Energy Storage, Conditioning, Distribution and Transmission
Technologies in the Energy Efficiency area--which include building technologies and non-internal combustion propulsion systems--increase U.S. economic productivity by increasing economic output per unit of energy input and by offering a growing export business opportunity; they also contribute to U.S. national security by reducing dependency on foreign energy sources and, when exported, by moderating energy demand in developing countries. Building technologies improve the competitiveness of U.S. construction and building industries in world markets by making the sale of turn-key installations more likely and make a small contribution to national security by allowing more efficient management of facilities that frees funds for other uses. Although U.S. technology now competes favorably in this area with the most efficient Japanese and European products, it still trails Japanese and European firms in some products. Non-internal- cumbustion propulsion systems--particularly in "clean cars"-- could provide a significant advantage to a sector comprising one-seventh of the U.S. economy. Japan and Europe are about even with the United States in electric vehicle (EV) technology, and Japanese AC motor technology lags that of the United States but is probably ahead of that of the Europeans.
Technology sub-areas in the Energy Storage, Conditioning, Distribution, and Transmission area--including advanced batteries, power electronics, and capacitors--are enabling for both economic prosperity with industrial, commercial, and residential applications, and national security with military applications. In advanced battery technologies, the Japanese are slightly lagging U.S. capabilities, although aggressive research is improving the Japanese position, and European firms are slightly behind U.S. firms. In power electronics, the United States is behind in high-power, solid-state switch technology except for a few niche areas. In capacitor technologies, the United States is the world leader, especially those suited for military applications, Japan is behind the United States and is losing ground, and Europe is also behind the United States and probably losing ground.
Technology sub-areas in Improved Generation--including gas turbines, fuel cells, next-generation nuclear reactors, advanced power supplies, and renewable energy--are critical to economic prosperity because of the confluence of rapidly growing demand for electricity worldwide, increasing environmental pressures from electric generation, and utility deregulation. In gas turbine technologies, Europe and Japan are slightly behind the United States in developing rotating machinery suitable for high-efficiency power generation. In fuel cells, the United States is the overall world leader across a wide range of fuel cell technologies but Japan is a very strong competitor in some segments, while European fuel- cell projects are highly dependent on foreign technology. In next-generation nuclear reactors, U.S. firms have remained competitive in design services and are active members of international alliances, because most current reactors are based on U.S. technology; however, the United States is likely to fall behind in next-generation reactors because of large funding cuts for reactor R&D. In advanced pulsed power supplies, Russia is slightly ahead of the United States, while Europe and Japan are behind the world leaders overall but are at parity in some niche areas, such as switching capacitors and transformers. In renewable energy, Europe and the United States are about even in solar thermal energy technology, slightly ahead of Japan; in photovoltaics, Japan is continuing to lag slightly behind the United States and Europe; Europe is slightly ahead of the United States in wind turbine technology, while Japan lags behind the world leader in innovative turbine designs; and Europe is slightly ahead of the United States in biofuels, with Europe leading in biodiesel fuels and the United States leading in ethanol production from biomass.
Overall, the United States is generally on par with the best in the world in critical technologies that fall into the energy category. The specifics of the assessment are presented in the text of the section. The summary of the U.S. relative position and trends from 1990 to 1994 are shown in Figure 2.1.
The U.S. imports 2.4 billion barrels of oil per year, of which 65 percent is used to fuel its transportation sector. Energy efficiency technologies reduce U.S. dependence on oil imports which are intrinsically linked to geopolitical tensions and regional instabilities. Reducing dependency on foreign energy sources is an important national security consideration. Furthermore, oil imports account for over half of the U.S. trade deficit, so reduced oil imports would lead directly to the improvement of the U.S. trade position. Moreover, energy efficiency technologies themselves represent a growing export business. Because energy is fundamental to economic growth, efficiency technologies contribute to global economic development with less environmental degradation, and are critical to many developing countries that lack domestic energy resources. Moderating energy demand through increased efficiency while encouraging sustainable economic growth in developing countries will contribute to stability throughout the world and, consequently, to U.S. national security.
