Energy secretary tours Morgantown research lab

July 29, 2013
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, second from left, listens Monday to a presentation on an experimental chemical looping reactor at National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va. - Michael Bradwell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told staffers at the National Energy Technology and Research Laboratory in Morgantown Monday that their work will be front and center in helping the country find energy solutions in the years ahead.

Moniz, who toured NETL’s extensive laboratories devoted to fossil fuels research, also told reporters later Monday that despite the domestic coal industry taking a hit in recent times, the fuel will remain a significant part of the national energy portfolio for years to come.

“This is going to be the place to be over the next few years” with regard to finding more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to use fossil fuels, Moniz told an audience of several hundred scientists, engineers and technicians assembled in the NETL campus auditorium.

“The challenges are serious,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to argue that we are not actually seeing the effects of global warming through droughts, wildfires and increases in naturally occurring (weather) events.”

But Moniz also said he’s optimistic that the country can meet its energy challenges in the same way it has met other challenges in its history.

Reiterating President Obama’s message about using all types of fuels to meet future energy needs, Moniz said, “We have an ‘all of the above’ strategy, and it’s real.

“We’re about preparing that future so that all of our fuels have important roles,” he said.

For NETL, which he helped to transform from a smaller fossil fuels research center into a national one when he was undersecretary of the Department of Energy in the late 1990s, Moniz said the lab will have a critical role in the future uses of fossil fuel.

He noted that the Obama administration recently committed $6 billion for research in carbon capture and sequestration.

During a tour of NETL’s labs earlier Monday, Moniz, who prior to his appointment was professor of physics and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was shown the latest research on a “chemical looping reactor,” which researchers said could eventually replace boilers used in coal-fired power plants as a more environmentally friendly and efficient way of producing energy.

One of the biggest attributes of NETL’s research capabilities is its use of a supercomputer that enables it to do large-scale calculations. Moniz noted that in the 14 years since it became a national laboratory, NETL’s computing ability has been increased by a factor of 500.

The lab also has been involved since the late 1970s in research related to unconventional natural gas, including coalbed methane and shale gas.

“We’re seeing the benefits of that research today in spades in our economy,” Moniz said in reference to the shale gas boom in the Marcellus and other shale plays around the country.

He added that more work needs to be done in unconventional shale and reducing its environmental footprint.

While labs like NETL are on the cutting edge of energy research, Moniz stressed several times Monday that the government is in the business of providing a variety of options to businesses and consumers, not picking markets for various types of energy.

During a brief question-and-answer session with reporters following his formal remarks, Moniz responded to questions about coal’s future, given recent events, including the loss of more than 300 jobs at several coal-fired generating plants in the area that will close this fall. It also was noted that current estimates for commercial application of carbon capture are about 15 years away.

Noting that coal use has risen in recent months because of the increase in natural gas prices, Moniz said the marketplace “is doing a little balancing” but added that he doesn’t see coal’s use being discontinued in the future.

When asked about the future of alternative fuels for transportation, Moniz said several factors are at work, including vehicles that are now more fuel-efficient due to new EPA standards that will require manufacturers’ fleets to average 50.4 miles per gallon by 2025.

He also noted that electric vehicles are showing “ramp rates” of acceptance that are much faster than hybrid vehicles when they were first introduced more than a decade ago.

Where compressed natural gas is concerned, Moniz said fleet conversions of buses and short-haul trucks are leading the way, adding that more research needs to be done in getting the conversion costs down. He said more research also is needed in making liquefied natural gas a viable alternative for long-haul Class A trucks.

“We expect to increase the use of fossil fuels for quite some time, but we expect better use of fossil fuels,” he said.

Michael Bradwell has been business editor for the Observer-Reporter since 1995, and was named editor of The Energy Report in 2012. He joined the newspaper in 1990 as a general assignment reporter in the Greene County bureau and has also worked as a copy editor. A 1974 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in English, he began his career at the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette. Prior to joining the O-R, he served as public relations director for Old Bedford Village, account executive at two Pittsburgh public relations agencies and copywriter for the country’s largest wholesaler of mutual funds.

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