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Energy Grab
How to Keep Your Head on Straight While Solving the Energy Puzzle

It's not easy to think about energy in a clear and contemplative way while standing in the shadow of a gas pump that appears to be morphing into a one-armed bandit from one fill-up to the next.  But our petrol-economic dismay is all the more reason to think long, hard and carefully about our relationship with the stuff that literally makes our lives possible.  While each trip to the pump may be more painful than the last, it is important to bear in mind that scarcity of fuel supply does not necessarily equate with scarcity of energy resources.  The truth is we’re swimming in energy resources.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that they’re harder to get and more people want them.  Consequently, the days of cheap energy are over.

In light of the situation’s complexity, we need a methodical way to think about the real value of energy.  Fortunately for Pennsylvania, energy is fundamental to our cultural heritage.  Hearkening back to the European settlement of North America, for almost three centuries, Pennsylvania has been a proverbial promised land of energy resources.  Rivers and streams to power mill races; abundant forests for wood heat and charcoal; and the liquid, solid and gaseous fossil residues from the time before the Appalachians and Alleghenies were mountains, all enabled the civilization, industrialization and technologization of the greatest nation the world has ever known.  In response to an abundance of indigenous energy resources, Pennsylvania’s inhabitants became highly adept at extracting energy in its various forms.  Consequent of that adeptness, today Pennsylvania's energy wealth resides in large part in the talent, intelligence and ingenuity of its energy professionals whose predecessors dug coal from the foot of Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington during the Revolutionary War, struck oil at Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, and built the first nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957, as well as those today who operate the largest underground coal mine in the world, while others work feverishly to get us out of our current predicament.


But congratulations aside, as a practical matter how should those of us who make regular trips to the gas pump think about energy today?    Michael Quah, executive director of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a technology think-tank and testing facility in Johnstown, Pennsylvania insists on a "systems-in-systems" approach.  "Right now we have a fragmented view of energy," he said.  "We really need to look at it at a higher systems level.”

Looking at our current situation from a satellite-orbit systems-in-systems perspective: Planet Earth is becoming increasingly populated, warmer and depleted of mineral resources.  As a result of centuries of successful mineral extraction, today throughout the world, remaining deposits of coal, crude and natural gas are less abundant, more diffuse and less disposed to bursting forth or bubbling to the surface than ever before. In short, it takes more energy to get the energy we need to sustain our lives.

Coming down to the fifty-thousand-foot level, other countries around the world, such as Brazil, India and China are beginning to compete with the United States and Europe for energy resources, pushing prices up.

To complicate things even more, at twenty thousand feet greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity are now accepted as a principal cause of global warming, thereby putting fossil fuels in the awkward and embarrassing position of having to dispose of their CO2 before spewing it into the atmosphere, an undertaking that is likely to increase the dollar cost, if not the social costs, of energy even more.

On the ground, while energy fever runs rampant, it is clear that we are running short of neither energy resources nor of new ideas about them.  Resources and ideas like: the two thirds of oil and gas that primary extraction methods leave behind, oil shale, tar sands, biomass, biofuels, clean coal, coal bed methane, enhanced oil recovery, nuclear fusion, solar, wind, coal liquefaction and gasification, fuel from waste, multiple borehole and directional drilling, hydrogen fuel cells, corn and cellulosic ethanol, carbon capture and sequestration… The list goes off the page to the extraction of methane hydrates from coastal seabeds; massive hypothetical coal measures in Alaska and; the solar electrolysis of water for hydrogen production.  And last but not least, conservation.

The impending convergence of increasing global energy consumption, decreasing fuel resources and global warming tends to provoke the use of metaphors like Train Wreck, Hurricane, and Road to Ruin among energy aficionados. 


The idea of using energy to get energy is key to thinking about energy in a productive way.  Kenneth Kern, Director of the Office of Systems, Analysis and Planning at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Bruceton, Pennsylvania says, “As you continue extract minerals it requires more and more energy.  In 2008 with oil at $115 a barrel there's a lot of oil that wasn't affordably extractable at $50 or $60 a barrel in 2007.”

Gerald Holder, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School energy program focuses on supply and demand: “When the price goes up it makes more resources available.  But it also makes other technologies, like solar and wind more competitive.”

