Long term energy strategy takes form

       A group of academicians, power industry professionals, engineers and others laid the groundwork this month for powering an effort to establish a long-term energy strategy for the western Pennsylvanian region around Pittsburgh, home of one of the hottest fracking areas.


During a daylong seminar at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center entitled “Energy for the Power of 32” that drew several hundred people, participants set about the task of determining what it would take to establish an energy policy for 32 counties in parts of four states, encompassing 4.2 million residents.


The event was organized by Washington and Jefferson College’s Center for Energy Managment and Policy and sponsored by 18 different organizations, including several colleges and universities, participants will attempt to create an energy strategy that would go into effect within the next decade.


If successful, it will be one of the first regions in the country to have such a policy, something the federal government and Congress haven’t been able to accomplish.


Power of 32 was developed a decade ago as a super region of 32 counties in Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and western Maryland to create farsighted goals that would positively impact a region that includes 4.2 million people who have much in common.


Following a series of public meetings across the region, participants arrived at six main themes, including a sustainable economy, environment, government, people and communities, and transportation and infrastructure.


As reported by the Washington (Pa) Observer-Reporter and other media:

In opening remarks from Greg Babe, former chief executive officer of Bayer MaterialScience and chairman of the Power of 32 Implementation Committee, noted creating a “first” in terms of an energy policy would be appropriate for a region that is a leader in coal, natural gas and nuclear power and is the place that gave birth to the original electric grid that became the template for the rest of the country.


“Today is the beginning,” Babe said, adding that taking a regional approach to an energy strategy makes the most sense, “because it’s on a regional basis that we produce, distribute and even store energy.”


Thursday wasn’t really the beginning of the quest, however.


Babe introduced a panel of three men, Jerry Paytas of Fourth Economy Consulting; Barton Kirk of Kirk Consulting; and Sam Taylor of Science & Engineering Ambassadors, who completed a study of energy across the 32 counties and constructed a flow chart tracing energy production, consumption, net imports and exports and losses.


Based on 2011 figures, the panel found 39 percent of energy in the region is used for transportation (36 percent of which is imported); 29 percent by industry; 20 percent for residents; and 11 percent commercial.


While they found that natural gas is responsible for 20 percent of energy being used for all endeavors, they estimated almost half of it provides enough to heat 4.4 million homes a year.


Despite that, coal continues to dominate electrical generation, responsible for 84 percent of all electricity generated.


The region is also an energy exporter to the tune of $24 billion, but energy is also wasted here – in the form of thermal loss at power plants and in the distribution network – enough to handle 14.8 million homes and if saved, would add $13.8 billion to the region’s economy.


Despite the energy loss, the authors found a decrease in energy consumption across all sectors, while noting an increase in efficient production.


Tom Ford, president and CEO of Ohio Advanced Energy Economy” works with areas of the state that are trying to change the ways they receive and consume energy.


He noted that the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, encompassing 12 counties, is addressing changes in state and federal policies, rising energy demand and prices and shifts in the traditional energy mix, while keeping an eye on economic development.


Other regions that are moving ahead with their own energy strategies include New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, states that began working on solutions in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.


Back in the Pittsburgh Region, Dr. Greg Reed, a professor of electrical engineering and director for the Electric Power Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh, said the region is seeing some success in increasing efficiency in reducing power consumption, but noted that the traditional concept of the electric grid was created to serve local areas and did not evolve in the same way that the nation’s interstate highway system did, where the highways are uniform in providing for improved truck transportation and passenger car use.


Reed equated using the current grid system, now 125 years old and with very few technological updates, to forcing people to use Route 19 every day for all of their transportation needs.


Despite its age, Reed said there is work being done to improve it. He noted that changing the system from alternating current to direct current could create large savings.


“Direct current can push five times the amounts of electricity over the same distance as AC,” he said, adding that changing it would help the region to grow its manufacturing base.


Energy equals health

Any energy policy should be written with consideration to citizens’ health, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, who stated, “Our energy is our health.”


Bernstein, who is a pediatrician and associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s School of Public Health, noted that Pittsburgh made huge strides in cleaning up its air pollution in the 1940s when it passed an ordinance mandating the burning of cleaner fuels.


He noted that when the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, air pollution nationally was reduced by nearly 70 percent at the same time that the U.S. economy grew dramatically.


“We’ve done more than anywhere in the world to improve air quality,” Bernstein said, adding that the incentive is even more important today, given the trend for people who retire in place, “but won’t be able to tolerate the kind of heat we’ll see with climate change.”


Bernstein’s comments dovetailed with a brief presentation by Dr. Neil Donahue, professor of chemical engineering, chemistry and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who showed in charts that if carbon dioxide isn’t reduced as world energy demand increases, the Earth will face catastrophic conditions by the end of the next century.


Robin Beavers, senior vice president of innovation and founder of Station A Group at NRG Energy in San Francisco, said she favors distributive technologies, such as solar panels and networks of micro-grids to better serve energy demands.


Beavers, a civil engineer who led the installation of the 1.7 megawatt solar project on the rooftops of Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, said that people can be sold on alternative energy approaches by a focus on their advantages in the same way that rural electrification movement of the 1930s that sold users on the advantages without focusing on costs or kilowatt hours saved.


Following the presentations, Thursday’s attendees were asked to join small group discussions to deliberate on preliminary recommendations for regional energy principles and the best way to conduct the regional energy planning process, which were assisted by science and engineering ambassadors from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.


They were reminded earlier by Ford that developing an energy policy is a work in progress.


“The road to the future is always under construction,” he said.


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