Grace M. Bochenek assumed her post as director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory in October 2014 after spending 25 years at the Department of Defense — most recently as chief technology officer of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.
The Dominion Post talked with Bochenek — an engineer by training — about her new role and some of the challenges ahead.
“NETL is a real exciting place,” she said. “It’s always good to be at the heart of what’s important for the nation.”
She wants to bring some new approaches to the table, including a longer term strategic view, she said. Government research organizations are inclined to set their sights on the next budget cycle. She wants to look at long-term technological strategies — a technical roadmap for fossil fuels.
But there’s more to NETL than rocks and molecules — there’s people. “A good research and development facility needs the right people,” she said. She’s looking at the workforce requirements for 2020 and 2030 to foster the best leadership and provide the best professional training for each employee.
And there are facilities. Her long-term thinking includes determining what new capabilities will be needed on its campuses from the near term to “way out there.”
For several years, the White House proposed NETL budget cuts. West Virginia’s congressional team fought to have the money restored.
For example, in Fiscal Year 2011 the overall fossil energy budget was $586 million. President Obama requested $452.9 million for the Department of Energy’s Fossil Fuel Research and Development Program for Fiscal Year 2012 and the appropriations bill contained only $445.5 million. The West Virginia delegation got it raised to $533.9 million.
“We do have strong congressional support,” Bochenek said. And strong support from industry and academia. “As I look back in history I can see it’s had its ups and downs.”
For Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017, though, Bochenek foresees a fossil energy budget uptick, with increases in various program lines.
“The department and the administration understand the challenges that we have in terms of making coal more efficient, using oil and natural gas and understanding them in a much more safe and environmentally friendly way.”
War on coal
Asked her thoughts about the “war on coal,” Bochenek said, “I hear that in the public. I hear that on TV a lot. But I don’t see it in the day-to-day business practices of the department, nor inside NETL.”
Looking ahead, she said, we need an all-of-the-above energy future.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts coal’s share as a fuel source for power generation will fall from 39 percent now to 34 percent in 2040, but remains the single largest fuel source.
“So it’s not like coal goes away,” Bochenek said. “It’s about, ‘How do we make usage of coal much more efficient, much more effective? I think if you look inside of our program you don’t see a war on coal; you see a good research program, a development and deployment program that is geared toward using coal … so we do take into account some of the climate issues that we’re facing.”
The technology problem
A frequent complaint among politicians and the coal industry is that the Obama administration clean air regulations call for power plant technology that’s either too expensive or doesn’t exist.
Bochenek said, “I believe that there’s a spectrum of technologies. Some need more maturation to become economical and bring to bear.”
Some are now being deployed in the industry through carbon management programs. NETL is also trying to reduce costs for those systems.
“So there’s still this need for research and development to help drive down cost, and to increase performance at the same time.”
Finally, some technologies are novel and still need more lab work before they become commercial.
West Virginia coal mining jobs have been in steady decline since the 1948 peak of 125,699, according to Coal Facts, published by the West Virginia Coal Association. From 1952 to 1954, jobs took a steep decline, from 100,862 to 64,849.
In 1987, company jobs fell below the 30,000 mark and in 1996 below the 20,000 mark — bottoming out at 14,281 in 2,000. 2009 saw the most recent peak, at 27,892, with a steady fall each year to 18,159 in 2014.
Asked what hope NETL can provide for the future, she said, “Our mission is to look at the future and develop technologies and capabilities.” They work with industry and academic partners to develop technology with a global reach and particularly a national reach.
“What does the future look like for coal in terms of the workforce that’s going to be needed?” she asked.
She can’t predict, but said fossil fuel diversification through new technologies and opportunities is ahead. Coal will still be needed. NETL research will develop high tech-energy resources through such means as capturing carbon. Different technologies will require slight changes to the workforce.
This is the place to move ahead, she said. NETL is engaging with WVU, Pierpont College, colleagues in Pittsburgh. The region is “a fossil energy hub with expertise at the technical and workforce level.”
This article was written by David Beard from The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.