By Dave Gardner
A highly-charged business climate has emerged as energy suppliers and consumers throughout the nation deal with a mix of conventional sources plus advancing greener technologies.
Natural gas prices have risen a bit, but a plentiful supply of crude oil continues to dominate the fuels arena, according to Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. He has urged Harrisburg to promote sensible regulations to continue Pennsylvania’s expansion of its natural gas bonanza, and he noted that solar cells and windmills, while increasingly popular in select applications, for generating electricity, are only part of a niche energy market.
“Wind and solar are awaiting a major battery breakthrough because the electrical output from these sources is up and down,” said Barr. “Despite all of the money being spent on research, as of now there’s nothing on the immediate horizon with a vastly better battery.”
On the global stage, a French company known as New Wind, has created a backyard windmill system called “Arbre à Vent” (Wind Tree). This is a 26-foot wind tree fitted with 63 tiny blades inside the “leaves’’ which can generate electricity in wind speeds as low as 4.5 miles per hour.
The power output of the tree, which is relatively silent, is 3.1 kilowatts a year depending on the wind. Retail price of the Arbre à Vent is listed at $33,670.
Japan’s venerable industrial giant Mitsubishi is now marketing a combined-cycle, gas-turbine power plant which uses jet engine technology combined with a steam turbine to rotate generators that produce electricity. The system’s fuel efficiency exceeds 63 percent and the system produces approximately 65 percent less carbon dioxide than the coal-fired power plants.
Geisinger Health System has taken the alternative energy plunge. Al Neuner, vice president of facility operations, noted that 144 solar panels installed on the roof of the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital as part of a $150,000 green project, continue to perform without incident or unexpected maintenance issues.
These panels are providing a variable output depending on the amount of sunshine and obviously produce zero current at night. Overall the system is able to meet 20 percent of the hospital’s total power needs, and require only a “dusting” quarterly to operate at top efficiency.
“The cells themselves are a black material so snow melts quickly,” said Neuner. “We’re also moving ahead with a similar installation of 106 cells at our Catawissa Clinic to help reduce what we pay for electricity because it’s a municipal supply and very expensive.
Neuner added that, despite advancements in solar cell efficiency, 20 years are required for these systems to achieve a return-on-investment. Geisinger is also considering a wind study to determine the feasibility of generating electricity with windmills.
“In our case, one of the factors that must be considered with wind turbines is that we have helicopters frequently flying in and out,” said Neuner.
Pennsylvania’s natural gas business will benefit from extensive pipeline construction and modification by the Williams Co. This energy giant operates the Transco Pipeline with natural gas running from Texas to New York City, and a plan is now in play to channel Marcellus gas into this system while creating a bi-directional gas network that can reverse its flow and send Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas to the Gulf Coast.
Chris Stockton, spokesperson for Williams, is also optimistic about the company’s massive $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise project which will allow vast amounts of gas to flow from the Marcellus region to transmission pipelines. According to Stockton, one of the system’s great safety features is that unlike oil, natural gas will rise upward and dissipate if a pipeline breach occurs, instead of penetrating the ground and water table like oil.
Stockton said his company’s construction efforts with Atlantic Sunrise are on schedule for completion before the end of 2018 and 96 percent of the survey work has been completed. Transco should be bi-directional by end of this year and the extensive permitting required for the construction packages is proceeding.
“President Trump appears to recognize the value of domestic energy and President Obama’s clean air plan helped promote the gas industry,” Stockton said. “Already, Pennsylvania is the nation’s No. 2 gas producing state after Texas.”
Expansion is also occurring on the drilling front, as Cabot Oil & Gas positions itself for increased production when Williams opens its expanded pipeline network. George Stark, Cabot’s director of external affairs, explained that the company has added a second drilling rig in Susquehanna County, with a daily operational cost exceeding $20,000.
“This is another illustration of the investment being made in the Marcellus Shale area,” Stark said. “We drilled 33 new wells during 2016, and have a goal of at least 50 more in 2017. The output of our 300 existing wells is 2 billion cubic feet of gas per day, which is record-setting and unlike anything seen in this country. The only factor holding us back is the lack of a pipeline infrastructure, which is about to change.”
Stark confirmed that Trump also seems interested in new pipeline construction for gas transmission over long distances. In addition, the investment occurring in Pennsylvania as gas turbines are increasingly used to generate electricity show no signs of waning.