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Guest Column: Energy development must be responsible

Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a two-part commentary about “fracking” in Southeast Ohio. Part two will appear in tomorrow’s edition.

I read with much interest, in all of our local newspapers, the “good news” that Ohio University gets a $2 million grant for “fracking wastewater remediation” so as to clean it up and minimize deep-well injections.  I also learned that a permit has just been issued for an Athens County injection well.

My friend, Russ College of Engineering Dean Dennis Irwin, says that with this “fracking wastewater remediation” grant:

“We’ve staked out our ground as a major resource for studying the effects of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. This research is a great example of socially responsible engineering with long-term impact for our region and far beyond.”

I agree with Dean Irwin’s belief that this research is a great example of “socially responsible engineering” — something that I, as an OU Emeritus engineering professor, have been urging for almost a half century, usually with not much institutional or financial interest or response.

For example, my students and I, in 1982, made a “socially responsible engineering” co-generation proposal to Ohio University that it stop wasting a huge percentage of the energy in its heating plant’s coal consumption, save 12 to 15 percent of its electricity purchase costs, and simultaneously reduce “global warming” and net unhealthy smoke-stack pollution in Ohio.

Our proposal was born out of some “engineering and public policy” called PURPA, The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, Federal Public Law 95-617.

We found no interest in co-generation at Ohio University, or in Ohio, until the mid-1990s, with the help of a new OU vice president, Gary North, who knew a little about the science and engineering “laws of thermodynamics.” North helped to get our system installed and running for a couple of years and then, somewhat mysteriously, it was abandoned.

It is encouraging to note that OU now plans to build a new gas-fired $90 million “co-generation” power plant by the year 2016 — a plant that will produce about half OU’s electricity needs in addition to heating and cooling the university. Being there 30 years ago was a lonely experience.

Back to OU’s fracking wastewater remediation project: It is good that this project will reduce the magnitude of clean water needed for the fracking process and reduce the amount of wastewater that needs to be disposed of with deep-well injections.

However, I feel that we, as a culture, must expand our horizons to ask larger questions much earlier in the technology systems creation process — questions, for example, like how we might reduce our need for the energy resources that we seek from the fracking process, a need that generates potential “deep-well injection” and assorted other problems.

Chuck Overby is a professor emeritus of engineering at Ohio University.


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