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Energy Experts Urge Transition to New Energy-Fuel Sources

June 22, 2006 —
The U.S. will face energy shortages in the near future if it does not transition from strictly fossil fuels to a mix of fossil fuels and renewable energy resources, said energy experts, including several from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who participated in the first national energy symposium of its kind to be held at USC. But the recipe for the mix is still not clear.
Iraj Ershaghi, second from right, director of the Petroleum Engineering Program in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, is also co-executive director of the Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies (CiSOFT). Third from left is Anupam Madhukar, the Kenneth T. Norris Professor of Engineering in the Mork Family Department.

Viterbi faculty from the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, the Department of Electrical Engineering, and the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, participated June 15, 2006 in panels with other prominent scholars, economists, industry representatives and media around the country for a day-long symposium, titled “The National Energy Symposium: Confronting Costs To New Technologies.” 
The symposium was opened by USC dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering Yannis C. Yortsos, who welcomed the participants and noted the importance and timeliness of the conference. He highlighted USC's own efforts to launch a new cross-disciplinary program called the Future Fuels and Energy Initiative (FFEI).
Experts predicted that over the next 20 years, global energy demand will increase by 40 percent, driven largely by rapid economic expansion in China, India and other parts of the developing world. The U.S. will play a key role in that energy equation as the largest consumer of global energy resources today. Currently, the nation consumes one-fourth of the world’s energy supplies annually, more than the energy consumed by the 2.9 billion people living in five other nations: China, India, Germany, Japan and Bangladesh.

T.C. Cheng
Practicality and Technological Limits
Researchers discussed the practicality and technological limits of moving to more energy efficient technologies in the opening session, “Energy Sources for the Future,” moderated by KNBC reporter Conan Nolan. Most agreed that no one alternative – wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass, hydroelectric or geothermal — will be the “silver bullet,” but that diversification will stave off a potentially impending crisis.
“We need to enlarge our vision and go beyond the next five or 10 years,” said Anupam Madhukar, the Kenneth T. Norris Professor of Engineering in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “All of our energy sources — petroleum, gas, coal, biomass and others — have to be pushed to their limits.”
Anupam Madhukar

A proponent of solar power, Madhukar talked of its advantages over other renewables, saying that only the sun’s energy would be able to supply the difference between about 28 terrawatts of energy — the amount that will be needed to support the needs of a global population of approximately 10 billion to 11 billion people in the next three decades — and the 18 terrawatts of  energy estimated to be available from all sources, other than nuclear and solar power. That difference is the amount of energy produced by roughly 10,000 nuclear power plants

Solar power poses two major obstacles, however: it is difficult to store and currently far more costly per kilowatt to generate than other electric power sources, such as coal and natural gas. In the meantime, a fundamental shift to some “energy portfolio” of multiple sources must be implemented.
Climate Changes and Environmental Concerns
Climate changes and environmental concerns, such as the prospect of intense hurricanes, storms and drought-sparked forest fires, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, will contribute to global energy demands.

Electrical energy consumption alone will increase 100 percent in the next 15 years, said Craig Smith, a senior scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Although he did not endorse nuclear power as the end-all to the world’s energy problems, Smith noted that nuclear energy is capable of meeting a large part of the world’s energy demand while protecting the atmosphere from harmful CO2 emissions.

“We haven’t built a new nuclear power plant in the U.S. in the last 20 years, and we really need to start building some,” Smith said, adding that about 130 new plants have been built around the world. He said the U.S. is at a critical juncture now, because “something like 17 new plants are in various stages of planning and licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
L-R: John Sheehan, Iraj Ershaghi, Craig Smith and Anupam Madhukar chat during a break.
Energy consumers also need to change their ways.  T.C. Cheng, a professor of electrical engineering/electrophysics at USC and holder of the Lloyd F. Hunt Chair in Electrical Power Engineering, said consumers waste about 30-to-40 percent of the electricity that is generated in the U.S. by leaving lights on in their homes.
"If we could capture even 20 percent of all wasted electricity, that would go a long way toward saving energy," he said. 

Smart Technologies for Oil Recovery
Iraj Ershaghi, the Omar B. Milligan Professor and director of the Petroleum Engineering Program in USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, stressed that there is still plenty of oil to be recovered in the near term, but that better methods of recovery are needed. He attributed the low oil recovery rate on insufficient use of technologies and inadequate research expenditures for the development of smart technologies to tap stranded and residual oil, which leaves two-thirds of the oil in the ground.

“Over the last century, we have produced about 180 billion barrels of oil from the oilfields in the U S., but that’s only 33 percent of what is in the ground,” Ershaghi told the audience.
“The mistake we make is abandoning oil fields, closing them down and making them inaccessible to future generations when there is plenty of oil still in the ground. It’s just getting harder to find new oil and, therefore, more expensive to recover the remaining oil in place.”

Iraj Ershaghi
In 2003, USC's own petroleum engineering research received a major boost when Chevron agreed to partner with USC and create the Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies (CiSOFT) with goals to use information technology to improve oil recovery efficiencies. Ershaghi serves as co-executive director of the center.

Sense of Urgency Needed
Researchers agreed that the urgency of beginning a national dialogue on energy alternatives is “a message that is still not out there.”
I don’t think people understand that it takes 50 years to change an energy system,” said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

He cited the United States’ conversion from wood to coal as an example of how long modernization takes. Today’s complex technologies will make the process even more complicated and lengthy, Lee added.
Consumers can begin to make the transition by buying more energy efficient cars, such as hybrids, said Beth Lowery, a public affairs vice president at General Motors. But the industry needs to start offering more choices and giving them a "broad portfolio of vehicles" to choose from.  
Paul Ronney
Paul Ronney, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at USC and a former NASA astronaut, said just driving smaller, lighter cars could have a significant impact on energy conservation.
"Sure, hybrids will save some money, but you have to weigh that against the extra cost of going to hybrids, the costs of replacing batteries, all those other costs," he said. 
Will that be enough?  Or too little too late?
In his presentation, Caltech chemistry professor Nathan S. Lewis said only nuclear energy will be able to supply nearly enough energy to meet global demand in 2050 while capping CO2 emissions. And it might take the "urgency of the Manhattan Project or putting a man on the moon" to bring about the changes.
“Without policy incentives to overcome socioeconomic inertia,” Lewis said, “development of needed technologies will likely not occur,” certainly not in time (by 2050) for industry to reach a 10-to-30 terrawatt scale. 
Iraj Ershaghi, left, listens to moderator Conan Nolan, a KNBC news reporter.
New Initiative
The National Energy Conference was held shortly after USC announced the formation of a new cross-disciplinary research program — called the USC Future Fuels and Energy Initiative (FFEI) — which is aimed at managing  the transition to a more secure and sustainable energy future.

The FFEI research program will both advance the science of alternative fuels and energy conversions and address the economic, social, environmental and policy issues associated with the transition to a new energy-fuel paradigm.

The FFEI research program will both advance the science of alternative fuels and energy conversions and address the economic, social, environmental and policy issues associated with the transition to a new energy-fuel paradigm.

The National Energy Symposium was sponsored by the University of Southern California, the California Institute of Technology, Congressional Quarterly, and The Communications Institute with the support of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
--Diane Ainsworth/ Photos by Amy Tierney, Lee Salem Photography, Inc.