Daniel Desmond, Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Office of Environmental Protection’s Office of Energy Technology Deployment couches the same principle in terms of return on investment: “We're facing colossal increases in electric rates when the rate caps lift in a couple of years across Pennsylvania.  With increasing energy costs, whether it is energy conservation for new construction or a major retrofit, meeting the LEEDs energy efficiency standards makes return on investment only half or a quarter of what it would have been only a few years ago.”

John Hanger of the environmental advocacy organization, Penn Future makes the case in alarming economic terms.  “The real game-changer is that fossil fuels don't work for our economy any longer,” he said.  “Importing sixty percent of our oil is one thing economically when it costs $20 a barrel. At $110 a barrel we are shipping overseas close to half a trillion dollars a year.”


To clarify thinking about energy, CTC’s Dr. Quah uses a diet analogy, a term with which everybody identifies.  “We use two forms of energy,” he said.  “Our electron diet.  And our mobility diet. We are only ten percent dependent on foreign sources for our electron diet, the power we get from electricity.  So if we conserve on our electron diet, we can be independent very soon.  For our mobility diet, we are sixty percent dependent on foreign sources.  So energy independence really means vehicle fuels.” 

That sixty percent represents a set of serious liabilities to our physical and economic security.   NETL’s Kern commented: “When we’re reliant on our liquid fuel supply to the tune of fifty-five to sixty percent imports we're very susceptible to our economy being held hostage to not just below-ground issues with production but also above-ground political issues as we saw in 1973 and 1978.”

In the absence of a coherent national energy plan to mitigate the threat of functional and economic upheavals, the task has fallen to the states, of which Pennsylvania has emerged as a leader.  DEP’s Desmond asserts, “Pennsylvania is not disposed to be on the receiving end of global changes. We are determined to grow Pennsylvania's economy by relying more and more on our indigenous resources, everything from coal to biomass to renewables.  The Rendell administration has brought manufacturing jobs into Pennsylvania, focusing on alternative energy and green manufacturing technology.  We have established leadership that we would very much like to see emulated at the federal level.”


Inasmuch as Pennsylvania still has more than 500 million tons of recoverable coal reserves, it comes as little surprise that NETL’s Kern is strong proponent of clean coal technology.  “Carbon capture and sequestration is going to have to come into play if we're going to keep coal in the mix,” he said. 

Although captured carbon dioxide is being sold and utilized as a pressurization medium to improve oil recovery in wells that are past their prime, sequestration of CO2 at a massive scale deep in the earth has not yet been proven.  In an effort to ascertain the viability of deep geologic carbon sequestration, NETL and its parent, the U.S. Department of Energy, are currently soliciting private sector proposals for the incorporation of sequestration technologies into coal-fired power plants that are now on the drawing board.

Taking another approach to the problem, Carbon Trap, Inc. a Penn State spinout is developing a high-speed method of mineralizing carbon dioxide by reacting it with magnesium-rich serpentine rock to form a carbonate material very much the way nature converts CO2 into rock, teeth, bones and seashells over hundreds of years.  Fortuitously, serpentine rock occurs frequently on the eastern and western coasts of North America, where the majority of electricity consumption is located.  The process, which uses what would otherwise be parasitic heat from fossil fuel combustion to promote the chemical reaction, yields a material that is likely to be valuable as fertilizer.

On yet another track, scientists at NETL have been working on a way to remove some of the CO2 already in the air while capturing and sequestering carbon during the coal-to-liquid synthesis process, in which coal is gasified before being converted to a liquid.  “The idea is to take biomass and gasify it along with coal,” Ken Kern said.  “Because the biomass carbon is composed of CO2 from photosynthesis, you’re taking CO2 from the air and putting it in long-term underground storage, at the same time you're making liquid fuel for US energy security in a favorable environmental way.”


At Penn State University, agricultural engineers, biochemists, materials scientists and genetic engineers are collaborating to find ways to capture solar energy stored in plants.  Dr. Tom Richard, Director of Penn State's Biomass Energy Center, explained in an interview, "Cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin are the stuff of cell walls in plants.  The first two, cellulose and hemicellulose, are sugars and, like all sugars, can be fermented and distilled into alcohol which can then be converted into ethanol and other liquid fuels.  But in order to get at the sugars, the lignin has to be broken away.  Lignin is like a ‘girdle’ that holds a plant's cellulose and hemicellulose in place.  We're working on lignin digesting bacteria and enzymes from the guts of lignin-digesting insects like termites to break the lignin away from the plant sugars," he said.  "Some of our genetic engineers have developed plants without lignin.  The problem is without that structural support the plants fall over."

