March 12, 2007 9:45 AM PDT

GE chief: All engines go for alternative energy

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Rising energy demand worldwide and environmental concerns have made investments in energy technologies the most compelling in decades, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt says.

Immelt was the keynote speaker on Saturday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Energy 2.0 Conference, where he asserted that the energy industry is becoming more diverse because of improving economics and societal changes.

He also detailed the strategy behind the industrial giant's varied activities in the energy and environment area, which range from oil and gas exploration to wind power to water purification.

Jeffrey Immelt
Credit: News.com
Jeffrey Immelt,
General Electric CEO

"We are looking at a time when technology and innovation in the energy sector can finally have a value, where innovation can be priced in a way that the industry hasn't seen in a long time," Immelt said.

He also noted that the energy industry and public policy has changed very little in the last 25 years.

That's because volatile fossil fuel prices have made long-term investments hard to finance. Also, there has been a "societal expectation that (energy) is a God-given right," making it difficult for the market to put a value on it, he said.

But that dynamic has been changing, Immelt argued. A forecast for consistently high demand, particularly from India and China, means that energy prices will stay high in the coming decades, giving corporations and entrepreneurs a more sound basis for investments.

"There's every reason to think that the world really has changed and that the investment horizon...is a different one today, where market signals (indicate) you might get a return for the risk you take," he said.

Another significant change is people's view toward the environment, Immelt said.

Environmentalism as the norm
Environmental advocacy used to be done on the fringes, often in conflict with corporations and governments. Now, there is interest in conserving natural resources among businesses, citizens and politicians of all parties, he said.

"Environmental thinking is no longer the purview of isolated, far-left thought. It is now a mainstream economic discussion. It is pervasive in almost every country in the world," Immelt said.

GE's environmental technologies are perhaps the most high-profile example of a growing boom in alternative energies and so-called green technologies.

Photos: Green tech in focus at MIT Energy 2.0 conference

Its Ecomagination initiative, launched in 2005 under Immelt's direction, aims to capitalize on environmental problems. Activities touch on everything from specialized materials for solar cells to more energy-efficient home appliances and train engines.

The results of Ecomagination so far have been "amazing," he said. The company has been able to lower its greenhouse gas emissions 1 percent for the last few years, employees feel engaged in the effort, and the company is on track to increase its revenue in this sector by 10 percent yearly for decades, he said.

The initiative stemmed from a review in 2004 in which the company spoke to 500 customers and saw a great deal of interest in environmental investments, Immelt said.

"The conclusion we came to is that global warming is a fact. We are very dispassionate about it," Immelt said.

Until now, technologies to address global warming and other environmental problems have been "by and large, lazy," he added.

Financial stake in renewable energy
GE's revenue from renewable energy--wind, solar and biomass--will be $7 billion in 2007. Five years ago, when it began ramping up investments, revenue was $5 million. Research and development dedicated to energy overall is about $2.5 billion per year.

Even with GE's financial stake in renewable energy, Immelt said that the company continues to invest in fossil fuel-related equipment with the potential to be used at a large scale worldwide.

"Hydrocarbons will be the dominant fuel source for the next 50 years," he said. "We are going to our installed base to try to make technologies around hydrocarbons more efficient, more effective and more pervasive."

GE makes $20 billion a year in power generation and $7 billion a year in exploration.

The company is making big bets in coal gasification--the process of converting coal to synthetic gas, which should burn cleaner--and the modernization of nuclear power plants.

Coal is highly polluting but is relatively abundant worldwide and entrenched in the power generation industry. As a result, Immelt said, GE is investing in gasification and sequestration--the process of storing carbon dioxide from burned coal underground or underwater.

Immelt said GE is expecting that greenhouse gas emissions, which includes carbon dioxide, will become regulated. The company was a founding member of United Climate Action Partnership, an organization of corporations and environmental groups calling for federal policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

GE's portfolio approach of investing in several energy technologies mirrors the changing energy investment picture overall, Immelt said.

"If I had to bet on one fuel source, I don't know what I'd do. I'd be frozen," he said. "The fact is that capitalism and entrepreneurialism will solve these societal problems."

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13 comments

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Its Ecomagination initiative -- Ecomaginantion Exists
I've been actively pursuing renewable energy since 1979 -- even doing sustainable things when I directed the FSU Institute for Future -- just "ahead of my time" -- but didn't belong in Chemistry -- my colleagues thought -- and how wrong they were.

It's "nice" that the BP's and Exxon's and other 'Capitan's' of U. S. industry have thrown dollar's to help solve 'global anthropogenic related problems' -- but those dollars need to focus on what can be done -- and that starts with the horrible -- seemingly anti-business word -- Conserve!

Regarding growing biomass for energy purposes -- a process already exist -- that turns cellulose into renewable nature gas -- a vehicle, engine and everything power fuel -- that has a very, very important co-product -- without waste products or negative environmental impacts -- a valuable soil-amendment -- organic fertilizer. I can send you loads of stuff on this aspect of the process. Equally importantly, the biomass is not burned.

The places that such can be done on a large scale -- economically and without negative impacts on the soil or the environment are tropical or semi-tropical. Further, a study published more than 30 years ago in India, required -- even for the fastest growing plants -- that ground water was not affected; such was when annual rainfall averaged near 60" per year. There are lots and lots of places in the tropics and sub-tropics equal to that or even vastly greater than that amount of rainfall -- trouble is that most of you live in the western and northern areas where such is not the case -- that amount of rainfall is equal to or exceeded in most of Florida.

