The conference ran all of the 7th and until lunch time on the 8th. There was an opening plenary session and then ten breakout sessions running in pairs. The sessions were as follows:
(1) The Future of Transport Demand
(2) What's Ahead for Natural Gas Markets
(3) Meeting the Growing Demand for Liquids
(4) Electric Power Infrastructure: Status and Challenges for the Future
(5) Renewable Energy in the Transportation and Power Sectors
(6) Financial Markets and Short-Term Energy Prices
(7) Energy Data Needs
(8) Energy and the Media
(9) Investing in Oil and Natural Gas – Opportunities and Barriers
(10) Greenhouse Gas Emissions: What's Next
Steven Chu was the first speaker for the plenary session and I was delighted by what he had to say. I was unaware that the Department of Energy is the largest science funding operation within the government and Obama's vision is that our overall investment will double in the next decade. Chu spoke about the need for the DoE to do for the energy sector what AT&T's Bell Labs did for telecommunications. For those not in the telecomm sector this reference might not be clear, but Bell Labs was a giant during its heyday, producing a tremendous flood of innovation. We are in debt to them for, among other things, the operating system on the computers that host this web site.
Following Chu was economist William Nordhaus and I'll let him speak for himself:
Once a generation we have to behave like grownups. This might be the time.
The rest of his speech was lightly peppered with these dry zingers – high comedy for a room full of energy policy wonks.
John Rowe, CEO of Chicago based Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear plant operator, closed the plenary. He is an older fellow with a ponderous style but he is spot on regarding the issues. They've closed out their least efficient coal plants, uprated their nuclear facilities, and demonstrated just what can be done with building efficiency in their Chicago headquarters. Updating from 1970s technology to today's best cut the building's energy use in half.
I forget Chu's exact words but my sense of the overall direction for electricity was this: nuclear replacing coal as the baseload with wind moving as strongly as possible and dispatchable natural gas being the balance to wind's variability.
Ammonia in global production is about 30% natural gas and 70% coal, but the U.S. production is almost entirely natural gas based, so I attended session #2. My hopes were up as Dr. Chu had directly mentioned the historic place the Haber Bosch process has in the green revolution, but the session focused on heating and electric generation. This was still good for my purposes: ammonia production has to compete with these other natural gas uses and it's a small portion of the overall market. We developed our thinking on renewable ammonia in 2008 and in 2009 we're going to have to put it in context with the natural gas market and other related components of the energy sector.
I didn't know much about the hydrofracturing process for recovering natural gas from shale and this is an area that needs some attention: one third of the water used comes back out in the recovery process and benzene is one of the contaminants. There was no information on exactly how much, but any level of this known carcinogen in water is a serious concern.
Renewable ammonia competes with other users of electricity so Session #4 was a must see for me. I was not disappointed – Kumar Agarwal brought it all out in the open. As an employee of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in their Office of Electric Reliability he had all the goods on the new transmission corridor incentives and what it would mean for overall system stability.
There are $27 billion in incentives out there for twenty seven separate applications, the smallest of which is a 230 kilovolt line extension and the largest dollar wise was the 3,800 megawatt Trans-Allegheny system expansion.
Electric system stability is handled in a similar fashion to internet stability. There are six regional independent system operators who work together on capacity planning and troubleshooting. There is a crying need for a smart grid, but it must capture the wisdom of these longtime operators in the various protocols it will use. The electric grid, due to a shared clock, is going to be far less tolerant of changes than the internet, despite similar operating group structures.
I wanted to attend session #6 but Lyme disease struck, laying me out for several hours in the hotel room, and causing me to miss dinner with my fellow bloggers from The Oil Drum. I'm cognitively solid all day, so long as I remain awake, and that's a tremendous relief after the constant mental fog of 2007 and early 2008, but when I eat the wrong thing, and wrong changes on a day to day basis, I'm out of commission for half the working day.
Session #8 on Energy and the Media was a real treat. Blogger Robert Rapier sat front and center with serious print journalists and with his masters in chemical engineering he was the only technical member of the panel, so several questions were shunted to him. This theme was further developed later in the session, with explicit questions about how subject matter experts blogging efforts were affecting overall reporting. As newsrooms get smaller we get more important – but our journalistic integrity must be as best as humanly possible.
I was expecting a somewhat technical bit on greenhouse gases in Session #10 but I'd failed to read the panel member roster carefully. We had one person from President Obama's executive office, two House staffers, and one Senate staffer.
Joe Aldy is the Special Assistant to the President for Energy and the Environment at the National Economic Council and the Office of Energy and Climate Change in the White House. Having expended his one allotted paragraph on his title alone I can say nothing about his actual message.
OK, just kidding. He talked a lot about President Obama's goals and a big one that came through loud and clear was this – cap and trade WILL NOT be a big windfall for corporate interests. This is an interesting and evolving topic; our government has a track record of levying and collecting taxes, and this will be needed to resolve the incredible mess on the national balance sheet from the Bush years, while there is no track record for making up a regulated market out of whole cloth. I'm curious to see how this plays out.
The House staffer on the Democratic side, Greg Dotson, talked a lot about Henry Waxman's efforts on the Clean Air Act, and the sense is that climate change is both a larger issue and much more urgent. The Clean Air Act took a decade to pass ...
There is no official announcement yet, either from Michael Steele, Boss Limbaugh, or Cryin' John Boehner, but the rebranding of the Republican party was clearly evident in the words that came from staffer Andrea Spring; they're the Concern Troll Party now, full of fear, uncertainty, and delay, but offering no solutions of their own.
I didn't get to stick around for the Senate staffer's talk – I had to scoot over the Union Station for my train back to Massachusetts. I must report that this is hands down the worst Amtrak ride EVER. There is some horrible electrical interference pouring out of the overhead speakers and the staff don't seem to have a plan for resolving it. My ride is something like seven hours and I developed a splitting headache after only a few minutes of it. I hear they've pulled out 67 older Amtrak cars to supplement the 620 currently in service. Hopefully these will go in for a much needed sprucing up once the first 67 are complete.
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