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Ann Murtlow '82 illuminates difficulties to adopting alternative energy

Ann Murtlow '82

As Ann Dragoumis Murtlow ’82, the President and CEO of Indianapolis Power and Light Company (IPL), waited for the light at the end of the Route 378 bridge to turn green, “The Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show played on the radio.

Suddenly, “I had a huge desire for greekers, which during my time at Lehigh, were consumed in large quantities,” said Murtlow.

However, Murtlow ignored her hunger, realizing that chili-and-sauerkraut smothered hot dogs might result in indigestion and cause her to miss part of last week’s two-day conference, “Balancing Energy and the Environment: An Exploration of Future Research Needs.”

Murtlow retold this story during her lunchtime presentation to the crowd of researchers, scientists, professions and students on Nov. 1.

Murtlow’s quandary at the light was an example of how decisions are made, she said whether the choice is to eat heartburn-inducing hot dogs or to demand cheap power regardless of the consequences.

Lehigh President Alice P. Gast introduced the CEO of Indianapolis’ electricity provider to the conference attendees.

“This is a marvelous conference,” Gast said, about the event sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science . “It is a pleasure to meet this highly accomplished Lehigh alumna and fellow chemical engineer. She has experience dealing in the corporate world and working on civics and policy,” Gast said of Murtlow.

IPL, which is owned by one of the world’s largest global power companies AES, provides some of the cheapest electricity in the nation to their approximately 470,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers. IPL’s electricity costs around seven cents per kilowatt-hour (KWH), compared to 13 cents per KWH in Philadelphia and 19 cents per KWH in New York City.

“But our customers think this is expensive,” Murtlow said.

Indianapolis’s cheap energy comes with a cost—coal power plants produced 95 percent of the power.

The environmental effects of burning coal are “not just my problem, but yours, too,” Murtlow said. “We serve the demand of human beings. Right now that demand is cheap electricity.”

This demand is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2040, partly due to Americans who continue to purchase large homes and own many energy-guzzling electronics like, television sets, she said.

“The tipping point”

However, attitudes towards energy supply and use are changing.

Since 1998, IPL offered consumers the option to buy wind power at a higher price, reflecting the cost of transmitting the power from the wind farms to Indiana, but recently the number of people purchasing the Green Power Option has tripled. Businesses, seeking to be branded as a “green” company, are also investing in cleaner power options.

Even Murtlow’s trainer is asking about green energy. “He’s 26, impossibly young, and while he is killing me, he is peppering me with questions: `Should I get wind energy?’ `Should I get solar?’” Murtlow said.

Concerns about coal and its effect on the climate are increasing, to the point where climate change may become the “issue of the century,” Murtlow said.

“Over the last year, we, as a nation, have gone over the tipping point in terms of our thinking about global warming, and I have little doubt that regulations will soon follow,” she said.

These regulations will probably target aging coal power plants on which IPL now relies, causing the plants to be more expensive to run. As costs rise, IPL will retire the plants, but by then, the power company hopes to have already invested in affordable alternative means of producing energy.

“We’re looking for the next right options,” Murtlow said. “We need to be certain enough that those technologies are the right ones for our customers to invest.”

No one technology will replace coal, Murtlow said, because most cannot produce the same amount of energy as coal. For example, wind turbines must be built in windy areas, and therefore, the power must be transmitted from the wind farms into the city. Even in breezy areas like Kansas, wind mills can only produce 40 percent of the power that could be produced if they ran at full capacity, according to the Sierra Club, but coal power plants produce at approximately 80 percent capacity.

The solution will likely involve a mixture of power sources including wind, solar power, hydroelectric energy, hydrogen power, nuclear power, cleaner coal options and more.

“We need all the tools in our toolbox to confront (climate change), including new technology to reduce emissions,” she said.

“That’s why I’m very happy as a CEO to participate in research at Lehigh,” Murtlow said. IPL and many other energy producing companies are funding Lehigh’s Energy Research Center’s study on reducing carbon dioxide emissions in large coal power plants.

“Victims of our own success”

The public does not understand that many of these technologies are not well enough developed to be used, Murtlow said. Recent opinion polls show that the majority of people believe that our energy needs could be met through solar power and wind energy alone. “That’s not going to happen,” she said.

During the question-and-answer session, Bruce Koel, professor of chemistry and interim vice provost for research, suggested that the achievements of science have created grandiose and, sometimes, unattainable expectations in the public.

“In a sense, we’re victims of our own success,” he said. “People have seen so many amazing things, it seems like magic,” he said.

Bruce Wilson, co-founder of Lehigh Valley Green Builders Forum and a presenter during the morning session, echoed his concern. “There is a great lack of understanding of what’s possible with current technology. But the key is reducing energy use.”

Murtlow agreed, saying that people would conserve energy as prices increase, which could be done by raising taxes. The funds raised by these taxes should be spent on researching new energy-producing technology.

“If we tax people, we need to make sure the money is used for the purpose it’s raised,” she said.

However, true change occurs at the individual level.

“A lot of people are thinking of this from the policy and technology angle, but does it translate with what we’re going to do when we are at home?” Murtlow asked, ending her presentation. “What will you do differently tomorrow than you did today?”

--Becky Straw

Posted on Tuesday, November 06, 2007

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