ElectraTherm tapping waste heat market

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Nearly five years ago, ElectraTherm was a fledgling company founded by a former drag racer who toyed with the idea from his Carson City garage of capturing the wasted heat from car engines.

Five years later, the Carson City-based company is beginning to see its efforts pay off, said president and CFO Steve Olson.

ElectraTherm is planning to hire 15 people in the next few months, including welders, engineers and salespeople, Olson said. The company will consolidate its corporate office and manufacturing plant, currently in Mound House, within the next year, relocating somewhere in Northern Nevada, possibly Carson City.

ElectraTherm now employs 33 people who construct the so-called "green machine," a 5-by-5-by-6 foot green box that weighs 4,440 pounds. It converts heat, be it hot water from an industrial engine or a geothermal vent, into steam to turn a generator, which ultimately pumps out 50 kilowatts of electricity, or enough to power 22 2,000-square-foot homes.

So far, the company has sold six units, each with a $125,000 price tag, with another 22 orders to fill, Olson said. Depending on the price of energy, a customer that uses one of the machines - usually in the industrial sector - also can expect to have it paid off in energy savings in two to four years.

"We've sold a handful of units over the past 18 months," Olson said. "But there's been a real acceleration in the development and interest in the technology over the last couple of years because of the rising cost of electricity and fuel and because more attention has been paid to greenhouse gases and climate change."

And that interest has led to nearly $10 million in investments since 2005, including a $5.4 million infusion which the company announced on Nov. 9 after completing a field test at Southern Methodist University for its machine.

ElectraTherm is among a handful of companies making their way into the largely untapped waste heat energy market that has the potential to contribute about one-fifth of the United States's electrical generating capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

That would be enough to replace 400 coal-fired power plants.

The DOE also estimates about 60 percent of all energy generated in the United States is wasted as lost heat, sent to dissipate in the atmosphere instead of powering a hospital or an iPod.

But whether the waste heat energy market ever skyrockets is still up for speculation, especially given varied state laws that govern power generation and the economics of utility companies, energy experts say.

The nascent industry has attracted entrepreneurs of all colors, from small companies such as ElectraTherm that seek to offset larger energy costs, to outfits such as Westmont, Ill., based Recycled Energy Development that deals in the megawatts rather than the kilowatts.

In 2008, RED inked a deal with silicon producer West Virginia Alloys for $95 million to retrofit its plant with technology to capture heat from its furnaces and convert it into 45 megawatts of electricity. When completed sometime next year, the energy savings from the captured-heat-turned-electricity would be the equivalent of removing about 207,000 cars from the road.

"It's got this great optimism, there are massive opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide," said Sean Caston, president and CEO of RED. "On the other hand it's not without its political challenges."

And those political challenges are varied by state, said R. Neal Elliott, the associate director for research at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington, D.C.

"We're still largely functioning in a regulatory environment that was created in the 1930s," Elliott said. "We're starting to see that evolve and it's different in every state, which is another problem."

For example, in many states it is still not possible to practice "net metoring," which is when a electricity consumer feeds energy back into the power grid by producing it himself through solar, wind or geothermal generation. The option is availabe in Nevada.

But given the many technological challenges and economic pressures on utility companies, such as the price of paying for the infrastructure to transfer electricity over swaths of land to millions of people, that day isn't here yet, which could be a hindrance to the waste heat energy market, Elliott said.

Still, more and more entrepreneurs, such as ElectraTherm, are entering the market, Caston said.

"The regulatory barriers are falling," he said. "They haven't fallen all the way, but they're coming down and they are the pacing item."

Using waste heat isn't a novel concept. Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station in New York City, a coal power plant built in 1882, distributed its excess heat through the city's steam pipes to heat buildings.

"His initial vision was to use that for district heating and that district heating system is sill heating Manhattan, it's steam," Olson said. "But as things evolved and more coal plants were built nobody wanted them in their neighborhoods so they moved out away from the cities so you had no chance to support that steam to make use of it."

Now ElectraTherm is trying to find its niche in this growing, but still uncertain waste heat market and renewable energy market.

"It's inevitable," Olson said of the United State's transition to renewable sources of energy. "What the exact mix is going to be I don't think anybody knows. But I'm confident that our product has economics that stand on their own."


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