developed in 1911 by Howard Hughes Sr. and is a very mature technology, without room for revolutionary improvement. Sandia developed an alternative drill bit, the polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) bit, which cuts through rock the way a machine tool cuts through metal. That technology has been embraced by the drilling industry. John also showed the senator a new downhole probe that monitors drilling progress and withstands heat much more efficiently than conventional probes. Like the advanced PDC bit, the downhole probe helps to substantially boost drilling speeds.

Harnessing the wind

Installation of wind generating capacity worldwide over the last two years has totaled 20,000 megawatts, said Wind Energy Technology Dept. 6214 Manager Henry Dodd. That’s more new installed electrical generating capacity than nuclear power in the same period. And interest in the technology is increasing as costs become more competitive. Henry described for Bingaman what he called "the big 12," the dozen states — including New Mexico — where winds blow strong enough and reliably enough to be a very viable energy source. He described Sandia’s work with industry to improve wind vane performance to derive the maximum energy from even modest but steady winds. He noted that for New Mexico, electricity generated by the wind could become a valuable export item.

Following the briefings, Bingaman said he thinks he can rally bipartisan support for "a balanced piece of legislation" that includes solid federal investment in renewable energy R&D.

"I think there are things we can do [to encourage renewable development] through legislation," he said.