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Smith: Energy self-sufficiency offers economic restart

Despite news in the popular press and the stalled attempts at creating an energy policy in Washington, it is clear that this nation needs to get serious about how vulnerable we are because of our dependency on foreign crude oil products.

This is especially true since the majority of our transportation fuels come from global sources that, at best, are only tolerant of our existence. Clearly, our presence is allowed because we can, and do, continue to support their lifestyles, including their religious and political agendas. The recent shale oil and gas finds and the capabilities to extract those resources at an affordable price has potentially put us back in the driver's seat when it comes to doing what history has shown to be one of our best characteristics -- self-sufficiency.

Being self-sufficient is what made us the successful country we have become and what has driven us to be creative, to reward innovation, and to use energy to drive our social order forward. Plus, it is the same set of attributes the rest of the world will copy to reach our current standard of living.

Ultimately it will be these same basic elements, with a focus on sustainability, which will preserve our planet and push our personal growth into yet-to-be-identified goals and frontiers.

Currently we are significantly less than self-sufficient. We are constantly reminded that we need to pay the piper, highlighted in non-domestic energy costs, environmental impact, lost jobs and skill sets, and a lack of a directed motivation in our youth.

Contrary to all of the special interests and misinformed groups that oppose the use of U.S. based fuels, the time has come to wean ourselves away from this foreign bad habit. It may be hard to see but a decrease in this off-shore reliance will improve our trade deficit, enhance the value of the U.S. dollar, create a better diplomatic presence around the world and revitalize our country's economy. Plus, it will bring many of our troops home to their families.

Opportunities abound now that we are drilling and will soon offset our offshore energy purchases. While it is evident that the development of this fuel source will keep more of our money at home, this is but a small start to the self-sufficiency process. With retained money used to create new jobs there will be an increase in the tax base and a revitalization of all of the social programs and processes that are essential to our growing and diverse society.

Maybe of equal importance will be the innovative environment that will come from a re-invigorated venture pool and the encouragement that will be provided to our youth and our world-class innovators. Having a direction supported by a strong vision always stays the day. Our people will respond and our youth will become the generation that turns this country's economy and momentum around to what it was in our not-so-distant past.

What we need to realize, also, is that the rest of the world will see our self-sufficient change coming at least as soon as we see it and probably even before we recognize it. As the adage goes, "fish discover water last". Since we are in the thick of it, with all of the complexities that go with marshaling a change in our attitudes, outsiders will predict opportunities while we are still looking at the problems. While this may be great in the short run, allowing the world to capitalize on our opportunities will create lost opportunities for us.

A case in point is centered on the displacement of non-domestic liquid fuels with natural gas; compressed or liquefied. To mount a large-scale conversion to this inexpensive and plentiful fuel for the transportation sector will require a change in the fuel supply infrastructure. It will also require the conversion of our current fleets and the new ones being produced by our original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). In all of these cases there will be a need to adapt and alter well-developed, current vehicle technology to accommodate the use and needs of this fuel source. All of these changes will, of course, need to meet the environmental and policy requirements.

There are a plethora of companies that advertise a capability to convert at least a small number of available vehicles in a variety of styles, models and sizes. Some are regional or national and even more are global. Some are quite competent while others have promised results that will be years in the making. While it may not have a significant impact where any of these systems originate, as long as they perform, the future of these conversions, the services provided, and the infrastructure to support this effort should ultimately be based domestically and regionally if the market supports it; again, another self-sufficiency issue.

Since it appears that many of these systems are still in the early development and proof stages, it might be a great idea to get them all together and help facilitate a relationship between the users and the suppliers. This would help to level the playing field a little and also allow for a synergy of those efforts that might be complimentary, especially if they are of a domestic origin. It will also allow the potential end users to understand their options and better calculate their return on investment.

What has been proposed and is now starting to take place is a series of regional meetings to attract potential users into a forum with suppliers and infrastructure developers. It is also the intent of the organizers to involve regional investors and government agencies that have a stake in the outcome of this effort. These formal meetings and the informal forums created would invite the conversion capable companies to work with the end users.

The interested OEMs are also invited to participate along with the civic and governing authorities that would have an impact on this initiative. In some cases this venue could also accommodate a poster and commercial booth expo as a means to provide useful and timely information. Finally, in many cases this venue can accommodate a u-drive demonstration area for participants to evaluate and discuss the future of this technology while watching it work for them.

These meetings being scheduled in the near future are in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but clearly edging into several other adjoining states. The shale gas plays in these areas will see the largest expansion in the use of natural gas for the transportation sector over the next few years. This is the logical place to start leading the country to energy self-sufficiency and it also contains the resources to create and support the commercialization of the innovative technologies that will be needed as the use of natural gas proliferates.

What an interesting time to be alive. While it may not be on par with the discovery and use of steam and electricity or the development of nuclear power or even the space program, it may yet be heralded in the future as a major turning point in our nation's history and particularly our citizens' decisions to take back control of our destinies by first insisting on self-sufficiency, starting with energy.

Smith is a professor of mechanical andd aerospace engineering and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at WVU.


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