Craig Sweger, agricultural program director for the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence foresees logistical problems for biomass energy production.  “A fifty-million gallon cellulosic ethanol plant is going to take about two thousand tons of switch grass every day, day in and day out.  So the area you're harvesting it from has to be relatively close in order to be able to economically transport the feedstock to a centralized processing plant.”   Since the majority of U.S. coal reserves are in the western states where large quantities of biomass may be grown relatively close to a coal-to-liquids plant, co-firing coal and biomass to produce liquid fuels stands a chance of becoming the green technology of choice for future mobility fuels.


On the nuclear energy side of the picture, Dr. Jack Brenizer, Chair of Nuclear Engineering at Penn State looks at energy from a large-scale perspective.  “Our whole society is based on safe, reliable, steady power,” he said.  “Two things that change the equation between fossil fuels and nuclear today are the rapidly rising cost of fossil fuels, both gas and oil, and the possibility that some regulation such as a carbon tax will come into play, which will also affect coal.”

Following a three-decades long hiatus, nuclear power generation is undergoing a resurgence, both in the United States and abroad.   In response to increased world demand for nuclear power plants, Westinghouse Nuclear is building a new facility in Cranberry, Pennsylvania where it plans to employ 2,000 workers.


At the other end of the size scale, solar and wind are growing rapidly.  Richard Rosey of Solar Power Industries in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania reports strong growth in photovoltaic solar cells.  “The market grew last year at an astronomical seventy percent,” Rosey said.  “We are doubling our capacity this year, again next year and the year after that.  Pennsylvania has great incentives for solar which could result in up to 800 megawatts of solar being deployed within a few years.” 

Despite his enthusiasm for solar power in Pennsylvania, Rosey reports, “Roughly ninety-five percent of our sales are in Europe or China.  Unfortunately the federal government hasn’t stepped up the way other governments have stepped up to promote incentives.” 

Similarly, Timothy Vought, of wind energy company, Gamesa Energy USA, cites legislative and regulatory uncertainty as obstacles to the growth of wind energy in the United States.  “Traditional energy sources are receiving federal subsidies even though they're well established, while wind energy which is trying to become established, is not receiving an equivalent amount,” Vought said.  “The federal government has been renewing the production tax credit in short increments.  It's set to expire this year and some people are not willing to invest without this incentive.”


With or without investment incentives, clean energy’s fair-haired children, wind and solar, are limited by a problem known to power engineers as poor dispatchability, which refers to the obvious fact that the wind doesn’t blow all the time, and the sun doesn’t shine at night.  Complicating things more, the electric grid is able to accept only about fifteen to twenty percent additional variable electricity at any given moment and it has zero ability to store energy.  For now, grid limitations don’t matter much because electricity from renewable sources is below three percent.  But in the longer term they serve as an effective cap on any massive integration of solar and wind energy into our current infrastructure.

For all intents and purposes, the dispatchability problem would disappear with effective storage for wind and solar.  But at the moment, battery technology is not up to the task.   In response, Y-Carbon, a spinout of Drexel University is developing a green technology to manufacture electric storage devices that promise to solve the charge-discharge speed and cycle-life problems associated with conventional batteries.  The company's ultracapacitors are made of nanoporous carbon electrodes with extremely high surface areas whose nanoscale pores are matched precisely to the diameter of the ions in an electrolyte, thereby enabling vastly increased electric storage as well as extremely long life.


Details aside, CTC’s Quah says the solution will not come in the form of a silver bullet.  “We live in a world where we have legacy systems,” he said.  “So we need to make evolutionary steps by spiraling in new technology. We will see more and more hybridization.   Diverse systems that complement each other are better than single systems.”

At an even more fundamental level, economist and big-picture energy thinker, Professor Lester Lave of Carnegie Mellon University, considers the United States' tradition of innovation to be a key force in addressing our energy conundrum.  "Historically, we have exhibited the ability to solve problems with innovation.  As the world becomes more industrialized we will have a smaller advantage in commodity manufacturing.  So, the key to success will be our ability to create new technologies, which has always been our strength."  Expressing a view that is at once visionary and pragmatic, Lave pointed to the light switch on his office wall adding, "But the most valuable new energy technology is the one that saves energy - conservation is our cheapest energy resource."

While this kind of thinking may not make pumping gas any less painful today, it is sure to make our lives better tomorrow.

This article first appeared as a PA Manufacturer cover story.

©Copyright 2008 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications

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©2009 Science Communications