Why companies like PPL, Talen and UGI are banking their future on renewable energy

Melina Rizzo, Contributing Writer//May 18, 2021

Why companies like PPL, Talen and UGI are banking their future on renewable energy

Melina Rizzo, Contributing Writer//May 18, 2021

Could combining wind turbines with oceans and waterways, reclaiming natural gases such as methane and more widespread use of solar technology be renewable energy’s next frontier?

The drive to convert Industrial Age legacy dependence on fossil fuels like coal to clean and sustainable alternative energy resources is being fueled by voters, driven by political mandates and embraced by new technology innovators and energy generation companies.

“The change in how humans are going to behave or adapt to what I call global warming and resources opening up” could revolutionize how we create and use energy to power daily life, said Arindham Banerjee, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

During his first days in office President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement (climate accord) and pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to half the 2005 level by 2030, according to whitehouse.gov.

Banerjee teaches Lehigh students to look at hydroelectric power generation – a historically ancient method for creating power to run equipment and complete tasks, in cutting-edge ways. Twenty-first century hydroelectric energy may combine wind turbines with ocean and tidal energy movement to power large scale power grids and reduce carbon emissions.

Building devices into a river that could capture energy from the river flow would be an ideal application, Banerjee said.

New sustainable energy practices could create clean manufacturing jobs, boost a battered post COVID-19 economy by about $1.7 trillion and add more than a half million new jobs annually, according to a Forbes.com report.

Nearly 100% of Iceland’s power comes from renewable hydro and geothermal sources, according to the United Nations website. While Iceland sits in a unique position with respect to natural resources, and may not work for a country the size of the U.S., Banerjee said much can be learned from the island nation’s commitment to clean energy.

High population densities in U.S. coastal areas could create a prime application for water/wind farm generation, where U.S. populations are most dense, Banerjee said.

According to the American GEO Sciences Institute website, creating turbine wind farms offshore can dramatically increase the efficiency of wind power. Wind power created by water currents can be converted to usable electricity.

“The industry is trying to level up tech that will assist in making sure [wind turbines] are stable, operate all the time and can sustain some of the hundred year storms that occur at sea,” Banerjee said.

Floating turbines are one solution, as are cabling systems rooted to the ocean floor – though ocean depth escalates costs and risks to the turbines.
Wind power platform rigs similar to those used in the oil industry could be another option for placing turbine equipment.

In addition to upfront costs, equipment must be able to withstand wear and tear and operate for at least 20 years at sea or along inland tidal waters.

While the engineering challenges required to create adequately-sized ocean or waterway wind farms needed to power the east coast’s grid are massive, the impact of harvesting renewable energy from 20 miles offshore could be substantial – and game changing, Banerjee said.

PPL in Allentown has committed to reduce its 2010 carbon emissions by at least 70% by 2040, and 80% by 2050, said Christine Martin, PPL vice president of public affairs and sustainability.

“We are investing in our grid to enable increased electrification and large-scale additions of distributed energy resources… supporting the growth of technologies like solar power, energy storage and electric vehicles,” Martin said.

Implementing smart grid technology has been “essential in aiding the transition to a net-zero future,” she said.

Along with retiring coal-fired generation plants, PPL is investing in clean technology to further reduce emissions.

“Collectively, the U.S. electric power sector’s carbon emissions are at their lowest level in more than 40 years and continue to fall,” Martin said “Our industry can be part of the solution to reduce emissions in other industries.”

Talen Energy in Allentown, an independent power producer, plans to convert wholly-owned coal facilities to natural gas, or oil with renewable energy and battery storage “co-located around them,” said Taryne Williams, Talen media and communications manager.

“Talen will be constructing two 20 megawatt (MW) solar installations on closed coal ash basins around the retired Holtwood (Lancaster County) and Sunbury (Northumberland County), coal plants, which were owned and operated by Talen’s predecessor company,” Williams said.

Talen was spun off by PPL in 2015 to become an independent company.
Both of these solar projects have expected operation dates by the end of the year.

“We are excited about these projects because they will help turn what is currently limited-use land into space that produces renewable, solar power for the grid,” she said.

Installing the solar arrays would maintain their environmental integrity on the former coal ash basins, reinventing the land for a new energy use, she said.

In addition to converting the coal ash basins, sulfur dioxide from flue exhaust is being captured and used to produce gypsum, a component of wallboard, also known as Sheetrock, used in the construction industry.

Fly ash and related coal combustion by-products from its plants at Brunner Island in York Haven and Brandon Shores in Curtis Bay, Maryland, are being used in the cement industry and for other manufacture engineered products.

Other uses for landfill ash as a construction material aggregate, as well as rare earth elements (RRE) from ash to manufactured products or components for use in electronics, renewable energy technologies and military hardware are also being explored, Williams said.

At UGI Corporation, solar field operations and renewable natural gases or RNGs open the door to additional sustainable clean energy resources.
Methane from landfills, farming operation byproducts and sewage treatment plants can be reclaimed and converted to RNGs also generally known as biogas.

“It [these gases] can be cleaned and made available for customer use,” said Keith G. Dorman, UGI Corporation vice president, communications and community relations – Natural Gas in Denver, Lancaster County.

The firm’s goal is to lower direct carbon emissions 55 percent over the next five years, he said.

UGI announced a partnership with Global Common Energy to develop renewable biogas at Spruce Haven Farm, a dairy farm in Cayuga County, New York, in a May 4, 2021 press release.

“These projects also provide the dairies (many family-owned and operated) with financial support by monetizing a former waste stream,” said Robert J. Foxen, president of Global Common Energy in the press release.

The target project completion date is sometime in 2022.

“It’s a rapidly evolving environment. I think it’s where energy companies have been early investors in new sources,” Dorman said.