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Transition to New Energy Sources Urged

by Diane Ainsworth

Iraj Ershaghi, Craig Smith and Anupam Madhukar, from left, chat during a break.

Photo/Amy Tierney

The U.S. will face a critical energy shortage in coming decades if it does not transition from fossil fuels to a mix of oil and renewable energy resources, said energy experts, including several from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who participated in a national energy symposium, the first of its kind to be held at USC. But the recipe for the mix is still not clear.

Faculty from the Mork Family department of chemical engineering and materials science, the department of electrical engineering and the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering met June 15 with a panel of prominent scholars, economists, industry representatives and media around the country for a daylong symposium titled “The National Energy Symposium: Confronting Costs to New Technologies.”

Experts predict 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. 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.

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 may sustain the population and stave off an 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. “All of our energy sources � petroleum, gas, coal, biomass and others � have to be pushed to their limits.”

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 a global population of approximately 10-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: It is difficult to store and currently is far more costly per kilowatt to generate than other electric power sources, such as coal and natural gas.

But if solar power is not the answer, neither are the other alternatives, because they cannot supply enough power and, inevitably, they will all be more expensive to introduce than current energy sources, the economists stressed. And in the meantime, a fundamental shift to some “energy portfolio” of multiple sources must be implemented now.

Climate changes, including the prospect of more intense hurricanes, storms and drought-sparked forest fires, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, may become the impetus America needs to wake up, some panelists noted.

In the western states, for example, hotter summers have been blamed for energy brown-outs all over California and soaring electricity bills in the last few years.

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. may be at a critical juncture now because “something like 17 new plants are in various stages of planning and licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Iraj Ershaghi, the Omar B. Milligan Professor at USC and director of the Petroleum Engineering Program in the USC 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 blamed the low oil recovery rate on insufficient use of technologies by small oil companies and inadequate research expenditures on 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.”

The symposium was sponsored by USC, the California Institute of Technology, Congressional Quarterly and The Communications Institute with the support of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Transition to New Energy Sources Urged

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