Oklahoma energy secretary showcases importance of research partnerships
Oklahoma Secretary of Energy Robert Wegener was on the Stillwater campus of Oklahoma State University on Jan. 29, offering his insights into the ways energy policy and current and future research must interact to maximize benefits to residents, communities and organizations throughout Oklahoma and beyond.
In a presentation sponsored by OSU's Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Wegener showcased how "the days of cheap, secure and plentiful energy are over," as well as the challenges that entails for an energy state such as Oklahoma.
"In 1970, approximately 70 percent of the oil used in the United States came from domestic sources," he said. "In 2007, that number was 35 percent."
Factor in the increase in global demand, the nationalization of 80 percent of the world's oil reserves, carbon tax legislation and renewable fuel standards and it is clear that American energy policy is undergoing change.
"We have the expertise in Oklahoma to make a significant contribution to meeting America's energy needs," Wegener said. "The key is diversification of our energy portfolio. Oil and gas will still lead the way over the next 20 years, but wind power and agricultural energy sources also will play a major role."
He cited the partnership between OSU, the University of Oklahoma and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation through the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center as an example of the state positioning itself for success in the coming decades.
"Research and development of new technologies that increase efficiency or create new energy sources represent the passport to our energy future," Wegener said. "However, available funding to support (research and development) efforts no longer goes to individual institutions to any great degree. Even the OBC is likely to have to go out and find partners in order to secure grant monies and similar support."
Awareness of the role research and development will play in the diversification of Oklahoma's energy portfolio was in full evidence during Gov. Brad Henry's recent State of the State address.
"This year, we face a budget hole of nearly $600 million," he said. "As Oklahoma families take a hard look at their own expenses and cut where they can, we must do the same. State agencies must tighten their budgets. Some projects must be put on hold."
Yet one priority the governor said Oklahoma should not back away from is an investment in biofuels, particularly cellulosic ethanol.
"Oklahomans are expanding the possibility and viability of cellulosic ethanol, and it is critical that we continue our commitment to this visionary enterprise," Henry said.
Among those fully engaged in the "visionary enterprise" is the OSU Biofuels Team, which is examining the sustainable bioenergy potential of numerous lignocellulosic feedstocks, from straw and woody materials to sorghum, switchgrass and many other varieties of natural grasses.
"Prime benefits of these energy crops are that they minimize negative effects in regards to the world's food and fiber needs; demand relatively low inputs such as fertilizer, which result in a higher energy return; and are naturally adapted to a wide range of environmental conditions," said Ray Huhnke, director of the division's Biobased Products and Energy Center.
Division research into biomass fuel-source improvement in the early 1990s kicked off OSU's long-standing involvement in biofuels development, years before President George W. Bush brought biofuels into the national consciousness with his January 2006 State of the Union address.
It was one reason why Wegener was enthusiastic about coming to campus and speaking with members of the multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional OSU Biofuels Team, which is comprised of scientists and engineers within the division; the OSU College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology; the University of Oklahoma; and Brigham Young University.
"OSU has leadership and expertise in every aspect of biofuels research and development," he said. "There is no substitute for diversification of our energy portfolio. There is no silver bullet. Energy infrastructure is the backbone of our economy, accounting for one-seventh of our total tax dollars. We must strengthen and expand our partnerships to prosper."
OSU Vice President of Agricultural Programs Robert E. Whitson lauded Wegener for providing important policy insights and showcasing funding considerations for ongoing and new research and the way fuel standards legislation - even if passed by other state governments - can affect Oklahoma's status as an energy state.
"The energy secretary made a strong case about why America can't keep relying on supply side solutions, in the process reinforcing the value of our many long-term research projects that focus on enhancing Oklahoma's agriculture and energy industries," Whitson said. "OSU has been working for years to develop the necessary tools and relevant expertise to help community leaders and residents make sound decisions about renewable energy development while balancing economic, social and environmental considerations."
Oklahoma Secretary of Energy Robert Wegener takes questions from Oklahoma State University scientists and staff engaged in the production, economic and environmental aspects of energy based research and development. (Photo by Todd Johnson.)