Residential and commercial buildings consume over one third of all U.S. primary energy and about two thirds of the electricity generated. By allowing more efficient energy utilization, advanced building technologies directly contribute to job creation and economic growth for manufacturers of the equipment involved, as well in the building and construction industries. These technologies improve the competitiveness of the U.S. construction and building industries in world markets by putting them in a more favorable position for selling turn-key installations overseas. In addition to making a direct contribution, advanced building technologies also contribute to productivity and job growth indirectly by improving efficiency of the physical infrastructure for all manufacturing and services. A reduction in the cost of providing goods and services which results from more efficient energy utilization allows U.S. companies to be more competitive on world markets. Building technologies also make a small contribution to national security by allowing more efficient management of facilities which frees funds for other uses.
Foreign firms took the lead from U.S. manufacturers of heating, cooling, air handling, and controls technologies in commercial buildings over a decade ago. Since then, U.S. firms have slowly regained part of their reputation and technological position and are now at parity with the European leaders. Europe remains ahead in ventilation and pulse combustion furnaces. The Germans, for example, have developed an innovative, gas-fired heater that rapidly heats small amounts of water--a concept applicable to small apartment furnaces, water heaters, and integrated appliances. Both Japanese and European firms have surpassed the United States in the efficiency of their gas-fired furnaces with some units achieving efficiencies as high as 97 percent.
Europe and Japan are generally ahead of the United States in materials technologies related to energy use in buildings,although the relative position depends very much on specific materials and applications including technologies for insulation, sound proofing, and thermal control. The U.S. does have some areas of excellence. U.S. technologies related to energy efficient windows, for example, are well ahead of Japanese efforts, especially with respect to low emissivity glazing and other advanced glazing technologies for warm climates. The United States also has a small technological lead over Europe for window technologies appropriate for cold climates.
Foreign firms were, until recently, far ahead of U.S. firms in technologies for residential appliances. Because of energy efficiency standards and the internationalization of the industry, U.S. appliances have achieved major energy savings and are no longer considered inefficient or poorly designed. Although U.S. technology now competes favorably with the most efficient Japanese and European products, there are still areas in which the United States lags. For example, U.S. appliance manufacturers trail Japanese and European firms in the introduction and widespread application of advanced controls such as fuzzy logic and neural circuits for air conditioners and washing machines and are behind European firms in water and energy efficiency. The United States also lags both Europe and Japan with respect to ergonomic design and reduced environmental impact. The United States is well-positioned for next-generation lighting technology because of recent DOE-sponsored work.
Automobiles are the largest single source of urban air pollution. If non-IC-powered cars had comparable performance to cars which run on internal combustion engines and were sold at comparable price, they could provide dramatically improved urban air quality, greatly mitigate the compliance costs for other sectors of the economy, and save billions of dollars in imported oil. In addition, U.S. automakers are beginning to pull even with Japanese automakers in adopting the "lean production" manufacturing techniques, so the product differentiation inherent in gaining a first mover advantage in a "clean car" could provide a significant comparative advantage to a sector currently comprising one- seventh of the U.S. economy. Advanced non-IC propulsion systems are essential to the success of the Partnership for the New Generation of Vehicles, an effort to build an advanced automobile for the next century.
Japan and Europe are about even with the United States in electric vehicle (EV) technology. Japan has an aggressive battery development program and has demonstrated high performance in some EV prototypes. Japanese automakers are cautiously watching foreign market developments before risking production of EVs. European automakers, on the other hand, are moving forward with EV production despite the fact that their battery, motor, and battery charger infrastructure programs are not as far along as the Japanese. Like the U.S. government, Japanese and European governments are funding technology development and providing market incentives to promote EV use.
Batteries are discussed elsewhere in this report. Foreign firms working on electric vehicles have had mixed results developing key associated technologies, particularly motors and chargers. Japanese AC motor technology lags that of the United States but is probably ahead of that of the Europeans, who are still equipping EVs with heavy DC motors that are difficult to maintain. The Japanese lead U.S. and European firms in the development of off-board chargers for EVs. Because the limited number of home garages in Japan requires a charging infrastructure, Tokyo is establishing a network of high-power rechargers in some major cities that can reduce charge times from eight hours to less than one. European researchers are developing more convenient on-board chargers, which use ordinary household outlets, but no firm has been able to significantly reduce the weight of these systems.
