Ideas for Solving the Energy Puzzle
Nine alumni experts outline the challenges and opportunities.
By Lee Michaelides
Energy and climate change are two of the most pressing problems in need of engineering expertise. Numerous Thayer School alumni are working on a wide range of intersecting and complementary solutions. We’ve asked nine of them to share their expertise on technologies both old and new. Their verdict: Technology, economics, and public policy all play vital roles in the quest for more and greener energy.
The Expert: Rob Wills Th’83
Wills has worked in the solar-energy industry for the last 25 years, specializing in power electronics and control. He is CTO of Citizenre, a solar-energy start-up.
Solar Panels for All
Citizenre aims to become “the McDonald’s of photovoltaics.” We want to power 25 percent of the U.S. residential electric market by 2025. To get there, we plan to build the world’s largest solar panel factory. It will have the capacity to manufacture enough panels for 100,000 homes a year.
Rent, Don’t Buy
Our approach is to rent complete solar power systems to homeowners. We’ll install and operate the system. Homeowners will recoup the rental cost by not buying power from their electric company — and they’ll pocket any money resulting from sales of solar power to the electric company.
Our systems can typically be installed in just four hours. What makes that possible? Clever design, standardized components, and lifting equipment.
It is astounding that federal tax credits for solar and wind have had such a tough time getting passed. Research here is lagging. It may already be too late. Some of the best research isn’t being done in the United States.
Opportunities for Engineers
A limiting factor for solar power is a shortage of solar-grade silicon. We need engineers to develop an alternative silicon production process that is less energy intensive and less toxic. We also need new materials to make solar panels more efficient. Today’s panels are 20-30 percent efficient. If they were 50 percent efficient, rooftop panels the size of a couple of skylights could power an entire home.
The Expert: Charles Nearburg ’72 Th’73
Nearburg is founder and president of Nearburg Producing Company, Nearburg Exploration L.L.C., and Rincon Exploration LLC. Nearburg Producing, established in 1979, has garnered two environmental awards from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The company has offices is Midland and Dallas, Tex., and Denver, Colo. Nearburg recently gave a Thayer School Jones Seminar on oil and gas exploration.
The Role of Independents
About 2,000 independents produce 68 percent of the oil and 82 percent of of the natural gas in the U.S.
Challenges for Independents
The cost of drilling wells has at least doubled over the last three years. The wells we drill range from $0.75 million to $17 million. There’s competition and/or shortages of virtually everything: professional engineers and geologists, equipment, drilling rigs, service contractors, and production workers. This is the most challenging exploratory environment I’ve ever experienced.
New Wells Take Time
We are an exploration company, and from the start of the scientific process to hopefully drilling a successful well to produce, can take five or six years. The drilling is the shortest part of the process. On federal land, especially in the West, you virtually cannot work on sites during winter or during environmentally sensitive periods such as raptor nesting season. That may just leave a three-month work window each year. The result is you can’t quickly increase exploration and production to meet demand.
It’s now economically feasible to develop more unconventional resources, such as oil and gas shales. Ten to 15 years ago it wasn’t.
From Oil to Gas
From the first well drilled approximately 100 years ago up until the 1960s, oil was the primary exploration target because there was no infrastructure to distribute natural gas. In the “old days” if a well found gas, it would be plugged. Oil is much harder to find than natural gas.
The Economics of Gas Guzzling
It has been my experience, from my days as a sales engineer for heat pipe heat exchangers, that most companies and people will not focus on conservation until it hits them in the pocketbook. Until recently energy prices were low enough that people weren’t conserving.
Still Dependent on Oil
Oil is a depleting asset, as we all know, but for the next 30 years our economy will still be run on fossil fuel, and it is important that we continue to develop it and try to make it more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Opportunity for Engineers
The oil and gas business covers a huge spectrum of technology and business. The new paradigm for the oil business is collaborative research, which is a Thayer School strength. And because many of today’s geoscientists will be retiring over the next several years, there’s plenty of room for today’s students.
