Sept. 19, 2006
By Mary Reed
If you live in Ohio, here's a quiz for you: Do you know where your energy comes from? Do you know the environmental and economic consequences of energy use? Do you know how you can reduce your energy consumption?
If you know the answers to these questions, then you are already a member of the "energy literate society" envisioned by Ohio University's Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment (CE3). That vision is outlined in the report titled "Ohio: Securing America's Energy Future," which was released Sept. 18 in Columbus.
CE3 is a multidisciplinary organization that brings together Ohio University's George V. Voinovich Center for Leadership and Public Affairs, the Russ College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences to explore ways to develop safe, reliable, affordable and non-polluting sources of energy.
The report, which states "It is critical that Ohio become a source of innovative ideas for meeting the nation's need for more reliable sources of energy," is a result of an energy summit hosted by U.S. Senator George V. Voinovich and CE3 last March. The event brought together key stakeholders and policy makers from around Ohio to craft recommendations on the role Ohio can play in our national effort to reduce dependence on foreign energy.
"I believe one of the most pressing challenges America faces today is reducing our reliance on foreign energy sources," Sen Voinovich said. "It is critical that we grow more energy independent to increase our competitiveness in the global marketplace and improve national security. A key challenge in this work is respecting the environment while responding to energy and economic needs. The report released today includes some great recommendations to take us in that direction."
Reducing consumption is the first strategy listed in the report, which includes the findings from the March energy summit. The other three strategies include increasing energy supply, developing new energy sources and continual technological innovation.
"Our (energy) supply is completely disproportionate with our consumption," says Scott Miller, senior project manager at the Voinovich Center and program manager for CE3. He points to findings in the report that show Ohio as a net energy importer. For example, in 2004 Ohio was the 13th largest coal producer in the U.S. but the second largest consumer, with 87 percent of the state's electricity coming from coal.
That's where technological innovation comes in. The Ohio Coal Research Center, within the Russ College of Engineering at Ohio University, brings together multidisciplinary teams to research fuel diversity and the production of environmentally safe and reliable electric power. The center also manages the Ohio Coal Research Consortium for the State of Ohio's Air Quality Development Authority.
David Bayless, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Ohio Coal Research Center, is working on new coal gasification technology to convert coal into liquid fuels and to produce electricity in more efficient and environmentally friendly ways. "While coal may only be a bridge to a more sustainable energy future, it is currently abundant and the technology that enables converting coal into diesel and other transportation fuels will also eventually allow us to use biomass to produce the same fuels."
This transition into biofuels is exactly what the energy report recommends. It calls for Ohio "to become a national leader in biofuel production," citing the fact that the state is a top-10 producer of both corn and soybeans but lacks a single commercial-grade ethanol production plant. This is set to change, however, with as many as eight ethanol plants coming on line in the next year.
"And biofuels (are) the answer to so many of our problems, from energy security to reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Bayless adds. His research has taken biofuels beyond corn and soybeans. "We have developed technology to grow oil-bearing microalgae very quickly and reliably. It could be a feedstock for biodiesel production one day."
In addition to biofuels, the report addresses other alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind. Though still small in scale, Ohio is home to many such innovations in alternative energy. For example, FirmGreen Energy has been approved to construct a landfill gas processing center adjacent to the Franklin County landfill near Columbus. The facility will process landfill gas and use it to produce electricity and methanol. Initially, the fuel and electricity will be used on site, but Mitsubishi Gas Chemical America (MGCA) has contracted to purchase up to 4 million gallons annually of the methanol production.
Back on the Ohio University campus, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Gerardine Botte is working on fuel cell technology that uses ammonia for a fuel source, which is significantly more efficient than current fuel cell technology based on water. Botte is working with the Voinovich Center on pursuing ways to distribute the technology once it is ready for commercial application. For example, together they are working on surveys and focus groups with the people who can bring technology to the public such as bankers, investors, construction companies, insurance companies and so on.
Botte gives the Voinovich Center and CE3 credit for helping her pursue her research. "I am a scientist and they know the social sciences, so they are giving me support," she says, pointing to a grant from CE3 that helped her leverage university and national-level funding.
Botte's colleague Bayless agrees with her assessment of the Voinovich Center and CE3. "I could create the best mousetrap in the world," he says, "but unless the policy-makers and people with the financial capital to commercialize that mousetrap see value, it will sit on the shelf like so many other inventions. The Voinovich Center has the ability to put great ideas before venture capitalists and policy makers. I just couldn't do that myself."
More collaborations like these are what the Voinovich Center and CE3 want to help create based on the findings of the energy report. "CE3 is a project-based organization, so to the extent that we are able to parlay the connections that we made through this conference and report into projects that will make a difference in the field, we will be successful," says Miller of the Voinovich Center.
Miller also emphasizes that CE3 tries to get students involved as much as possible in the work, from the technology end to the policy end. "This is an area that should be a major research focus for the university and should be trumpeted across the state so that OU is recognized as a leader in energy and environmental issues."
The report itself concludes, "By using Ohio's abundant resources, the state can transform itself from being overly reliant on externally produced energy sources to becoming more energy independent." In this post-9/11 world, energy independence has taken on new meaning. As Miller puts it, "Energy is a national security issue."
Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.