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Time to clean up the mess we've left

The dirty truth about energy is that there is enough coal, oil and natural gas to last for decades, if not centuries.

But at a national energy conference Thursday on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and other attendees acknowledged the world has little time left to counter the consequences of widespread fossil fuel use before dramatic and expensive action is inescapable.

Taft, a keynote speaker at the conference that drew more than 1,300 to Severance Hall in Cleveland, said two proposed power plants would use coal "gasification" technology to allow the clean burning of dirty Ohio coal. "Ohio generates 90 percent of our electricity from coal," Taft said. "For the foreseeable future, Ohio's economy won't survive without coal."

The new plants, the first in decades, would be an economic boon for the state but won't likely get built under existing deregulation laws because utilities are not permitted to pass on construction costs to ratepayers over years as they traditionally did.

Deregulation was supposed to foster competitive electric markets and encourage companies to build new power plants to sell the electricity anywhere. That hasn't happened.

"It's going slow," Taft said of the lack of competition, in an interview after the speech. "If it continues to go at this rate, there is a real probability that we will have to enter into a re-regulatory climate."

Ohio's coal quandary mirrored the tone of many of the speakers at Thursday's conference, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering. On one hand, speakers touted the potential of new technology to galvanize alternative fuels or ply more oil from the earth.

But universally, each speaker communicated a sense of urgency to confront the problem sooner rather than later.

"You don't hear people saying no [to one another]," said Samuel Baldwin, chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office. "You hear real concern and consensus that this is something we have to take seriously."

Speakers, who came from government, academia and the energy industry, didn't spend much time discussing the end of cheap oil and other natural resources. There seemed to be a universal consensus that fuel prices would continue to rise. Instead, most speakers discussed alternatives and the negative impact of continued fossil fuel use.

"It really is about changing people's lifestyles and expectations, and that's a really difficult thing to do," said Steven Koonin, a chief scientist at BP.

Increases in efficiency do not reduce demand, he said. The more affluent people become, whether Americans or Chinese, the more electricity they use.

While there isn't an overwhelming case linking rising global temperature to fossil fuel emissions, Koonin said there's enough of a connection to begin to try to cut emissions.

However, industrialized countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and those in Europe will have increasingly less influence to reduce global totals. The developing world will soon match the industrialized world's carbon dioxide emissions, which means any 10 percent reduction by the industrialized world will be wiped out by four years of growth in the developing world, Koonin said.

Even if today's emissions were cut in half, global concentrations of carbon dioxide would continue to rise to a level scientists consider dangerous. But emissions are expected to double in the next 50 years.

New technologies, including biofuels like ethanol and clean- fuel technology, could help trigger long-term emission reductions, Koonin said.

One solution, which is good news for Ohio, could be expanded use of coal. Geologists and industry scientists say there are decades of available oil and gas in the earth. But they estimate there are hundreds of years worth of coal - including hundreds of tons underneath the Buckeye state.

Converting coal into natural gas and liquid fuel makes an acceptable substitute for oil and gas, said Scott Klara, deputy di rector of the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory. But he said there hasn't been enough research to develop cheap technologies to make such a process affordable.

Researchers must devise coal conversion innovation so companies can equip their aging coal plants with the technology. Klara said most coal plants will have to be rebuilt between 2015 and 2020.

Coal also can be used as a source for hydrogen, said professor Joan Ogden of the University of California at Davis. Most hydrogen is now produced from natural gas.

"Hydrogen is the only long- term fuel option that offers a radical reduction in greenhouse gases and air pollution," said Ogden, an adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $53 million project to build a network of hydrogen filling stations in five years.

Hydrogen is what powers fuel cells, which create electricity directly by combining hydrogen and oxygen from the air.

"The promise of fuel cells is probably greater than any single technology in our lifetime," said Rodger McKain, president of SOFCo, an Alliance fuel cell company, and chairman of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition.

Others advocate building nuclear power plants to generate electricity that would be used to make hydrogen from water. Nuclear expert Lawrence Papay said nuclear plants can generate power more cheaply today than in the past and advocated the United States change its policy against reprocessing spent fuel rods.

"If you believe global warming has possibilities, then you cannot take nuclear power off the table," he said.

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

cseper@plaind.com, 216-999-4169
jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

© 2005 The Plain Dealer
© 2005 cleveland.com All Rights Reserved.

Editorial Notes: The Cleveland Plain Dealer is doing an exemplary job of explaining energy issues to the public, and doing it with a local slant. (If there's one thing we know about a low-energy future, it's that it will be local.) Previous stories in their series "Crude Awakening" are available through the series archive. Many of these articles in the series have been archived on Energy Bulletin. -BA

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