Energy storage, conditioning, transmission, and distribution technologies also have military applications. Power requirements for military equipment vary widely. A few watts may suffice for a wide variety of personnel communication units, but many kilowatts may be needed for surveillance radars and megawatts could be in demand for some potential weapon systems, such as directed energy. Efficient energy storage technologies will help bring power to run modern communications and information technologies to individual soldiers and unmanned vehicles. In addition to the amount of energy that can be stored per unit mass, important considerations in choosing a storage system are durability, low signature, alert status lifetime, operational lifetime (e.g., the number of discharge/recharge cycles that fuel cells or batteries can handle), and the rate at which power can be discharged.
Advanced batteries make a contribution to economic prosperity in several ways. They are a subject of an industry led R&D consortium, U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, which includes the Big Three automakers, EPRI, and the Department of Energy. Batteries are also important to the Partnership for New Generation Vehicles which, if successful, would make a contribution toward improving the competitiveness of U.S. automobile manufacturers in domestic and world markets. Advanced batteries are an environmentally friendly technology because they may enable zero-emission vehicles, making a significant contribution to improving environmental quality.
Batteries are also needed for such critical military equipment as night vision devices, communications, and various manpack systems. Even devices that only draw a few watts of power could drain a battery pack within hours; thus, either considerable battery weight must be brought along or else advanced energy storage systems must be available. At present, military units that would benefit most from advanced energy storage systems include various special forces components. Special operations forces (SOF) must carry their own supplies with them, and the very significant fraction of portable weight that is taken up by batteries restricts the other equipment that SOF units can employ. Advanced battery technology, therefore, makes an important contribution to the ability of the U.S. military to employ a range of capabilities more suitable to actions at the lower end of the full range of military operations.
Japanese advanced batteries are slightly lagging U.S. capabilities, although aggressive research is improving the Japanese position. Japanese firms significantly lag in nickel-hydrogen (Ni-H2) batteries, the battery of choice for high-power spaceborne applications. The Japanese have not yet space-qualified their Ni-H2 batteries, while the United States has almost 50 satellites with Ni-H2 batteries currently on orbit. Japanese nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery R&D, a variant of the Ni-H2 technology, is pressing the world state-of-the-art, although space applications will probably not occur until the late 1990s.
European firms are slightly behind U.S. firms in battery technology. European work is dominated by the Societe des Accumulateurs Fixes et de Traction (SAFT), the battery manufacturing subsidiary of France's electronics and telecommunications conglomerate Alcatel Alsthom. SAFT is the largest alkaline battery company in the world and produces Ni-Cd rechargeable batteries for applications ranging from aerospace to electric vehicles. SAFT's technology is slightly behind that of the United States in Ni-Cd batteries as well as in Ni-H2 and Ni-MH batteries. SAFT's technology position will benefit from its purchase of two U.S. aerospace battery producers. For terrestrial systems, especially electric vehicles (EV), SAFT will improve its NiMH--the most viable mid-term alternative to lead-acid batteries for EVs-- and on the aerospace side, SAFT will get nickel-hydrogen (NiH) battery technology. Industry experts prefer NiH batteries for aerospace applications such as satellites, launch vehicles, and missiles,because of their longer cycle and shelf lives, but prefer NiMH batteries for terrestrial application because of their superior energy densities and significantly lower cost.
No single country has a clear lead in electric vehicle battery technology. However, leaders are emerging in specific battery formulations. The Japanese lead in Ni-Cd batteries is unlikely to be relinquished as they are the only ones continuing development. Ni-Cd batteries store more energy than traditional lead-acid batteries and are able to recharge at a much faster rate than any battery that the United States has been able to develop. The Japanese may also have a lead in lithium technology on the basis of their efforts in the consumer electronics industry, a pool of developers that is virtually nonexistent in the United States. In contrast, European battery R&D is focusing on less expensive sodium formulations. These batteries offer a strong hope of providing to EVs the desired range of 300 kilometers at typical highway speeds by the end of the decade.
Improved power electronics make an important contribution to job creation and economic growth by increasing efficiency of power distribution systems. The largest economic impact is on the utilities industry because improved power electronics allow the industry to efficiently manage utility grids, especially with numerous dispersed generating sources. This technology is likely to have a significant positive impact on the U.S. international trade balance because of large existing and projected world markets for power generation and distribution equipment. Power electronics are also a critical component of the "clean car," contributing to success of the PNGV and potential improvements in the worldwide position of the U.S. automobile industry.
Power electronics also have important national security applications. By contributing to better vehicles, power electronics contribute to rapid power projection capabilities and to lower casualties in conventional and unconventional conflicts.
