A Tale of Two Plenaries: The Future of Energy and of the U.S. Chemical Industry

I attended a plenary session titled "What Makes Energy Clean" with two goals: find out what goes on in a "plenary" session and gain some industry insight into what makes "clean" energy clean. A plenary is defined as "fully attended by all entitled to be present." I gather that in a conference setting this means that a well-rounded panel is invited to speak in more general terms about how their expertise fits into the greater sum. Goal #1 achieved.

A Debate Clean Energy

The major energy groups were represented: coal, natural gas, and nuclear. The topics covered were general, with most speaking points those discussed in the general media with a slightly more technical angle. The recent abundance of natural gas along with the general media coverage of "fracking" were covered. The major improvements in end-stack coal emissions and the safety of nuclear were covered. Carbon sequestration and efficiency improvements were the main alternatives presented. There are still significant efficiency advancements available, the built environment uses a significant percentage of energy produced. This is a stock that takes a long time to turn over.

More diverse topics came from the question and answer portion of the session. There was much debate about how an energy policy or, at the very least, a standard unit of measurement should be developed in order to better compare energy types as apples to apples. Energy options are plagued with questions of cost and benefit, but until a uniform unit of cost and benefit is defined, it is a circular argument.

In the end, the room was in agreement and this was a real glass half-full/half-empty kind of moment. The energy needs of the world are too great to be met with one single energy technology or quick-fix; instead, a variety of energy solutions are required to meet future energy demands. There are, however, more energy sources available right now and the expected gains from efficiency improvements and increased output of alternatives should meet that demand or any reduction from traditional sources. Goal #2 in progress.

Session II: Future of the U.S. Chemical Enterprise II

The debate was not settled so nicely in the following plenary I attended (for session details, click here). The practical side of engineering was contrasted with the engineers' desire to solve problems. William Bonholzer of Dow Chemical made the case that engineers and businesses are tasked with giving the public what they value for a price they are willing to pay for and can afford (thought it is quite difficult to get those three factors to agree).

New ideas are not to be feared, but they are also not to be put up on a pedestal. If an idea can stand on its own, with the consumer recognizing its value and willing to pay for it, then it should be developed. Impractical projects, however, should not be kept alive simply because they sound good. One of his final conclusions echoed the earlier session: 10% of a business or energy need may be filled with a novel biotechnology or niche market, but that does not mean that we can forget about the other 90% of the traditional energy or business.

Monty Alger of Air Products sees value in that 10% and beyond. Especially for hydrogen production for the vehicle market. Hydrogen has the potential to reduce carbon emissions for vehicles, and a test market is being developed using traditional gas stations as staging areas where large trailers of hydrogen will refuel cars.

The case for maintaining some "dreamers" in the engineering field was presented by John Anderson of the Illinois Institute of Technology, as a way to keep students willing to give engineering a try. Engineering can be a lot of hard work, and pushing the envelope a little can provide some needed inspiration and motivation. To better prepare students for life after school and keep them engaged, more diversity in the curriculum should be embraced and engineers should be encouraged to take taking business classes and technology classes.

Where the Two Sessions Come Together

I ended the day feeling that we are still early in a new era of energy development, which makes this an exciting time to be an engineer. It is clear that how energy and associated costs or benefits are valued will greatly influence how the world is powered for the next 100 years. To get this one right, engineers and policy makers are clearly going to need to work together.