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Image of the Oxidizer Test Vessel. The test rig is operated on site by Ener-Core engineers. Image: Ener-CoreDemand for clean energy is primarily driven by concerns over emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and their associated environmental effects. However, the emissions aren’t solely created from traditional power generation plants. In fact, 31% of global GHG emissions are represented by the by-product gases created by industrial facilities, such as refineries, chemical plants, food processing plants and oil and gas drilling sites. Adding more clean power alone won’t have any impact on reducing emissions from these facilities.

The fact is many industries produce low-quality, ultra-low-Btu waste gases as an undesirable by-product of their core processes. And these gases are typically burned off through flaring. If industries could generate clean power from these gases, it could potentially represent enough power for all the homes in the U.S. Yet these gases get burned off and continue to contribute to GHG emissions.

“Demand for clean energy continues to grow, but more solar and wind power doesn’t directly address the underlying issues of global emissions from traditional industries,” says Alain Castro, CEO, Ener-Core, Inc. “These poor-quality gases can now be utilized—rather than flared—to produce clean energy. And by producing clean energy, while at the same time preventing these emissions from reaching the atmosphere, we can actually do more than boost our energy reserves—we can more directly overcome the underlying environmental issues caused by industrial facilities.”

Renewable energy trends
“Energy independence” is a term in increasingly common use, with pushes toward a 2020 energy-independence goal for the U.S.

In the U.S., energy independence may be achieved by generating enough power from domestic resources, so the country can stop importing oil and gas from overseas and cease to rely on other countries to provide its fuel and power needs. Solar power, wind power and power from domestic natural gas are all helping with this goal. However, the ongoing flaring of waste gases not only poses a serious environmental issue, but actually works “against” the goal of energy independence, as these gases represent a domestic resource that is being wasted.

Energy demand is forecasted to grow by 53% by 2035. “This is only 20 years away,” says Castro. “Regardless of whether we meet that demand with renewable energy or with traditional power plants, the amount of capital that’s needed to generate all that additional power is mind-boggling.”

“If we follow the ‘old way’ of adding power capacity—building massive, centralized power plants—we would have to be ready to invest many billions of dollars more, expanding the capacity of the transmission grids, in order to get the power from the power plants to the consumers,” adds Castro. Furthermore, the permitting required for building large power plants is making it difficult to build this additional power capacity.

The most notable trend in renewable power is toward small, decentralized power plants that are located close to homes, offices and industrial sites that need the power. This is the only way the energy industry can overcome the lack of capacity in the transmission grid and overcome the permitting challenges to keep up with the growing demand.

“The trend is called ‘Distributed Generation’ (DG),” says Castro. Today, solar PV is in the limelight because small, distributed solar PV plants are the frontrunner in the move toward DG. “But the fact is solar PV plants provide power for approximately six hours per day. But our homes, offices and industrial sites need power 24 hours per day. Hence, for DG to really thrive, we need to integrate technologies and solutions that enable the construction of small, distributed power plants that can provide that power all day. The power that we can now derive from industrial waste gases represents an all-day source of energy for local communities or industrial facilities, and this will undoubtedly play a significant role in the DG trend.”

To date, DG has been more disruptive in Western Europe than in other regions. In the U.S., the energy industry, as well as regulators, is seeking a balance that allows for DG growth without undermining the role of utilities in maintaining and investing in the grid. “The ‘Reforming the Energy Vision’ proceeding underway at New York’s Public Service Commission is perhaps the most prominent example of state regulators seeking to create a new regulatory framework for supporting distributed energy resources and upgrading the power grid in tandem,” says Castro.

Other reform efforts are underway in Massachusetts, Hawaii and California, where utilities recently filed their first Distributed Resources Plans, which are designed to incorporate distributed energy resources into utility system planning and operations. “In addition, two Arizona utilities, Tucson Electric Power and Arizona Public Service, have taken the DG bull by the horns, proposing their own programs, where they would own and operate rooftop solar installations and give a rebate to their host customers,” says Castro.

Power plant carbon emissions
President Obama has now set new regulations on power plant carbon emissions. And these emissions policies are the most aggressive the U.S. has seen. However, power plants aren’t the only emitters of GHG emissions; there are many other industries that also emit greenhouse gases. “But we have reason to believe, from the recent proposals made by the EPA, that even more legislation will be coming and that it will place equally aggressive emissions reduction regulations on a wider range of industries,” says Castro.

As these additional regulations continue to be rolled out, industrial companies are investing in more “Pollution Abatement” or “Emissions Destruction” systems. These solutions represent a cost to industry. “They’ll help reduce emissions, but at a cost to the overall productivity of many U.S. industries,” says Castro. “Already, if we turn on the news, we can hear lots of people talking about how all these new emissions reduction objectives are going to make America less competitive and raise our costs.”  

These policies are forcing industries to focus on the reduction of GHG emissions.

It is Ener-Core’s hope that these new policies will push industries to more aggressively seek methods for productively using all GHG emissions, rather than focusing on solutions that attempt to solely destroy them in order to reduce their emissions into the atmosphere. “There are solutions, available today, that enable industries to use and monetize their waste gases, and I would hope these new policies will ultimately steer industries toward these types of solutions,” says Castro.

Ener-Core offers the Power Oxidizer, which has already been commercialized and installed successfully, and has also been issued 19 patents to date, for converting waste gases such as low-BTU methane into useful heat and power. “These are typically gases that are flared (burned) off by a wide range of industries, as the gases are considered useless (and hence waste) because current power technologies can’t use them as a fuel,” says Castro. By making these low-quality gases useful, Ener-Core provides a compelling value proposition, enabling many industries to actually make money from their waste gases. The technology can enable industrial companies to convert their emissions into useful energy that they can use on-site, thereby enabling them to lower their operating costs by reducing the amount of energy they need to purchase.

“Unfortunately, our solution isn’t viable for the CO2 emissions from power plants; but is actually best-suited for the waste gases from many other industries,” says Castro. However, Ener-Core isn’t alone in this push toward productive uses of waste gases, and there are currently other technologies that are coming onto the market that strive to enable the productive use of the CO2 emissions from power plants, much in the same way as what Ener-Core’s technology does for other industries.

“Ultimately, we believe that these types of solutions will prevail, as they represent a profitable way for industries to utilize their waste gases,” says Castro.

The future
“Our technology has already been deployed commercially, and we are now ramping up in collaboration with the leading global manufacturers of gas turbines and industrial steam boilers,” says Castro.

For example, Ener-Core recently announced the receipt of a purchase order for two of their next-generation Power Oxidizers, in the larger 1.5 to 2 MW power capacity, from Dresser-Rand, a Siemens company. The purchase order calls for the delivery of the Power Oxidizers to Dresser-Rand for subsequent installation into a large ethanol plant in California.

“Once these two systems are installed, that particular ethanol plant has stated that it expects to reduce its operating costs by $3 to 4 million per year, which is a significant cost advantage against other similar industrial facilities,” says Castro. “At the same time as it lowers its costs, this particular ethanol plant will become one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases within its industry. Ultimately, we believe that more companies will seize this method of addressing their emissions reductions challenges, in a manner that actually reduces their operating costs and makes them more competitive at the same time as they become more environmentally sustainable.”

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