Grappling with the energy challenge: LANL hosts international conference

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory hosts a week-long conference with a focus on “Energy in the 21st Century” starting Monday in Santa Fe.

The 29th annual conference of the lab’s 30-year old Center for Non-Linear Studies, is taking a whack at the global energy problem as a complex system. The complexity of a non-linear system, in which a particular input may not always have a simple output, is the kind of problem to which the center is well accustomed, but the scale of this particular topic is especially challenging.

“We started putting this conference together about a year ago, before everybody had appreciated that energy was going to be one of the main drivers of the new administration,” said CNLS group leader Robert Ecke.

“We appreciated the rise in the energy costs at the time. We wanted to put a conference together that would be a combination of energy policy issues, economics and technical frontiers.”

Since then, the energy “problem” has grown increasingly acute.

The past year, according to the Energy Information Administration’s annual report in March, has been “a tumultuous one for world energy markets, with energy prices soaring through the first half of 2008 and diving in its second half.”

Taking a closer look at a very small piece of a far bigger picture, in the near term, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. ethanol producers that sprang into action in response to the heavy demand and federal mandates, now face idle plants and bankruptcies.

Yet, the mandates for ethanol will keep corn prices high and use up to one-third of the corn crop this year.

Beyond the current economic woes and paradoxes, the EIA sees higher but uncertain energy prices, growing worries about greenhouse gas emissions and how that will affect energy investment decisions.

There will be more renewable, alternative and unconventional fuels and a shift to more efficient vehicles and other energy systems.

Any brief summary of the current energy situation belies the inherent complexity of such an elaborate and multidimensional system of systems.

“Energy systems are enormous, complex, dynamical and adaptive,” says Rajan Gupta, a conference organizer and one of LANL’s leading energy security theorists.

“Enormous,” he said, meaning $40 or $50 trillion dollars, as a combined global investment. “I used to say $25 trillion, but it depends on when you count the dollars.”

An example of complexity, he said is in the oil negotiations.

“The pricing, the impact they have, the instability of regions with oil and without oil, and the interactions of the different systems,” he said. “Because the price goes up a small amount doesn’t mean the effects are small. What causes one price to go up is individually complex and the whole is much more complex.”

“Dynamical,” means it is changing all the time, he said. “New plants get put in. Now we don’t want coal, we want gas. All of a sudden gas goes up, people go somewhere else. There are inventions in solar energy and photovoltaics,”

Finally, the energy system is adaptive. It is changing because people’s needs and demands are forced to adapt to the resource constraints and the constant alterations in the systems.

In one of the first talks of the conference, Gupta will talk about he calls a “Global Energy Observatory: A one-stop Site for Information on Energy Systems.”

“Essentially, what I’m doing is a Wikipedia of the global energy system, an open data base to map out the world’s energy systems, power plants, characteristics, emissions – to facilitate global environmental treaties,” he said.

“It’s a huge challenge in science and technology. How do you actually collect the information, scavenging the web, having the automatic search tools to do that?”

The conference agenda includes distinguished speakers from major universities, industry, and the Laboratory, who will address energy-related topics such as biofuels, solar and nuclear energy, smart-grid development, fossil fuels, climate change and impact, and geopolitical issues related to energy use and development.

Among the speakers will be an introductory talk by Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Acting Deputy Director at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Professor of Energy Economics at the Vienna University of Technology, and Director of the Global Energy Assessment (GEA), who will speak on “The world in transition: Toward Decarbonization.”

Terry Wallace, LANL principal associate director for science, technology and engineering, will speak on the lab's energy security science and strategy.

Other guests of note include Thomas Meyer, former associate director for strategic research at LANL, now at the University of North Carolina and Paul Robinson, former director of Sandia National Laboratory.

CNLS typically organizes two or three larger conferences each year and several smaller workshops. This year they have planned 16 altogether

 “We’re trying to get people to talk to each other, to compare the advantages and disadvantages of different power solutions,” Ecke said. “The combined energy-climate problem dwarfs anything humanity has ever had to deal with.”

More information on the conference is available at: http://cnls.lanl.gov/annual29/index.html