Not even a federal shutdown could stop the 2013 Carbon Management Technology Conference. Event organizers made sure of that.
The budget impasse forced about 50 federal employees who had registered for the Washington, D.C.-area conference to bow out. And while this put a major crimp in attendance, it did nothing to diminish the high-quality content.
Dr. Darlene Schuster and her staff at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers deserve much of the credit for holding the multi-society conference together. Their hard work kept costs down and allowed volunteers to deliver a superb technical conference.
Dr. Veronika Rabl, vice-chair of the IEEE-USA Energy Policy Committee, also played a key role in the event’s success. She and Alan Weakly served on the CMTC steering committee and co-chaired the low-carbon electricity track. Rabl also moderated many of the sessions.
“The electric utility industry has been, and will remain, a principal focal point of carbon management efforts,” 2013 IEEE-USA President Marc Apter said in his opening remarks. Apter was filling in for his predecessor and CMTC Co-chair Jim Howard.
Despite the unforeseen obstacles, 232 people attended CMTC at the Hilton Alexandria (Va.) Old Town, 21-23 October. It featured 79 technical presentations, 46 invited talks and three workshops. In addition to electricity, the other tracks highlighted carbon capture, utilization and storage; engineering challenges and solutions for adaptation to climate change; and potentially game-changing technology and evaluation.
CMTC met its goal of bringing engineers, scientists, economists and others together to discuss the twin challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to a changing climate. CMTC Chair Dave Rogers, general manager of climate change for Chevron Corp., said attempting to overcome these challenges can lead to unintended consequences.
“For example, subsidized renewable energy has driven up the cost of electricity for consumers and has strained government budgets,” Rogers said during the opening plenary session. “In fact in Germany, German citizens have the second-highest electricity rates in the entire free world. … And utilities have begun to utilize more coal-fired capacity [because] it’s cheaper to burn coal and acquire carbon credits than it is to use [natural] gas-fired power generation.
“[This] is exactly the opposite of what policymakers had intended some seven, eight or nine years ago.”
Greenhouse gas emissions are produced primarily by burning fossil fuels, namely oil (and its derivative gasoline), coal and natural gas. This activity – which is increasing in China and other economically developing nations – is what most atmospheric scientists agree is primarily responsible for rising temperatures on earth. How does this work?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “When sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface, some of it is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation (heat). Greenhouse gases absorb this infrared radiation and trap the heat in the atmosphere.”
Because of fossil fuels’ role in climate change, there’s been an increased interest in generating carbon-free electricity from nuclear power plants and renewable energy resources such as solar, hydropower, geothermal and wind. While nuclear energy faces social, political and new-construction-cost concerns, renewables are looked upon favorably to reduce the primary human-generated greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
“We see a tremendous increase in overall use of renewables,” said David Owens, executive vice president of business operations at the Edison Electric Institute. “But let me not deceive you. Even if we do, we see that renewables clearly cannot meet all of our future electricity needs – they cannot.
“I think that there is a false debate occurring that suggests in the next 15 years, the bulk of our overall electricity needs can be met by renewables. And that’s just not possible.”
Joe Powell, Shell’s chief scientist, chemical engineering, talked about game-changing technologies in carbon management. He said the biggest game-changer he’s seen is the technology to unlock natural gas in sedimentary rock formations. Shale gas is now recoverable because of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. These techniques have greatly boosted natural gas supplies and lowered prices in the United States.
“Here we were worried about energy availability in the U.S.,” Powell said, “and now because of this technology breakthrough, we’re looking at abundant gas resources [and] chemical reserves from the [liquid natural] gas that come with that [as] a real game-changer in terms of the U.S. economy and how it will be impacted going forward.”
While fracking has plenty of critics concerned about damage to the earth and environment, as well as potential health consequences, the conversion of coal-burning electric generating plants to natural gas has helped lower carbon dioxide.
“If you combine something that’s actually more economic with environmental policy,” Powell said, “then you have a real game-changer because you’re getting movement that you wouldn’t have thought possible.”
United States Energy Efficiency
The final day one plenary speaker was Dr. Marilyn Brown, an endowed energy policy professor at Georgia Tech and a distinguished visiting scientist at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory. She talked about technology and policies for a sustainable energy future.
“There are a lot of exciting technology breakthroughs occurring in the lighting arena, and this is clearly going to be a major player as we move forward,” she said.
Brown, who’s also a member of the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors, said as emerging nations become more affluent, they use more energy. The United States, by contrast, has reduced its world energy consumption from 30 percent in 1975 to about to about 19 percent today.
“In 20 years or so, we’re going to be at 12 or 13 percent,” Brown said. “So increasingly, it’s no longer going to be how [the United States] consumes energy that will drive markets. It’s going to be about how other [countries] are using energy and how we provide a template for a more sustainable energy system.”
CMTC was cosponsored and organized by IEEE-USA, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Association for Iron and Steel Technology, the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.