The United States is behind in high-power, solid-state switch technology except for a few niche areas. The United States buys most of its high-power switches from foreign companies. Europe (Switzerland and the United Kingdom) and Japan lead in thyristors, Japan and Germany in insulated gate bipolar transistors, and Russia in dynistors.
In commercial markets, capacitors are an important contender for power source of clean vehicles. They are an environmentally friendly technology which may enable zero- emission vehicles, which is important to improving environmental quality, as well as to improving competitiveness of U.S. automobile manufacturers in U.S. and world markets if environmental regulation becomes stricter and more prevalent. They also contribute to a reduction in dependence on imported oil supplies. In addition, capacitor energy storage systems are being developed for systems requiring high peak power from burst mode operation, such as pulsed weapons.
The United States is the world leader in high-power capacitors, especially those suited for military applications. Capacitive energy storage is frequently used in nuclear weapon simulators and for directed energy weapon and kinetic energy weapon systems. While few other countries offer any competition, Japan and Europe (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) are doing some promising work in dielectric materials. Japan is behind the United States and is losing ground. Japanese manufacturers have produced standard quality capacitors, but have expended little effort to develop the high-energy-density capacitors required for advanced weapon systems. In several instances, Japanese laboratories have either used U.S. capacitors for their energy storage systems or purchased turnkey capacitor banks from U.S. manufacturers. U.S. developers remain dependent on Japanese suppliers for ceramic capacitors for microelectronic applications. Europe is also behind the United States and probably losing ground. The only European country doing quality capacitor research is France, and while French manufacturers are producing standard quality capacitors and are developing some high-energy-density systems, their overall efforts have not been sufficient to keep them from falling further behind the United States. This trend could be changed over time, but it would require a dedicated and significant investment of resources.
Gas turbines make a contribution to the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers in direct and indirect ways. Sales of efficient and environmentally friendly gas turbines in large and growing world markets for electric generation systems could make a positive contribution to the U.S. balance of trade. In addition, by providing U.S. manufacturers with cleaner sources of cheap energy, gas turbines increase the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers in U.S. and world markets.
Europe and Japan are slightly behind the United States in developing rotating machinery suitable for high-efficiency power generation. European gas turbine and related technologies are primarily derived from aircraft propulsion engines. France has developed and manufactured at least three airbreathing turboshaft engine models with maximum power ratings exceeding 1 MW that are ideally suited to conversion for power generation purposes. Europe is about even with the United States for larger gas turbines (100 MW to 225 MW) for grid connected combined cycle power plants. Japanese capabilities in dynamic energy conversion suitable for high-efficiency (including aerospace) applications are generally behind world-class levels. Japanese production gas turbine technology is still based heavily on foreign developments; but Japan is rapidly advancing the state-of- the-art in ceramic gas turbines. The thermal efficiencies of metal gas turbines generally do not exceed 36 percent. The Japanese hope to operate ceramic components at turbine inlet temperatures of 1350[[exclamdown]]C or more, and reach thermal efficiencies over 40-percent in a 300-KW unit. Work has also been done on developing ceramic turbine blades for multi-megawatt turbine systems. This work lags behind advanced turbine developments in the United States.
In military applications, fuel cells offer a variety of advantages including low detectability with a low noise and infrared signature, low maintenance requirements, and high energy densities in remote applications. For instance, fuel cells could prove an alternative to advanced batteries in a variety of tactical power sources. As such, they contribute to the ability of Special Operations Forces to operate in a variety of environments.
The United States is the overall world leader across a wide range of fuel cell technologies but Japan is a very strong competitor in some segments. A great deal of U.S. fuel-cell technology was initially acquired from cooperative ventures and extended significantly by Japanese firms. There are over a hundred fuel-cell plants in Japan, in the 50-kW to multi- megawatt-capacity range, producing about 40,000 kW per year (U.S. capacity is estimated at 4,500 kW). Plans are underway for a 5-MW plant using strictly Japanese technology, although the fuel-cell stacks were built through a cooperative effort with a U.S. company. Similarly, smaller fuel cells are being developed, including man-portable 250-W fuel cells adequate for ground mobile use, but not yet ready for aerospace applications. Solid oxide fuel cells are being demonstrated by Kansai Electric Power and the Osaka Gas Company; these units are, however, built in the United States by a U.S. manufacturer. Japan also trails the United States and the world leader, Canada, in advanced solid polymer fuel cells. European fuel-cell projects are highly dependent on foreign technology. Further advances are more likely through technology transfer from the United States than through indigenous R&D. The current capacity of European fuel- cell plants is estimated at 3,500 kW, with the largest being a 1-MW plant in Italy built by a U.S. manufacturer. All demonstration plants in Europe are built by either the United States or Japan, although some plants using indigenous European technology are in the R&D stage. Italy has the largest European program, followed by Germany and the Netherlands, with lesser efforts in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland.
