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Speaker details end of cheap energy

By TERRY BIBO
of the Journal Star

Although the debate may continue over climate change, dwindling supplies of fossil fuels will guarantee major change and daunting challenges, a Bradley University audience was told Wednesday night.

"The age of cheap energy will come to an end," Richard Knoebel told a packed auditorium of engineering students. "Significant behavior changes are going to have to be made."

Knoebel is senior vice president of Sargent & Lundy LLC, an engineering consultant for power plants around the world.

His discussion of power plants and tough choices was an Ameren CILCO endowed lecture, organized by Bradley's College of Engineering & Technology Student Advisory Council. A 1977 Bradley graduate who has worked for Sargent & Lundy for 32 years, Knoebel emphasized the young engineers in the crowd would be the ones to answer the challenge.

"Politicians make rules. Engineers implement them," he said. "You are going to have to deal with this. . . .I'm not going to be around."

Knoebel rapidly outlined the problems and what he termed current myths. He said he believes climate changes but remains unconvinced about the role of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in current climate change debates.

Proposed legislation to reduce CO2 levels requires enormous adjustments, and they are not as close or simple as many people believe, he said.

"A lot of what needs to be done hasn't been developed yet," he told students. "You will have to develop it, and deploy it."

For example, Knoebel pointed out there are three different legislative proposals intended to reduce CO2 anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent. But electrical power plants account for just 39 percent of fossil fuels used. Transportation uses another 34 percent; industry, 17 percent; residential, 6 percent; and commercial, 4 percent.

"Let's pretend we eliminate all CO2 from all the power plants in the country - doesn't meet any of the requirements," he said. "Eliminate transportation, too, and you meet two of three."

On the flip side, he said, efforts to replace current energy use with other sources of power have their own drawbacks. People fear nuclear power, he said, mostly because they do not know enough about it. Renewable energy such as wind and solar power is a "drop in the bucket" of what would be needed - although there is potential that could be developed.

"In a general sense, every part of the country has some renewable source available to it," he said.

When it comes to transportation, the changes required may be even more formidable. Sixty percent of fuel is used by cars, 19 percent by trucks and buses, 20 percent by rail and air transport. Biofuels have been touted as an answer, and they currently make up about 3 percent of the market. But if that percentage gets up to 5 percent, the cost of food may rise with it.

"You already hear some people say the U.S. is being selfish using corn for SUVs when people are starving," Knoebel said. "The answer has got to be more efficient use of transportation - and changes in behavior."

Consumers can expect to face those changes at home, as well, he said. Maximum use of home energy will require "smart" appliances, and smarter owners to use them.

"To achieve the kind of change we need will take some combination of renewables, biofuels, nuclear and behavioral change," he said, adding that the engineers in the room - and economics - would determine that combination. "Behavior can be changed pretty quickly if it gets expensive enough."