Yes, we are making strides toward developing alternative, cleaner energy sources such as wind, biomass and hydrogen technologies… but many in the industry believe coal gasification and nuclear power are the ‘real’ keys to reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Development of alternative energy technologies has become a major national undertaking. It is an effort embraced by government and business, one that seeks to create an infrastructure of environmentally compatible processes that will, over time, supplant fossil fuels as the linchpin of economic progress and living standards. Investments in the field are soaring, and indications are that many of the technologies will eventually lead to economically viable applications that are safe, reliable and sustainable.
Phasing in alternative energy processes is a long-term proposition with plenty of opinions as to how quickly it should occur. Most experts that work in the field say it will be decades before technologies advance far enough to have a significant impact on the use of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas.
“In the time frame that seems plausible, in the next several decades, Chevron would not articulate that the value proposition for biofuels is the replacement of oil and gas resources,” says Rick Zalesky, vice president of biofuels and hydrogen for Chevron Technology Ventures in Houston.
The Department of Energy, in fact, predicts in its Annual Energy Outlook 2007 report, that oil, coal and natural gas will still have roughly the same share of primary energy supply in the United States in 2030 as in 2005—86%. The DOE attributes this not to a failure of alternative energy to find applications, but to its initial low penetration of the energy market and to the continuing growth in demand for electricity over the next 25 years.
Nevertheless, processing and distribution facilities are being built for the first wave of these technologies, and that means more valves and actuators will be employed in select energy markets, notably those involving high-heat and high-pressure processes, and in an application that’s not usually associated with “green” technology—nuclear power.
“Nuclear energy is an alternative to current energy policy,” says Greg Johnson, president of United Valve Company, a valve service and repair facility in Houston. His view is shared by many in the valve industry.
The demand for high-performance valves and actuators in these and other areas will expand as facilities come online. It may also spur many valve makers to increase investments in R&D. Experts working in technologies like coal gasification, nuclear power and hydrogen, say these applications will have operating conditions that require highly engineered valves—commodity items or off-the-shelf products will not be applicable. In the case of nuclear plants, valve manufacturers will additionally need to acquire an “N” stamp, indicating they meet a stringent set of quality requirements and documentation procedures for their products.
Nuclear plants will probably have the highest engineering standards for valves and actuators due to the dangers of a catastrophic failure. The first of a new generation of power plants, called Gen III+, are slated to be built in the United States beginning in 2010 (the first new U.S. nuclear plant since 1996).
“These plants operate a lot differently than old nuclear plants, so there will be different requirements for valves in the containment buildings,” says Rob Gormley, senior product manager at Enertech, a Brea, CA, company that supplies nuclear pressure-relief valves and other products in partnership with Dresser Consolidated, Addison, TX.
Looking farther ahead, Gormley notes the next step in nuclear plant design is Gen IV. Designs for these plants are now in development though construction won’t take place until around 2030. “The Gen IV plants will have much higher temperature requirements,” he remarks. “Valve designs don’t even exist today that could function in the high-temperature environment of those plants.”
Technologies for Today and the Future
About a dozen technologies are being developed as clean, renewable sources of fuel and energy. They include:
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