Safer and cleaner scalable nuclear reactors, operating on non-proliferating fuel cycles, may be an important source of new electric generation capacity with reduced environmental impact for U.S. and world markets. A number of advanced nuclear reactors, now in design or development, offer significant gains in simplicity, operability, and safety over the most common light water reactors now in operation. Since nuclear reactors are in greater demand outside the U.S., next generation reactors could make a positive contribution to the U.S. trade balance.
International comparisons in reactor technology are greatly complicated by alliances and joint development efforts. Because the vast majority of current reactors are based on U.S. technology, U.S. firms have remained competitive in design services and are active members of international alliances. Westinghouse is working with Mitsubishi and GE is involved with Toshiba and Hitachi on evolutionary improvements of current systems. However, while the U.S. is preeminent in light water reactor technology, we are likely to fall behind in non-light water advanced reactors such as liquid metal reactors because of large funding cuts. Foreign efforts to develop these technologies are likely to continue although perhaps at a reduced rate as many foreign efforts involved U.S. participation.
Pulsed power supplies are critical for many military applications, including radar and other detection/targeting systems. In the absence of underground nuclear testing, pulsed electrical power supplies are critical to simulating nuclear weapons effects through the production of X-rays, particle beams, and electromagnetic pulses (EMP) under controlled conditions.
These power supplies are also of increasing importance for environmental monitoring, resource exploration, communications, and other commercial applications. Power supplies contribute to economic prosperity by contributing to distributed generation systems and providing potential new sources of energy for clean cars. While new power supply technologies will have some impact on the energy distribution equipment manufacturing industry, their biggest impact may be in the trade sector of the economy because there is a significant export market for advanced power supplies.
Russia is slightly ahead of the United States in advanced power supplies--i.e., high-energy or pulsed power supplies suitable for such applications as electronic warfare and directed energy weapon systems. Russia has long been the leader in magnetohydrodynamic research and has developed the most advanced explosive magnetohydrodynamic generators in the world. Europe and Japan are behind the world leaders overall but are at parity in some niche areas, such as switching capacitors and transformers. Europe has capabilities in all of the necessary core technologies, as well as some programs which could eventually require high energy/low mass power supplies, but catching up with the world leaders, will require substantial increases in resources. The Japanese also have some capability in most of the core technologies, but programmatic efforts are even more modest than those in Europe with R&D in switch development, energy storage, and overall power supply design generally emphasizing items needed for commercial use. The large amount of Russian technology becoming available on world markets could allow other countries to make rapid progress.
Russia and Ukraine are the world leaders in high-power microwave (HPM) generators and associated components such as pulsed-power supplies, mode converters, and antennas, as a result of several programs in radio-frequency weapons (RFW) development underway before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the disintegration of the USSR, the Soviets had a large and well-funded program in HPM technology conducted at institutes in the Russian and Ukrainian republics and were clearly the world leaders. They had built HPM generators producing record power and energy levels and had also devoted considerable resources to the development of ancillary HPM systems. Events of the past few years have resulted in a sharp curtailment of their HPM research and few new accomplishments have been reported. There is some European development of RFWs, which, if supplemented by purchase of technology from Russia or Ukraine, could be at world-class levels. Japan has only limited efforts.
To efficiently convert solar energy into power, mirrors are used as collectors to concentrate large amounts of sunlight which is then directed at a receiver, transferred into a fluid through a transport-storage system, and finally converted into power. Efficiency losses occur in each major element of the system. The collector subsystem is the most costly element of the system. There are three primary solar thermal technologies: trough systems, dish/engine systems, and power tower systems. Research in each of the three major collector designs may reduce capital costs and increase efficiency of solar thermal power generation.
