By Andrea Gibson
Can Southeast Ohio become the Silicon Valley of green energy? State legislators, local businesses and Ohio University researchers and economic development experts think it's a worthwhile goal.
About 65 advocates met Tuesday in Walter Hall for the area's first-ever green energy summit for entrepreneurs and government officials. Co-sponsored by Ohio University's Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment (CE3), U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and the Pew Environment Group, the event served as a trade show and networking opportunity for businesses involved in cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy production and manufacturing. A follow-up conversation with Brown occurred Wednesday.
"I know Ohio has what it takes to lead the way in alternative energy production," Brown said in a taped welcome message. He called for a "new course for our state" that will promote low-cost hydrogen fuel cells, alternatives to the internal combustion engine and innovative ways to recycle manufacturing waste -- initiatives already under way in the region.
Through coal and natural gas production, Southeast Ohio is deep in the business of energy production, contributing $1.5 billion annually to Ohio's economy. Although fossil fuels will remain part of the future energy mix, CE3 Director Scott Miller pointed out that the nation will need to diversify its energy sources in response to environmental concerns such as climate change and increased competition for resources such as petroleum.
Because of these competing concerns, America's future will require advanced energy systems, including technologies such as algae-based biodiesel, anaerobic biodigesters, free-piston engines and fuel cells using innovative feedstocks such as ammonia for their hydrogen supply, Miller said.
Putting concepts to work
Summit organizers introduced three regional business representatives who are leading the way. Their companies -- two with Ohio University ties -- are introducing green energy products to the marketplace and making manufacturing operations more sustainable.
Bellisio Foods in Jackson, Ohio, which produces Michelina's frozen pasta entrees and several other product lines, has implemented new technologies to better process organic waste from its manufacturing facility, according to Ryan Wright, utility and sustainability manager. The process not only reduces the amount of waste that the city of Jackson's treatment plant must handle, but it captures biogas that, in turn, can be used for energy, he said. The green strategies have reduced the carbon footprint of the business, which employs 1,370 workers and produces more than two million frozen meals per day.
A firm in Meigs County is implementing sustainable business practices while also developing and manufacturing a green energy product. At a new facility that will employ 100 workers, American Hydrogen Corp. will manufacture Ohio University researcher Gerardine Botte's ammonia catalytic electrolyzers, which efficiently convert ammonia into hydrogen to produce inexpensive fuel. The company also will assemble units that combine ammonia catalytic electrolyzers with fuel cells.
"We live in a virtual river of ammonia," company President Ben Schafer said of the untapped potential of the waste source. "Twenty-three million tons of (ammonia) waste run off animal feed lots annually."
Though the Meigs County plant will be "on the grid" initially, Schafer hopes to use fuel cells to provide the facility's own electricity after a few months. He stressed the importance of green energy practices such as reuse, creating zero waste and reducing the use of hazardous substances to create a superior product for consumers.
Around the globe and beyond
Another company that stemmed from Ohio University research 34 years ago is developing green energy products used by NASA and several European governments. Sunpower of Athens builds free-piston stirling engines for electric power generation.
The company is installing a new technology called a micro CHP (combined heat and power) unit in Europe that can reduce energy transmission waste. Traditionally, only 37 percent of electricity makes it from a power plant to residences. The new technology transmits 90 percent of the electricity from a small, natural gas-powered box in the home, Neill Lane, president and CEO of the company, said.
"It's a power station on your wall -- quiet, cost-effective and reliable," he said.
Four major European companies that represent 34 percent of the $13 billion European Union heating equipment market are trying out the technology in several countries. The Dutch prime minister has one installed in his home, Lane said.
Lane described an initiative to harness solar power, a major untapped energy source that could meet global needs and bring needed design, development, management, sales and manufacturing jobs to Ohio. Sunpower also is working with NASA, which has required that the electronics on a future satellite mission be powered by a stirling engine, a move that could cut fuel costs as much as 60 percent. (For a satellite such as the Cassini space probe, that means tens of millions of dollars in savings.)
Looking for a win-win situation
While several business leaders acknowledged Tuesday that some of the green energy practices still aren't as cost-effective as traditional ones, they stressed that climate change is an estimated $9.6 trillion problem for industry that can't be ignored. Working together, green energy advocates can turn market forces to their favor, said Tom Bullock of the Pew Environment Group.
"Right now we have a system where it costs us to do the right thing," he said, "and we want to reverse that."
Summit organizers are hopeful that Tuesday's event was a good first step in that direction.
"We'll continue to find opportunities to have more of these dialogues in the future. It's a good role for CE3 and the university to play," Miller said. "It's important for entrepreneurs, researchers, nonprofits and residents of Southeast Ohio to have opportunities to meet each other, share their stories and learn from each other about what's happening in their back yards."
Examining government's role
As a companion to Tuesday's summit, Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs hosted a roundtable discussion with Sen. Brown on Wednesday. The meeting allowed Brown to ask questions of people involved in the previous day's event and gain a better understanding of the role government can play in helping Ohio surface as a green-energy leader.
Brown said one of the first steps will be tapping into the unique resources that exist within the state.
"We have huge universities like (Ohio University) and Ohio State and all the brainpower, activity, entrepreneurial spirit and skill that come out of these institutions. That means that the sky is the limit," Brown said.
Providing affordable alternative energy will require input from a many sources, though, he added.
"We've got to make sure that people's energy bills are manageable. We've got to make sure energy is affordable to industry. We've got to deal with global warming. We've got to deal with job growth," Brown said. "All of it makes for a very complicated puzzle that, frankly, I know a lot of people in this room are ready to solve."
Information from the days' discussions will be archived on the CE3 Web site.
Kim Corriher contributed to this report.