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Future Shock

Coal Colleges on a Green Planet

Institutions at the cutting edge of coal research
University Business, Oct 2008

WE ALL SAW IT COMING--THE proverbial handwriting was on the wall. One would have had to be clueless to miss the energy crunch coming down the pipeline, with the cost of gasoline topping $4 per gallon, Northeastern states experiencing a rolling brownout, and families opting to remain at home on “staycations” this past summer. Indeed, with preowned hybrid Toyota Prius cars rarer than hen’s teeth, and with 33,000 signing up for GM’s new electric chariot—the Chevy Volt—the tree-hugging granola folks were not the only ones who felt the pinch on our natural resources last summer.

In the emerging green economy, it is now clear that we need to go beyond wind and solar power to methane, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, hydro, and tidal energy. As we ponder the possibilities of smarter fuel alternatives, and their impact on higher ed, we must also consider coal—an old, familiar resource with a drastically changing role.

In its early stages of discovery, coal was (and still is) “the best of fuels and the worst of fuels,” as Kenneth S. Deffeyes calls it in Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (Hill and Wang, 2005). It is best in that it is plentiful, is distributed broadly in both domestic and overseas markets, and serves as the perfect energy source in its capacity to power utilities, offices, schools, and homes. Beyond its impact as a plentiful power source, coal’s most valuable quality is its mitigation of foreign oil dependence.

Some would say we suffer from an energy attention deficit disorder, shutting off the research tap each time oil prices come down.

Unhappily, coal’s downside includes air pollution and global warming, a daunting and noxious legacy for our children, not to mention the possibility of a shorter life for our planet. For the future, new technologies in coal mining, gasification, and sequestration can change the way we generate energy from coal and provide a primary energy source in a greener economy and more stringent government regulatory environment.

Surprisingly, university energy researchers have known for several decades the dirty little secret about coal: it does not have to be dirty. Over the past 50 years, America’s colleges and universities became alternately engaged and disengaged in coal research. Some would say that we suffer from an energy attention deficit disorder, shutting off the alternative energy research tap each time oil prices come down and oil becomes more available. So what happened? Simply put, oil was discovered in such abundance in the Middle East, South America, and other places that oil companies convinced the United States to all but abandon its alternative energy research. Clearly, shortsighted views on energy sources and markets ruled the day.

But with a $5 per gallon price tag projected for 2009, we must brace ourselves anew for the energy, economic, and environmental consequences that the next generation will face. Now that major mining colleges and research universities have attracted federal, state, and energy-provider investments, the stakes have soared, and with that the interest of America’s colleges and universities in clean coal and other sustainable energy choices has dramatically risen.

To get a better sense of the role American higher ed can play in developing human capital and an intelligent workforce for the coal industry, come with us for a flyover of the nation’s leading coal colleges and universities.

The Institute for Clean and Secure Energy (ICSE) grew from a long tradition of combustion research at The University of Utah beginning in the 1950s, when its several energy research programs focused on combustion simulation, high-temperature fuel utilization processes, and associated environmental and health issues. Fast-forward fifty years to the university’s formation of the Utah Clean Coal Program, whose mission is the generation of scientific and technical breakthroughs that allow coal to be used as an energy source in a carbon-constrained world.

Speaking as part of Campus Environmental Impact Day in October 2007, Michael Young, the institution’s president, explained, “Over the past few years, the university has made significant strides as a responsible steward of our precious environment.”

“It is important to tackle this question head-on, with points of view from all over the political spectrum represented,” adds Adel Sarofim, presidential professor at the university’s Institute for Combustion and Energy Study. “The university is proud to provide a national platform for this discussion. The university’s expertise flows out of its long history in coal science, its track record with gas and oil projects around the globe.”

Consider as well the world-class consortium of three institutions—Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and West Virginia University—that will receive up to $26 million in funding over the next two years to develop clean and efficient technologies for the use of fossil fuels. The results of the consortium’s work could reduce national dependence on foreign oil as more than 200 scientists and their graduate students address key areas of fossil fuel research.

Each university within the consortium brings to the project its own respective area of expertise. WVU excels in mining, Carnegie Mellon will share its high-tech computer modeling techniques, and Pitt can draw on its environmental science expertise. The results of this combined effort will make it cheaper and easier to use coal and other energy resources within the United States, thus reducing U.S. dependence on foreign nations for oil.

There is a clear and compelling need for developing clean coal as a leading fuel option.

Consortium Research Director Andrew Gellman, also a Carnegie Mellon chemical engineering professor, sees it this way: “We need to develop improved turbine generators and new fuel cell technologies that use coal-derived synthetic fuels, along with new ways to capture and store greenhouse gases instead of releasing them into the atmosphere.”

Gellman adds that “the synergistic relationship between the three institutions [will help us] tackle issues in a broader way than only one.”

Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon explains, “Developing new technologies, policies, and practices to protect and enhance our global environment is one of our strategic priorities.”

In Wyoming, the state legislature appropriated $3.8 million in its 2008 session to the Clean Coal Research Account, an economic incentive to stimulate research to improve clean coal technologies. Toward this end, General Electric Energy has begun building a $100 million advanced coal gasification research and technology center at the University of Wyoming.

UW President Tom Buchanan notes, “This project will give us a unique platform to demonstrate new technology and processes, and provide career avenues for our students. This advanced research facility has the potential to position the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources — as the global center of excellence in coal gasification research, building a pipeline of scientists and engineers with significant expertise in cleaner coal technologies.”

At the coal mining workforce development level, U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) recently announced a nearly $1 million grant to allow the Northern Wyoming Community College District to offer new degree programs in mining technology.

“Wyoming is the epicenter of our nation’s most important energy sources. The mining industry provides critical jobs for Wyoming and is an important source of revenue for the state,” says Enzi. “Through both the Sheridan and Gillette campuses, Northern Wyoming Community College District has proven to be a great place to get an education, and this new mining technology program will only increase the benefit to area residents who want to further their education in a field that is growing at lightning speed.”

American higher ed has often made the mistake of putting aside coal research, and we are now paying the price. We can no longer afford to repeat this mistake. The environment, our economy, and our security are at risk by our continued dependence on foreign oil. For U.S. colleges and universities, there is a clear and compelling need for developing clean coal as a leading fuel option. We must continue the momentum of alternative energy research, and we look to these leading centers of energy research, these clean coal colleges, to power us there.

James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).