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Pittsburgh Positioned As Center for Energy 'Transition'

Christina Gabriel
Christina Gabriel
Chris Gabriel knows how important the just-announced Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh will be for the region's energy research picture. She was a CMU vice provost involved in the university's strategic planning, which envisioned the institute more than a decade ago. Today, she is president of the University Energy Partnership, the energy-technology research partnership among the University of Pittsburgh,
Penn State, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and CMU, located in downtown Pittsburgh.

"This is going to be a hugely important piece of what we do in the region," Gabriel says of the Scott Institute -- especially because CMU's faculty members are expert at working collaboratively and widely. "They usually choose to work on something that requires expertise in very different fields and very different institutions.

"The vision is pretty broad," she adds. "It isn’t like they're going to go after one big-challenge issue." Instead, she expects the Institute to have strong expertise in public policy surrounding energy and other areas that require significant innovation for the future, from green design to water quality.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, should remain the biggest player in the region's $1 billion energy research industry, according to Bill Flanagan of the Energy Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh -- a program of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Innovation Works. Cynthia Powell, director of the Office of Research and Development at NETL, believes the Scott Institute "continues the region’s long history of leadership in solving national energy challenges. By bringing together CMU’s expertise in computational modeling, systems design and optimization, and public and energy policy, the institute creates a strong engine for energy innovation and regional economic development."

Indeed, says Brian Gleeson, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Energy, institutions like Pitt and CMU will continue to collaborate on energy research here through the NETL's Regional University Alliance. Much of that research will still be focused on fossil fuels, thanks to NETL dollars. After all, Gleeson notes, traditional fuels will still generate the majority of power for the foreseeable future, since there is no way to transfer the U.S. energy grid completely to renewables -- "at least not on the time scale most people would like. But there is a lot of research that can be done on how we handle carbon, and now natural gas, in a safe and responsible manner."
 
According to a report on energy sector jobs in the region, released by the Allegheny Conference on Aug. 30, the energy industry accounts for nearly 1,000 companies with 41,000 direct energy jobs in the Pittsburgh region, Together, they make a $19 billion economic impact, representing 16 percent of the 10-county region’s economy.

The region and the state lead in a number of old and new energy fields:

- Pennsylvania is fourth in the nation for coal production;

- The Pittsburgh region has a high concentration of manufacturers of coal industry equipment;

- Pittsburgh's NETL is the only national research lab concentrating on fossil fuels;

- Consol, also in Pittsburgh, is the nation's only private-sector firm researching coal;

- Pennsylvania ranks second in the number of gas-producing wells, while the Marcellus and Utica shales have only increased opportunities in gas and oil here.

- In the report's survey of 37 local employers across all energy sectors (coal, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, transmission and distribution, and intelligent-building technologies), those companies alone forecast 7,000 hires by 2020, including almost 2,000 "critical, difficult-to-fill jobs."

"We have to continue to use coal," says Gabriel, "but we would like to move more and more to natural gas and eventually renewables 50 years from now. The transition is where we need the innovation." And that's where Scott will come in. She points to the low-cost Aqueous Hybrid Ion battery developed by Jay Whitacre, beginning with CMU money and now being produced by Pittsburgh-based Aquion Energy for likely commercial release in 2013, as the sort of innovation the Scott Institute ought to foster.

"You're going to see a lot more things like that coming out of the Institute," says Gabriel. "Not only that, you're going to create some real jobs that are exciting for people, when [companies] start manufacturing these things."

The Scott Institute is being billed as a major education and research initiative of CMU, although Granger Morgan, the Institute's director, points out that "there's been an enormous amount of energy-related work across the CMU campus for a number of years." Never before, though, has CMU had discretionary resources, such as the lead gift from CMU alumni Sherman Scott, president and founder of Delmar Systems, and his wife Joyce Bowie Scott, a CMU trustee, which will allow the Scott Institute to pursue fresh areas of inquiry in energy research, he points out. "So Scott finally will seed new initiatives, if not fund each one completely. It's also going to allow us to support an expanded number of doctoral students working on energy issues," and an additional number of faculty.

Andrew Gellman, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at CMU, is associate director of the Institute. Ground was broken for the Institute on Sept. 22; it will share space with CMU's Biomedical Engineering Department in the new Sherman and Joyce Bowie Scott Hall on the CMU campus.

Seeding Regulatory Change and Job Creation
Morgan, Lord Chair Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at CMU, says the Scott Institute's research will concentrate on four areas: improving existing energy sources, developing new sources, moving energy more efficiency through the grid and shifting public policy.

"The first thing we will do is work on making better use of the energy we have," Morgan says. "The fraction of the energy we put into the front end (coal, nuclear, et cetera) of the U.S. energy system … that ends up getting used in the back end is way too low" -- and that's not because engineers are lousy designers, but because of simple thermodynamics, he says. The situation is worse in transportation. Sometimes it takes industry or government creating new standards to spur research, which is how the refrigerators of several decades ago turned into today's larger, cheaper and more energy-efficient models. The same ought to happen with flat-screen televisions or other common technologies, he believes.

"None of that's going to be possible without a great deal of innovation … and we don't just mean technical innovation," he adds. Equally important will be innovation in regulatory agencies. For instance, CMU faculty are already developing techniques for carbon capture and sequestration (separating the byproducts of burning coal and petroleum to secure them and place them in the ground). "We concluded a few years ago that, yeah, getting the technology is important," but equally crucial will be encouraging regulatory reform concerning who owns the rights to the underground spaces, where the liabilities lie and other regulatory issues. "Unless there are some spaces to at least seed this," such as the Scott Institute, "it isn't going to happen at CMU.

"They're not just technical problems; they're not just regulatory problems," he concludes. Nor is improving the energy picture for the region, the nation or the world simply matters of funding or adjusting society's attitudes, Morgan believes. CMU's experience undertaking broad, cross-disciplinary collaborations "is particularly important and a source of comparative advantage for us."

Morgan is also confident that the Scott Institute will help the energy jobs picture locally, attracting a growing number of undergraduates, graduate and doctoral students to the field. "A decade ago, if you had asked an MBA at any leading school, would you like to learn about the electricity industry, you would have gotten a ho-hum reaction." Now it is growing and attractive field, he notes.

Bill Flanagan, of the Energy Alliance, believes Scott will be "a great new institution" for the region. "One of the things we put front and center when we pursue economic development is the value of the energy research and development. I believe the Scott Institute will increase our region's profile. It'll draw more energy dollars into the region. They're looking at all the different energy options out there over the next 50 to 75 years … from production to distribution to conservation: What role can this region play in developing the substance that will let the nation and the world navigate toward the next solution for energy demand?"

Institutes such as CMU's in the Pittsburgh region have always done government-sponsored research, says Chris Gabriel of the University Energy Partnership. However, she adds, the Scott Institute's creation will greatly benefit other institutions at other universities: "You cannot overstate how important those discretionary dollars are to attract other support and other collaborations to the table."

MARTY LEVINE is a Pittsburgh freelance writer trying to cover the waterfront from the water. Send feedback here.
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