Energy energizes Flanagan

Pittsburgh region’s energy prowess dates to Colonial times

December 3, 2012
Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference makes a point during a presentation Thursday on the Pittsburgh region’s rich history of energy. His remarks were made during the 2nd annual Energy & Innovation Conference at Southpointe. - Photo courtesy of Catalyst Connection

Mount Washington? Coal?

“The place that offers all those great views of Pittsburgh was one of the richest coal sources in Ameica,” said Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “It was called Coal Hill longer than it’s been known as Mount Washington.”

Flanagan, executive vice president of corporate relations, surprised many with that bon mot during a breezy address Thursday at Southpointe. He was the keynote speaker that morning at the second annual Energy & Innovation Conference, co-sponsored by Pittsburgh-based Catalyst Connection and National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Although, literally, it would be impossible to talk coherently with one’s tongue in cheek, Flanagan did that masterfully in a figurative sense as he presented a chronology of the energy history of Western Pennsylvania to an audience of about 200 in the Hilton Garden Inn.

That history dates to the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s, and continues to today with the region serving as a hub for energy and natural resources.

“I’m going to talk about how our region saved the energy industry and saved the whales,” Flanagan said at the outset of his talk, titled “From Western Virginia to the Forks of the Ohio: Following the Trail That Gave the World an Energy Industry.”

He harkened back to a young British officer named George Washington, who became familiar with this region during the conflict with the French over Pittsburgh and its rivers, then believed to be pivotal to controlling North America. The future father of this country started purchasing land in Western Pennsylvania, including some in Washington County.

That land, it turned, was teeming with coal.

“The rivers themselves did not make this a vital energy center,” Flanagan said on the second and final day of the conference. “The reason that took root is coal.”

The Pittsburgh Coal Seam was under Mount Washington and stretched for miles along the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. Mining started on that seam in 1760, 12 years after the first commercial coal mine in the U.S. opened near Richmond, Va. By the late 19th century, 13 million tons of coal per year was being extracting from the Pittsburgh Coal Seam.

“Until 1860, the Gateway to the West grew into the major production center in the United States,” said Flanagan, also the host of a business program on WPXI-TV. “This was truly the Silicon Valley of the 19th century.”

About that time, Pittsburgh also was an early incarnation of Greenpeace, according to Flanagan. He said that in the 1850s, the whale populations in the North and South Atlantic were severely diminished because of a need for oil for lamps. Then in 1853, Sam Kier of Indiana, Pa. – using a still as his standard – developed the world’s first oil refinery in downtown Pittsburgh. The product became known as kerosene.

It was needed in large quantities, though, which led to Edwin Drake setting up the nation’s first commercial oil well in 1859.

“This is how Pittsburgh saved the whales,” Flanagan said.

He also credited Pittsburgher George Westinghouse, possessor of 361 patents, for two major energy-related developments. Westinghouse invented the air brake for trains, using compressed air, in 1869 – “one of the 10 most important innovations of the 19th century.” Later, he developed the technology to safely transport natural gas, using what he learned about alternating currents from Thomas Edison light bulb.

National innovations contnued here into the 20th century, including KDKA, the first commercial radio station, in 1920 and construction of the first atom smasher in 1937. The 1940s, however, were “Pittsburgh’s finest hour,” Flanagan said. The region produced more steel than their World War II rivals, Germany and Japan, combined,

In recent years, of course, the Marcellus rush has fueled more energy and job opportunities for Southwestern Pennsylvania. And, Flanagan said, the region would be boosted even further if Shell Oil Co. does select Beaver County for its ethane cracker plant,

Yet, amid the prosperity and rosy prospectus, he does have a concern.

“We will need to hire 130,000 people by the end of the decade in this region, and we’ll need a highly skilled, educated and trained workforce,” Flanagan said. “But we have a declining population and a low number of people who are interested in the technology fields. We need lots of people in all seven sectors.”

Those sectors of energy, he said, are coal, nuclear, natural gas, power distribution, solar, wind and green buildings. Flanagan said the Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit regions are the only ones nationwide that rank in the top 25 in each.

“We’re the smallest of the three, and the only one of the three with all of the natural resources,” he said.

“What we have here in natural resources will drive this economy for the next century.”

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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