Originally developed for the U.S. space program in the 1970's, photovoltaic (PV) energy systems are modular devices which absorb sunlight by photosensitive cells to produce direct current electricity (which is then generally converted to alternating current). PV offers low-maintenance, long life and zero-emission electricity production. PV systems can be of nearly any size and can be sited close to demand, cutting the need for expensive transmission and distribution equipment.
Wind turbine technologies may provide an important renewable source of new electric generation capacity with lower environmental impact for U.S. and overseas markets.
Biomass fuels or biofuels are fuels made from cellulosic biomass sources that include a substantial fraction of municipal solid waste, agricultural and forestry residues, and woody and herbaceous plants grown for production of fuels. Biomass fuels can offer lower emissions than fossil fuels and are renewable. Research on biomass fuels focuses on developing cost-effective production processes and complementary combustion or direct-current electricity conversion technologies. Biofuels now under development through the support of the DOE Biofuels Program are biodiesel, ethanol, ethers, and methanol. Biodiesel fuels are produced by hydrolyzing oils from plants to form fatty acids and glycerol. The fatty acids can in turn be reacted with alcohols to make esters. These esters have similar fuel properties to diesel fuel and are often called biodiesel. However, because biodiesel is much lower in sulfur content than conventional diesel fuel, it substantially reduces sulfur emissions. As a result, use of biodiesel alone or blended with conventional diesel fuel improves air quality. The keys to low-cost production of biodiesel are low-cost sources of oils, highly efficient technology for converting the oils to esters, and use of coproduct glycerol. Fuel diversification can not only help reduce reliance on oil imports, but it can also reduce volatility of fuel prices. The potential resource base for production of biofuels is sufficient that enough such fuels could be produced in the United States to replace all gasoline.
Renewable energy technologies can serve to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, thereby increasing national energy independence and replacing polluting electricity sources. While cost is the major barrier to their commercialization, the modularity of most of these technologies promises significant cost reductions through mass production. Their impact on competitiveness of U.S. industry would be seen mostly in the ability to sell equipment based on this emerging generation technology in world markets. Cost effective energy storage (described separately) is important to most of the renewable but intermittent energy sources such as photovoltaics and wind.
Europe and the United States are about even in solar thermal energy technology, slightly ahead of Japan. Trough systems have been commercially deployed in over 380 MWe of power plants in California; dish/engine and power tower systems are expected to see commercial deployment near the end of the century. Researchers in the U.S. generally believe that power towers will achieve lower energy costs and larger market impacts than trough systems. Dish/engine systems are more modular systems and are not likely to compete against either trough or power tower systems in the near term.
Europe is slightly ahead of the U.S. in trough systems. The intellectual property rights to the trough designs that have been commercially deployed are owned by a Belgium/Israeli firm. European R&D firms and companies have been active in pursuing a next generation trough design for direct steam generation, which could decrease the energy cost in the plants by 20 percent. While this development is in the early phases, the United States has not been doing research in this area and is behind Europe. Japan has not been an active developer of trough systems for electricity. In the dish/engine technology, Europe and the U.S. are roughly equivalent in terms of technology development. Cost-shared programs with U.S. industry are spurring development of the technology, however, and it is possible that the U.S. will gain a significant leadership position in the coming years. Japan has been active in the development of engines (one of the critical components) for dish/engine systems but lags the U.S. and Europe slightly on the total system. Developments in power towers have taken a different technology focus in the U.S. and Europe. Europe is emphasizing systems using air as the working fluid, while U.S. systems are designed using molten salt as the working fluid. A new U.S. development applying the molten-salt technology with natural gas hybrid systems using combined cycles has the potential to reduce solar energy costs by over 50 percent. The United States has a clear technology lead on the concept and has both domestic and international patents pending.
In photovoltaics, Europe is now in a strong position, principally due to the purchase of two major U.S. photovoltaic companies by multinational companies headquartered in Germany. In 1992, Siemens Solar USA purchased ARCO Solar, the world's largest photovoltaic manufacturer. Siemens Solar produces crystalline silicon products and is developing a next-generation thin-film technology. In 1994, Mobil Solar was purchased by a German group and renamed ASE Americas Inc. Mobil Solar had a twenty-year history of developing a crystalline silicon technology with good performance and potentially low cost. The remaining U.S. photovoltaic companies are still strong in crystalline silicon technologies and especially strong in thin-film photovoltaic technologies, considered to be the most promising photovoltaic technology. The United States leads in concentrator technologies, but this market is small and confined to areas with extremely high solar resources. Japan continues to slightly lag the United States in photovoltaic technologies. Japan remains the leading producer of thin film photovoltaic cells used in consumer products such as solar cell calculators but their technical strengths in crystalline silicon technologies, which make up 96 percent of the world's photovoltaic products, continues to lag behind that of the United States. Japan also lags the United States in photovoltaic concentrator technologies, although the sales of this technology are still negligible.
