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Experts confront energy needs from many academic angles

The world is becoming more dependent on energy. Energy utilization and economic activity are intrinsically tied; however, the potential for sustainable energy is not completely out of reach.

This was the collective message offered by four speakers at the Nov.1 Global Energy Supply and Use session during the final day of “Balancing Energy and the Environment: An Exploration of Future Research Needs,” a two-day conference sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science (RCEAS).

The conference brought together preeminent researchers to explore research needs and opportunities for technology and policy development that could create a sustainable energy future. The breadth of speakers illustrated the need to tackle sustainable energy from an interdisciplinary approach and to foster collaboration among a variety of constituents from academia, industry and government.

Henri Barkey, chair of Lehigh’s International Relations Department, presented a picture of the current oil situation through the lens of U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations. By 2020, energy consumption is slated to rise by 40 percent, and with 70 percent of its oil imported, the U.S. will rely heavily on the Middle East for energy.

“Our dependence on Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf is going to increase in time and energy independence is not going to come anytime soon,” said Barkey.

Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production from 10.5 to 12.5 million barrels a day, but Barkey contends that the Saudi increase will not be sufficient to meet the demand.

“What matters for the United States is that oil flows at a decent price, and there’s a stable amount of oil.” But he adds, “The risk factor in the price of oil stems from tensions in the Middle East.”

Barkey says that “the protection of Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf will remain a priority in the U.S. The U.S. is the only power to provide security of oil.” U.S. and Saudi interests are closely tied—Al Qaeda, Iran and the Shia population are not only targeted by the U.S. but are also primary threats to the Saudi regime.

Barkey said that this dependence, coupled with global warming, is prompting industrialized countries to rethink their energy consumption habits and patterns. It’s the first time since the 1970s when the political and economic climate led to changes in energy use.

John Laitner, senior economist for technology and policy for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, is helping examine that potential for change. Laitner’s research focuses on developing a more robust analytical characterization of energy-efficient resources within energy and climate policy analyses and within economic policy models.

In a forthcoming study, the ACEEE contends that “investments in energy-efficient technologies may already be twice as large as normal energy supply—with a clear opportunity to expand the potential in significant ways.”

Laitner mentioned various emerging technologies that show promise, including advanced polymers that use radio frequency to clean and dry clothing and a team of students who achieved over 12,000 mpg on a car they designed for the Shell Eco-marathon.

“We know so little about real efficiency opportunities,” says Laitner. “The choices we make are central to the futures we envision.”

“It’s people, people”

Dork Sahagian, Lehigh professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, agreed. “It’s people, people,” he bluntly told the audience. Sahagian referenced the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which showed that human activity contributed to global warming over the last 50 years. His research demonstrates air and water pollution, sea level rise, human population and deforestation affects on the environment.

Sahagian discussed the link between energy utilization and economic activity. As director of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative, Sahagian is working to bring an interdisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems. “We’ve focused on carbon and global warming, but there are other environmental impacts,” said colleague Peter Zeitler, who moderated the session.

“We know enough about the anthropogenic perturbations to take concrete steps against detrimental climate and other changes,” said Sahagian.

One of those steps comes in the form of creating sustainable or “green” buildings both for residential and commercial use.

“There’s a tremendous need for information about green building,” said Bruce Wilson, co-founder of the Lehigh Valley Green Builders Forum. “The impact of buildings on the environment is substantial,” he added, noting that buildings account for 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Wilson, who is a general contractor and consultant specializing in green building, renewable energy and energy improvements for existing buildings, understands that the public misperceives of the cost of green building. Building green actually allows for higher performance and a lower cost, he says.

The average Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold building only costs 1.6 percent more than building to code and costs 40 to 60 percent less to operate. Additional tax incentives are making such projects more viable.

Wilson cited several successful Lehigh Valley-based buildings which incorporate green design including the Plaza at PPL and the KASYCH Pavilion at Lehigh Valley Hospital, both in Allentown, and Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pa., where the lighting alone improved learning and retention by 20 percent.

“This shows what a corporation can do to exert corporate responsibility,” said Wilson.

--Tricia Long


Posted on Monday, November 05, 2007

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