The Expert: Benjamin Schlesinger ’67 Th’68
Schlesinger, founding president of Benjamin Schlesinger & Associates has worked in the energy field for more than three decades and is a former vice president of the American Gas Association. His firm specializes in gas and electricity marketing, pricing, infrastructure, trading practices, strategic planning, and power plant development.
Because it burns so cleanly and emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal-electric plants, gas demand is already rising. We’re working on liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects so that gas supplies from overseas can be delivered economically to the U.S. Until coal gasification and nuclear electric power plants get built, our big challenge will be to get enough natural gas delivered to where it’s needed.
The Rise of Unconventional Gas Resources
Our country’s proven gas reserves have increased almost every year since the mid-1990s, and will probably keep rising through the next decade. Why? Today’s gas supplies are increasingly coming from high-cost unconventional resources, such as natural gas embedded in shale, tight sands, and coal seams. These resources were passed up in the 1980s and 1990s when gas prices were low, but now they’re more than economical. Engineers are needed more than ever to help unlock these clean gas resources, and to help markets use gas as efficiently as possible.
Thayer grads can not only find work in energy engineering and consulting firms, but also in companies that produce and transport energy, banks and investment firms that finance energy projects, and even law firms. We’ve consistently hired Thayer and Thayer-like grads who are grounded in both engineering and arts, and economics — these are the most valuable engineers.
The Expert: Rick Sawicki ’71
Sawicki is chief engineer at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which will attempt to create a miniature star through nuclear fusion. The project, started in 1995 and nearly complete now, includes a 705,000-square-foot facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Scheduled to begin fusion experiments in 2009, NIF may set the stage for an unlimited carbon-free energy source.
At LLNL we have been developing the technologies to achieve nuclear fusion through the process called inertial confinement fusion. This process utilizes very high-power laser beams to bathe a small spherical target, the size of a BB, containing the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium with an intense energy pulse. If this energy can be deposited uniformly enough and with enough power density, then the surface of the target will rapidly heat up and blow off. The reaction of the blow-off will compress the remaining capsule to a fraction of its original size. When successful, we will compress the capsule to more than 20 times the density of lead, creating extreme temperatures and pressures in the deuterium-tritium mix — equivalent to conditions at the center of the sun. These conditions will enable the fusion process to ignite, releasing huge amounts of energy in the form of neutrons, x-rays, and gamma rays and creating, in effect, a miniature star in the laboratory.
Pushing the Limits
NIF is a dream challenge. We pushed the state-of-the-art in many areas to extremes that had not been achieved anywhere before. The construction project itself demanded that we build 192 identical lasers capable of delivering more than four megajoules of infrared laser light, which is frequency converted to nearly two megajoules of ultraviolet light, in a pulse lasting only a few billionths of a second — the equivalent of 500 trillion watts of power.
The Road to Fusion Energy
NIF is a major step forward along the path to fusion energy. We will demonstrate the ability to create self-sustained nuclear fusion in the laboratory, producing many times more energy than the amount of laser energy required to initiate the reaction.
We need the next generation of engineers to take the next step — developing an actual fusion power plant. Such a facility offers us an unlimited, carbon-free energy source for the future. We have to make this advance.
The Expert: Luke T. Dalton ’99 Th’01
Program manager at Proton Energy Systems, Dalton works on one of the key challenges of hydrogen fuel cell technology: producing hydrogen — without producing greenhouse gases.
At Proton Energy Systems, we generate hydrogen through the process of splitting water, called water electrolysis. Our equipment requires only water and electricity. If that electricity comes from photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, or hydroelectric turbines, then the hydrogen is produced with no greenhouse gas emissions. Water electrolysis powered by renewable electricity is one key pathway to a carbon-neutral, greenhouse gas-neutral energy economy.
Focus on the Fuel
Fuel cells by themselves don’t accomplish much. Though more efficient than combustion engines, they are just energy conversion devices. Making the fuel renewable, sustainable, and carbon-neutral is as important, if not more so, if our primary concern as a society is the diminishing supply of fossil fuels, human-caused global warming, or energy security.