Europe is slightly ahead of the United States in wind turbine technology, while Japanese researchers, with more modest R&D programs, lag behind the world leaders in innovative turbine designs. The effort to reduce the cost of wind turbines in the United States led most government-funded research and turbine developments toward light-weight, flexible rotors, such as two-bladed teetered rotors, developed commercially by four U.S. companies in the early 1980s (Boeing, Westinghouse, ESI, and Carter Wind Turbines). Europeans pursued a more mature, low-speed, heavy, structurally inefficient, three-bladed-rotor technology. Today, most European turbine manufacturers are developing light-weight, structurally efficient, three-bladed rotors in intermediate size ranges. For the larger sizes (500 kW and greater), there is a strong trend toward two-bladed-rotor technology. Because of the strong market for wind turbines in Europe and the need for larger turbines (due to the lack of real estate), Europe could quickly gain more experience than the United States in this area.
The trend in both Europe and the United States in wind turbine power generation equipment is toward variable-speed drives (using power electronics) and direct-drive generators. The variable-speed drive improves energy production and electrical power quality while reducing aerodynamic noise emissions. Direct-drive generators would eliminate the need for expensive, maintenance-prone gearboxes. While a U.S. firm has developed a sophisticated power electronics system, the Europeans are ahead in the quantity and variety of turbines using variable-speed drives. The Japanese have not yet deployed a commercial, variable-speed turbine. Europeans have deployed one commercial turbine using a direct-drive generator, and several others are near deployment. Two U.S. manufacturers are considering them and one component manufacturer has begun a government-funded development program.
The United States leads the world in developing airfoils for wind turbines. These developments have dramatically increased energy production and fundamentally changed the way turbine blades are designed. Many European wind turbine research organizations are now developing wind turbine airfoils and it is likely that the United States will lose its edge as the technology becomes familiar to other countries.
Europe is slightly ahead of the United States in biofuels. European firms are world leaders in the commercial application of biodiesel fuels, a promising low sulfur alternative to conventional diesel fuel. A number of European sites now produce over 32 million gallons of biodiesel annually and there are plans in place to produce more than 200 million gallons in a few years. However, the price of the biodiesel is much higher than for conventional diesel because high-cost conventional plant oils are being used in response to pressure from the agricultural sector, glycerol is not used effectively, and the conversion technology is new and applied at a small scale. Overall, the Europeans are positioned as the leaders in commercial application of biodiesel technology, albeit at a noncompetitive cost that requires government tax incentives.
The Japanese are well positioned for large-scale cultivation of algae to provide low-cost biomass sources. Nevertheless, the United States leads in biotechnology R&D for enhancing yields of biodiesel from low-cost microalgal sources. A number of promising microalgae strains have been isolated for producing low-cost oil and genetic engineering techniques are being applied to enhance the oil content from the 5- to 10-percent levels that typically occur to over 60 percent. Because microalgae require carbon dioxide to support growth and can efficiently take up this important greenhouse gas, the Japanese are funding substantial programs directed at developing approaches to capture carbon dioxide released from power plants.
The United States is the leader in ethanol production from biomass. Currently, fuel ethanol is made from cane sugar in Brazil and plant starch in the United States, but the price of these food materials is too high to allow ethanol to compete with gasoline without subsidies. The United States has made significant advances in the technologies, reducing the projected cost of production by about two thirds since 1980. An additional 50 percent reduction should make ethanol competitive with gasoline from oil at $25/barrel. Europe has some small programs and limited areas of expertise. Austria is working on pretreatment and enzyme production approaches to reduce processing costs, Finland has expertise in enzyme technology that could be important to commercializing ethanol from biomass processes, and Sweden has extensive experience in utilization of ethanol in vehicles and some small projects on ethanol production from biomass.