|Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute | About RPI | Academics & Research | Student Life | Admissions | News & Information|
“Those of us who can figure out how to burn coal with minimal pollution will be part of the ‘energy-environment economic’ solution,” says Robert Hanfling ’59, a clean-coal proponent and an energy policy expert who has served under three U.S. presidents.
The Brooklyn native remembers what it was like living in the midst of dirty and inefficient power plants 50 years ago. “You’ve heard the commercial, ‘ring around the collar?’ Well, when I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, if you wore a white shirt, by the time you came home you had ring around the collar,” Hanfling recalls. “The incinerators and the furnaces in apartment buildings were burning coal or burning trash, and the soot was all over the place.”
Hanfling is much more optimistic about coal power these days. He heads KFx Inc., a company in Denver, Colo., that has developed a way to process coal into a cleaner, more energy efficient product called “K-Fuel.”
“It is the unleaded gasoline equivalent for the coal-fired industry,” Hanfling says.
Economic prosperity depends upon energy. Power is essential to producing food and a variety of everyday products, and to running automobiles, mass transit systems, homes, industries, offices, hospitals, stores, and the many other building blocks of a vibrant economy.
The process uses temperature and pressure to reduce the water content of low-grade coal and lignite, thereby increasing the energy content in Powder River Basin coal by about 30 percent. In removing the water, Hanfling adds, the process also reduces the mercury content by 70 percent and upon combustion reduces sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions by 30 percent.
The company plans to construct facilities with a total capacity of 50 million tons per year of K-Fuel product within the next five years.
Toward a New Energy System
“Energy is a key part of our national security. We pour billions of dollars into our defense department, yet we put relatively little money into energy security,” Hanfling says.
Hanfling also believes that raising prices, particularly at the pump because vehicles consume nearly half of all crude oil, will shift consumer behavior toward conservation and more energy-efficient alternatives.
Percy says higher energy prices, particularly in the form of taxation, and regulations such as a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions will spur the technological innovation necessary to make a dependable energy transition.
The trend of higher energy costs is not likely to reverse anytime soon, Schwartz says. In the best-case scenario, the world makes a fairly smooth transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy system, which entails higher energy prices. “By the middle of the century, energy will be cleaner, greener, but more expensive,” he says.
While Schwartz says he generally is not a supporter of the President’s energy policy, “I find myself in near total agreement with the new initiatives he announced in his State of the Union, particularly recognizing the diversity of energy resources we need, from renewables to nuclear to clean coal,” he says. “The major criticism I have is the failure to address the demand for transport fuels either with higher mileage standards or a much higher gasoline/carbon tax. In the absence of such measures, we are unlikely to reduce demand by much.”
Still, Schwartz is optimistic that America and the rest of the world are beginning to look toward the greener side.
Abate shares that optimism and also the deepening concern of what it may mean if we take a wrong turn. “The industry is changing. It’s around sustainability. If you don’t get your energy policy right, your great-grandkids are going to live worse than you did.”
© 2006 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. All rights reserved worldwide.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), 110 8th St., Troy, NY 12180. (518) 276-6000