So far, the relationships between big energy companies and alternative energy technologies have been a lot like the marriages that unite Hollywood stars. Begun amid lofty promise and swooning media attention, all too often they soon descend into dysfunction and divorce.
Take two companies that "tied the knot" with alternative energy ventures following the 1973 oil shock, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an embargo that sent world prices soaring. Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. embraced photovoltaics, only to dump the projects when oil prices crashed and OPEC's power waned a decade later.
Five years ago, oil giant British Petroleum parlayed its corporate abbreviation into a catchphrase promise to go "Beyond Petroleum," having acquired a sizable photovoltaics subsidiary. But two years later, it ditched production of the next-generation thin-film photovoltaic panels it had been developing, abandoning a key effort to finally make solar cells widely affordable--and raising further doubts as to whether it would be moving beyond petroleum any time soon.
Now, into this boulevard of broken marriages comes General Electric Co., a pioneer of the fossil-fired and nuclear technologies that powered the 20th century--but also, thanks to a legacy of pollution stemming from its use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a symbol of corporate denial. After largely ignoring alternative energy for most of its existence, GE has jumped in headfirst.
Over the past five years, the company, based in Fairfield, Conn., has begun manufacturing wind turbines and photovoltaics, invested in hydrogen fuel cells, and become a leader in the development of gasification equipment that could double the efficiency of coal-fired power plants and even capture their greenhouse gases. Pulling all those strands together in a high-profile speech delivered in Washington, D.C., on 9 May, GE's chief executive, Jeffrey R. Immelt, unfurled what the company is calling its "ecomagination" initiative. Immelt described it as "a growth strategy, driven by our belief that applying technology to solving problems is good business....We are launching ecomagination not because it is trendy or moral but because it will accelerate our growth and make us more competitive."
Immelt called on the U.S. government as well to take a stronger lead on energy and the environment, including global warming. "America is the leading consumer of energy. However, we are not the technical leader," Immelt complained. "Europe today is the major force for environmental innovation." By focusing on wind, solar energy, and advanced coal technologies, GE plans to start changing that.
One of GE's new 3.6-megawatt wind turbines, off the coast of Arklow, Ireland, is part of a 25-MW installation owned and operated by GE Energy as a demonstration of the technology.