Renewable energy: Will it be on the final?

No matter how long it’s been since you were in school, I’ll bet you still have an occasional twinge, or even the odd nightmare, about taking exams. Somehow the stress of being evaluated — perhaps in a subject that we cared little about or under circumstances where we weren’t prepared — leaves a mark that stays with us. At the University of Nevada Reno, Dr.

No matter how long it’s been since you were in school, I’ll bet you still have an occasional twinge, or even the odd nightmare, about taking exams. Somehow the stress of being evaluated — perhaps in a subject that we cared little about or under circumstances where we weren’t prepared — leaves a mark that stays with us.

At the University of Nevada Reno, Dr. Ted Batchman, former dean of the College of Engineering, heads the Renewable Energy Center. In the spring 2009 College of Engineering Magazine, Dr. Batchman describes the attitude of students near the end of the semester. When they evaluate whether to remember certain information, they ask, “Will it be on the final exam?” Dr. Batchman observes, “We always dread this question because the underlying meaning is, if it is not going to be on the final exam, it must not be important.” From this, Dr. Batchman draws an instructive analogy to the current and past worldwide energy crises.

In 1973, America and the Western World experienced the first modern energy crisis. For those of you who are too young to recall, the immediate crisis was brought on by an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo aimed at nations that had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. But a crisis had been developing for years as petroleum consumption increased while supplies, particularly U.S. domestic supplies, decreased.

Waiting in line hours for gasoline is still a vivid memory for my husband and me. We were finishing our Ph.Ds and trying to secure jobs and knew that recession meant that new Ph.D engineers were no longer easily employable. John and I needed gasoline to get to our labs and job interviews.

In the wake of the crisis’ first shock, many new programs and new energy approaches were implemented. However, the embargo itself only lasted six months, and when the immediate crisis subsided, the world eventually forgot most of its lessons. As Dr. Batchman explains, “We decided it wasn’t on the final exam.”

In 1973, the Nixon administration was trapped in the middle of the Watergate scandal and, therefore, was unable to be fully effective in its response, but Congress did approve that same year the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and there was a push to find and exploit domestic supplies. The crisis also aroused American and Western World interest in alternative energy, particularly renewables, such as solar and wind power, and spurred substantial development of mass transit. When President Carter was elected in 1976, he called upon the U.S. to face the energy crisis head on. By 1978, his National Energy Plan had created a Department of Energy, allocated funding to alternative energy research, and provided tax incentives to encourage domestic oil production and energy conservation. The Western World also became more dependent on coal and nuclear power.

However, two years later, President Reagan brought with him to the White House a strong belief in the free market system — he contended that governments should neither regulate industry nor underwrite the commercialization of new technologies. Had his plans been implemented as originally outlined, support would have been removed for both alternative and traditional energy as well as for energy conservation. As it was, most renewable tax credits were allowed to expire, energy efficiency standards were eliminated and the Windfall Profits Tax on oil was repealed.

But the crisis had some lasting impact. National fear of the dependence on foreign oil brought to light the strategic necessity of an energy source whose flow to the West would not fluctuate with political turbulence or cease at the whims of a cartel, so under Reagan, tax benefits for oil and gas investments, though pared back somewhat, remained. The net effect was that, in terms of policy, oil and gas was favored over alternative energy.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, both my husband and I witnessed firsthand the rise and fall of initiative with respect to alternative energy policy. I worked in wind and geothermal, and he worked in solar. Early on, many significant advances were made, but when government subsidies and funding began to dry up, interest waned and development began to stagnate. That is not to say that no development occurred, but for many years the industry concentrated on incremental improvements, and most tended to be in safe and straightforward areas.

Despite the elimination of incentives under Reagan, advocacy of energy conservation and alternate energy sources became a nationwide movement. In recent years, as energy prices have spiraled up, there has there been a substantial resurgence of development, most notably in wind energy. In 2008, as in 1973, we faced, again, a recession combined with an energy crisis. Now we must answer once more, like Dr. Batchman, the dreaded question of importance.

Given the need for rapid action on the economy and the disagreements within governments over the approach, it is hard to predict what will be the long-term support for renewables and other alternative energy. Nonetheless, right now, there clearly is support, and this means opportunities for composites. If we can offer technologies that either reduce cost or — important in this “shovel-ready” climate — reduce time to deployment, we can find a place.

In many renewable companies and projects, I’ve found a surprising lack of composites in applications in which I would have thought their use would be obvious. A surprising number are focused only on “tried and true” structural materials (steel and aluminum, in case you aren’t reading between the lines). The logic, I’ve been told, is that these conventional materials are well vetted and/or there are manufacturing plants and experienced workers from other industries who are standing idle and can be put to work economically. The renewable company, so the argument goes, doesn’t want to waste its time on experimenting with new materials and technologies such as composites (!).They tell me that in this way they can focus research and development on more important items (their words), such as generators and design. (I suspect, however, that this attitude has less to do with strategy than with what is and is not within their comfort zone.) Do you feel like we’ve slipped back 30 years and have to begin all over a battle we thought we were winning?

However, there are, again, opportunities. Look for that smaller renewable energy company that is using no composites. You’re the expert — can you see a way to save them money or time to deployment? If so, bring them examples and proposals and include explanations of the areas in which composites now are the dominant conventional materials. Show them the bottom line, whether it be cost or time. Remember, these aren’t composites companies, and they are trying to get products commercialized and out the door. These folks aren’t stupid, they’re just living in our past.

Of course, if such opportunities lead to energy sources that can compete with conventional energy when subsidies are gone, they should succeed. However, knowing ahead of time which technologies these are is the trick — certainly, if you do, take immediate advantage of the opportunity! (By the way, please also e-mail me with your tips.) But there is encouragement in the fact that, even with incremental improvements, many renewable industries are much closer to break even than they were in 1980. On the other hand, if subsidies continue — for political or environmental reasons — and oil prices take another uphill climb, even more of these technologies will come to fruition and become economic (and political) winners.

Whatever the renewable future holds, however, one thing should be extremely clear: Renewable energy is on the final.


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