Best, Dick
Dick Glick, PhD
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Phone: 850-942-2022
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<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://wire0.ises.org/entry.nsf/E?Open&#38;project&#38;00031306" target="_newWindow">http://wire0.ises.org/entry.nsf/E?Open&#38;project&#38;00031306</a>
Posted by dglickdr (5 comments )
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The fuel of the future
Is hydorgen driving an internal combustion engine. We could do this NOW not in fifty years or any time like that. I like electric vehicles but they have to improve the fuel cell or the battery for this to happen. Of course we could improve the electric motor design. I have, and I'm waiting for my patent.
Posted by Richie (21 comments )
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Alternative energy is a joke that's 30 years old.
Alternative energy is a joke that's 30 years old. Wind power is too intermittent. Solar power doesn't produce enough energy. Ethanol is a huge consumer rip-off. Nuclear power is the only one that makes sense.
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
Reply Link Flag
maybe old but it's still has its' place
It's not a joke, taken together, these alternatives certainly are worthwhile contributors to reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Given the exorbitant capital cost of building nuclear power plants (along with other negatives of nuclear), it's not a solution that can be quickly and readily implemented. Solar, wind, bio-fuels can make quick incremental contributions.
Posted by oxtail01 (308 comments )
Link Flag
geothermal
geothermal produces more power now than all other "alternatives" combined. geothermal can make as much electricity as we are willing to pay for. The only issue is "how much". In many areas geothermal can make electricity cheaper than coal or gas. Most new geothermal plants will have to dig deeper, that increases costs. The price of oil and gas will eventually make geothermal "cheap" enough to justify the costs of drilling to hot rock deeper down.
Posted by random753 (17 comments )
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I agree. GeoThermal is underutilized....
We live on one of the most powerful generators and don't fully utilize it. Where there is heat there is energy, the magic is converting it to energy as we know and use it.
Their are other sources of wasted heat such as that from an inefficient fuel converters (car engine, electric motors) yet no one en masse is trying to recapture that energy.
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Link Flag
reality
Hydrogen is not a "fuel". Hydrogen is more like electricity because we have to use a fuel to make it.
hydrogen does not exist in nature without being bonded to something else. We can use electricity to break the bond between hydrogen and oxygen in water but it takes more electric power than the hydrogen will yield.

I think electric cars will become more common in the future even if there is no progress in battery design simply because they use much less energy. I doubt very much that hydrogen will be involved.

If we are going to use internal combustion engines in the future they will most likely be diesels. We can make the fuel oil from soybeans grown on farms (known as biofuels ) or keep pumping it from the ground. It will always be cheaper and cleaner to burn biofuels than hydrogen.

Co2 is not a problem with biofuels because the plants remove CO2 from the air as they grow, and it is returned to the air as it burns. The cost of making biodiesel is about 2 dollars per gallon. The issue is how much farmland can we devote to fuel.
Posted by random753 (17 comments )
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hydrogen doesn't exist in nature?
Did you forget about that huge ball of light you see in he sk every day crackhead? You may have heard of it, it's commonly known as the SUN. Guess what ? it's made of ... you guessed it . naturally occuring HYDROGEN. LIKE ELECTRICITY MY ASS this is the first time i ever heard someone equate an element of matter with the flow of an electron stream.
Posted by nuckelhedd (70 comments )
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Another idea
Perhaps another idea I have not seen expressed.
Look at Hawaii State Tree the Candle Nut Tree.

Its nuts are 15 to 20% oil thats simmilar to kerosene. It would make a good supplement to existing alternatives.
Posted by reustle (37 comments )
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Did GE forget that it does Nuclear?
GE is agnostic on energy. It makes everything so it matters not which technology is bought. For the rest of us, it does matter. We can choose to send our paycheck to alternative energy providers, or we can send our kids to college.

Nuclear power is the benchmark. France has the lowest carbon footprint of any industrial nation and is the world's largest exporter of electricity because 75% comes from nuclear power plants.

Judged against real world benchmarks at total generation costs of five cents a KWH, solar cells generating electricity, for example, have not made an honest dollar on net. An honest dollar is a profit turned in competition with the real world without subsidies. It is interesting that so many are willing to put so much faith in things that deliver so little at such high costs.

It is good that Mr. Immelt says all the right things concerning alternative energy so that GE will get good press.

It would be more helpful, however, if Mr. Immelt would also pay attention to the facts obvious within his own corporation. If you are serious about reducing CO2 and you want a modern industrial society and you want to send your kids to college, support your local nuclear power plant.
Posted by ed_dykes (9 comments )
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I have a great idea!
Let's make fuel from people! Hmm soylent fuel.
Posted by zeroplane (286 comments )
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Ecomagination is green washing
This article is press release, not news. CNet is eroding the standards of journalism by acting as the loud-speaker to GE's corporate message. GE is attempting to paint its dirty operations a shade of green.

Yes, GE is at least addressing the issues confronting us in an energy-constrained future. GE deserves some credit for that.

But, GE is currently spending lots of money to erode proposed efficiency standards for locomotive engines. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.cooleremail.net/users/betterworld/GO_gNews2007February.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.cooleremail.net/users/betterworld/GO_gNews2007February.html</a>

The article also says GE is "thrilled" with the results of its Ecomagination drive that has seen the company reduce greenhouse gases 1% the last several years. ARE YOU KIDDING??!? One percent is a laughable achievement. Reductions on the order of 5-10% annually are needed. GE could and should do more.

Finally, "clean coal" is an oxymoron of the "pollution free hydrogen car" magnitude. Sequestering carbon and pumping it into an acquifer or depleted oil well will cause serious environmental damage. Instead of acid rain, we'll turn our filtered acquifers into giant lakes of acid. This is truly the power of Ecomagination.
Posted by IvanONeill (1 comment )
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