The Long View
The focus in the industry has shifted from a rapid, wholesale changeover from combustion to fuel cells to a more gradual, realistic approach. The fuel cell industry has identified a few smaller premium power markets where the “high cost” of the fuel cell is actually quite competitive. Just because experts were smart enough a few years ago to see that a fuel cell is more efficient than an internal combustion engine doesn’t immediately make it a better, more cost-effective product. The internal combustion engine has been refined for over 100 years. The fuel cell won’t need 100 years to catch up, but it will need a few.
Challenges Facing the Industry
The first is building hardware that is sufficiently robust and cost-competitive. The second is to get the infrastructure in place to provide hydrogen to fuel cells. One option is to make hydrogen on-site via water electrolysis, minimizing the need to truck it around.
Fuel cells and renewable fuel generation are very interdisciplinary fields. The fuel cell core represents a confluence of chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering, and the surrounding system requires electronic controls, software, power conversion, fluids, and heat management. A Thayer School engineer has a tremendous advantage in bringing all of these fields together to produce one integrated system. Thayer School’s interdisciplinary curriculum is a real asset.
The Expert: Sean Casten Th’98
Casten is president and CEO of Recycled Energy Development (RED), which captures “waste” industrial energy to produce electricity and thermal power. Casten has worked in the power industry for ten years. He has chaired both the U.S. Combined Heat and Power Association and the Northeast Combined Heat and Power Initiative, organizations dedicated to energy advocacy.
Too Much Energy Goes Up in Smoke
Manufacturing processes and electric power generation convert only a portion of their available energy input into useful work. Both discard the remaining potential energy. The U.S. electric power generation system, on average, discards two thirds of its input energy as waste.
Recycled energy is useful energy derived from exhaust heat from any industrial process or from electric power generation; industrial tail gas that would otherwise by flared, incinerated, or vented; or pressure drop in any gas.
A Hot Idea
Thermal energy, the form of much of present waste, does not travel far without losing its value. On-site cogeneration converts fuel to electricity and then reuses the “waste” heat.
Cogeneration and energy recycling have the potential to generate 40 percent of our nation’s electricity, slashing power costs, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Our regulations reward monopoly utilities for investing capital, but provide no reward should they find ways to generate cheaper power. We need to confront the elephant in the room: a regulatory model that is hostile to efficient power generation.
Back to Basics
There is a huge graying-of-the-workforce problem. You can’t hire a mechanical engineer with a good grounding in steam cycles. That is a big problem because 75 percent of our electricity is produced in some variant of the steam-based Rankine cycle — whether powered by coal, nuclear, or biomass — and all our electricity is produced in medium- to high-voltage power plants.
The Expert: Michael V. DeFelice ’83
DeFelice is CEO of Carbon Financial, Inc., which is the developing sponsor of a carbon trading platform through which it provides carbon brokerage services and trades carbon as a principal.
Connecting Carbon Trading and Engineering
The global carbon market is highly technical at both the financial and technology levels, with extraordinary numbers of variables and participants. Numerous governmental entities — from nations to municipalities — regulate carbon emissions. In the U.S. alone, at least 29 states and more than 100 municipalities have some form of regulation on renewable energy, carbon emissions, or related emissions. As the market develops, there probably will be increased conformity to common standards. Defining those standards in a way that maximizes the overall result requires a depth of understanding of complex, multivariable, dynamic systems. This is an ideal environment for engineers to participate at the policy and regulatory levels to be sure we “get it right.” Ultimately, a credit traded in the marketplace is only as good and as valuable as the underlying technologies and risk variables — factors engineers know how to assess.
Carbon Sequestration Can’t Eliminate Emissions
People are exploring a variety of carbon sequestration methods — including diverting carbon into the ground or oceans — that would reduce emissions, but the techniques have not yet been proven technologically or economically. Even under the most aggressive of assumptions, sequestration would only slow the rate of growth of carbon emissions, not stop the growth or reverse the trend. If we’re serious about reducing emissions, we must develop alternative sources of energy that do not have the same kind or level of environmental cost that traditional fossil fuels have.
