Geopolitics and the Energy of Transportation Collide at PGRE&F

At last week’s all-renewables trade show and conference, Power-Gen Renewable Energy & Fuels (PGRE&F), some gradual shifts in the renewable energy industry came into sharper focus for attendees and exhibitors. Some key takeaways included the rising use of biofuels, the escalating security implications of the nation’s energy use — especially the vulnerable transportation sector — and promising new solutions such as Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs).

As in past years, the conference was organized by the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) and PennWell Publishing. This year it attracted nearly 150 exhibitors and 1,900 attendees. Biofuels, specifically ethanol and biodiesel, are playing a larger role than they have ever before. This is largely the result of both state and federal policies that advance the industry, but it is also the result of a crystallizing awareness that the North American transportation sector is critically dependent on one form of energy, gasoline. Specific to the conference this year was the addition of “& Fuels” to its title, acknowledging the greater role that biofuels are playing in today’s renewable energy market. And it was more than just a name change, as there were many biofuels companies on hand, particularly from the ethanol industry. ACORE, which operates as a sort of umbrella organization for all the renewable energy industries, also held its first meeting of its newly minted Biomass Coordinating Council. Geopolitics and Energy Collide Unlike the electricity sector, where there are some wide-ranging choices for the production of power, the millions of cars and trucks that criss-cross the U.S. each day are woefully dependent on crude oil, which is largely supplied by unstable or inhospitable governments. Like an unbalanced financial portfolio, this has grave economic and national security implications for the U.S., this point that was repeatedly addressed by conference speakers. Among them was surprise speaker Alexander “Andy” Karsner, the U.S. Department of Energy’s new Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. This was his first public speech since taking office only a few weeks ago and it was a passionate and strongly political one. Karsner echoed President Bush’s recent statement that “America is Addicted to Oil” and outlined the vulnerabilities the U.S. faces because of this issue. And in the same way the Bush Administration believes the proliferation of democracy throughout the world will lead to greater stability and world peace, Karsner said greater use of renewable energy throughout the world could have a similar effect. “Renewable Energy is the pathway to world peace,” Karsner said. “We must take our clean energy technology and replicate and proliferate it throughout the world.” Another speaker qualified to speak on the topic was Jim Woolsey, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under the Clinton Administration. Woolsey has been a central figure within the ACORE community and a conservative, hawkish proponent of renewable energy primarily for national security reasons. His public endorsements and speeches on renewable energy have been a part of past ACORE events and reached their latest incarnation at this year’s event. Woolsey’s speech — even more so than Karsner’s — took on a very political tone, calling Iran’s increasingly defiant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “genocidal maniac” and part of a larger problem in the Middle East where more than two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves exist. “We have a long term, serious problem with regard to vulnerability of the transportation sector…it being so tied to oil is a huge security question…and the Middle East is at the heart of the issue,” Woolsey said. Woolsey’s sobering assessment went on to explain how each year the U.S. borrows 250 billion dollars to import oil, a situation he equated to the country shipping “IOUs” abroad. More importantly, he says a large share goes to the Middle East and lands in the hands of the Wahabis, which he called the most extreme sect of Islamic fundamentalists. Some of these funds in turn go on to bankroll Madrasas in Pakistan, where fundamentalist ideologies are fostered and propagated. And this has serious and timely implications for the U.S. struggle against Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the larger “War on Terror.” “This is the first war in U.S. history in which we pay for both sides,” Woolsey said. “This is not a winning strategy.” Woolsey’s recommendations include a focus on biofuels like ethanol or biodiesel — and particularly the commercialization of ethanol from cellulosic processes — but they also hinge perhaps more than ever on what’s achievable today. And he left no guesses how he feels about the hydrogen economy. “We have to focus on changes that can be made with the existing infrastructure, within the existing system,” Woolsey said. “We continue to wait for the hydrogen economy…TIME OUT…no more waiting.” Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) Woolsey articulated a mounting concern among an increasing number of people who follow renewable energy that for all its promises, a hydrogen economy is just too much of a long-term play, faces too many obstacles, would likely exclude renewables, and is unlikely to offer any real results in the near-future. And one of the ex-CIA Chief’s solutions is a relatively recent one that’s received quite a bit of buzz: Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). The vehicles combine technologies that are all available today and that operate on today’s energy infrastructure. PHEVs essentially combine the hybrid-electric technologies already proving themselves in the market today with larger batteries that can be charged up from the electric grid. Woolsey, and many others, argue that what small local driving requirements can’t be accomplished by the 35-mile or so range of the batteries in the PHEV can then be accomplished by the internal combustion engine. And the engine, of course, would run off increasing blends of ethanol or biodiesel, fuels not from the Middle East. Most importantly, it’s doable today. Instead of the hydrogen economy example where hydrogen becomes the new energy carrier — a fundamental and massive shift — electricity remains the key energy carrier as it is today. Renewable energy technologies can also play a larger and more efficient role as electrons generated by, say, wind or solar could go directly into the electric grid where they can contribute to charging vehicle batteries or the countless other tasks accomplished by our grid today (see related article at the link below). One person who isn’t waiting any longer to put PHEVs on the road is Roger Duncan, of Austin Energy, the city’s municipal electric utility, who is leading Austin Energy’s Plug in Partners Program that tests PHEVs in the city. Under the direction of the Austin City Council, the City of Austin and Austin Energy are leading a national campaign to demonstrate to automakers that a market exists today for plug-in hybrids. Duncan was among a handful of presenters in one of the more packed conference sessions, which explored high mileage vehicles and the solutions to the transportation sector. “We don’t believe hydrogen is going to pick up and allow that transition within less than a decade or two,” Duncan said. “For plug-in hybrids, the infrastructure is already in place. This gives a tremendous advantage to this — and it allows solar wind and biofuels all to play a strong part.” Duncan’s point couldn’t have been more relevant than at this year’s ACORE conference where the entire spectrum of renewable energy technologies fall under one roof, with the singular purpose of making clean, domestic electrons a far greater part of the nation’s energy resources.
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