Paths to Cleaner Coal
A truly clean and cost-effective coal technology could satisfy our energy needs for a long time. Several technologies are in development, but none has yet proven significantly cleaner or cost-effective. The most advanced is Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power. It is more efficient than conventional technologies in converting the energy content of coal, but is much more expensive, and there is some controversy over whether it is actually cleaner. In combination with sequestration, IGCC may be a good solution in the medium term. An exciting variation on this concept is still in the early stages of technical testing. We are working with a company in Europe that has developed an underground gasification process that would combust coal in situ to create syngas. The resultant CO2 effluent would be separated and trapped in the combustion “chamber” and the syngas brought out heated and under pressure. We are optimistic about the potential, but we are a long way from proving this out, and it still relies on an as-yet-unproven sequestration technology to reduce carbon emissions.
Engineers are in Demand
Every step along the chain of development from fundamental research to commercial installation and operation is hiring technical talent in thermodynamics, mechanical design, material science, biology, biochemistry, systems and software, transportation, and on and on. The most critical step in each of these areas is in commercial scale-up — transitioning technology from the lab to the commercial marketplace.
VENTURE CAPITAL FOR ENERGY
The Expert: Scott Sandell ’86
Sandell is general partner at New Enterprise Associate, a venture capital firm with $8.5 billion in committed capital. Sandell, who majored in engineering and now focuses on investments in information technology and alternative energy, was ranked #41 on Forbes’ 2007 Midas List.
A Bright Idea
I am a big believer in solar power. Wind is more economical today, and nuclear power is certainly more proven at scale, but only solar power taps an unlimited resource: the sun. There are 89,000 terawatts of solar power hitting the earth’s surface every day, and the entire global consumption of energy is 13 TW. We don’t have to capture much, and the rate of technical innovation to make solar cost-competitive with coal — the prime source of electricity in the U.S. today, and the most polluting — is very high.
We have several portfolio companies that think they can beat coal in the next five to ten years, without assuming a carbon tax. And even the power companies and the banks that finance coal-fired power plants are starting to plan for a carbon tax. So that timeframe could be sooner. When you consider that it takes nine years to plan and build a nuclear power plant, I think solar will be a big part of the solution to surging demand for energy, especially clean energy.
Technologies to Watch
Beyond solar, I am very excited about several other technologies in our portfolio which are in stealth mode, so I cannot discuss them here. On the flip side, I think it is going to be a long time before ethanol makes sense, because it needs to be cellulosic ethanol to make a real difference, and the technologies to convert cellulosic ethanol to gasoline are a ways off. I do think that using ethanol as an input to create higher value chemical products, which are clean by virtue of their ingredients, has promise.
The Big Return on Investment
We shouldn’t forget about the conservation side of the equation. Most studies show that the greatest return on investment comes from saving energy, rather than producing more of it.
The Expert: Keith Dennis ’03 Th’04
Dennis, an engineer on the Carbon Management Solutions Team at Pace Global Energy, develops and implements strategies that help companies adapt to the evolving political, regulatory, and financial landscape surrounding climate change. He has created greenhouse gas emissions inventories for power plants, mining operations, landfills, and cattle ranches.
More and more companies realize that getting ahead of the curve on climate change is to their advantage, both from a financial and social responsibility standpoint. Some projects can generate carbon offset credits, which can be used to help finance the projects.
The New Wild West
Given the young nature of the business, the world of carbon credits is termed the “Wild West” of climate change. I work to ensure that client projects meet the highest standards of quality, something that everyone who is serious about this profession must do to ensure that offset markets remain credible.
A Growing Market
The carbon market is poised to explode. As public demand for action on climate change increases, governments and companies are taking notice. There is, to some extent, a gold rush into carbon markets. However, it is important that we address the problem of climate change with deliberate, well-planned solutions. We must also be vigilant so that we do not let a few bad apples discredit new markets and disrupt the path to success.
Don’t Export the Problem
The scientific consensus is that we face potentially devastating consequences if we do not stabilize and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in both the short and long term. Policymakers must create the correct incentives to spur innovation and adoption of clean technologies without harming our economy and causing industrial jobs to move overseas where regulation is lax.
Challenges for Engineers
No matter your political views or thoughts on the science, meeting the reduction goals being set by the international community will perhaps be the single greatest challenge facing the next generation of engineers.
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