Executives and commerce secretary talk energy

United States Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez met with CEOs of three major energy innovators Monday at Carnegie Mellon to discuss solutions to the world’s growing energy problem. The discussion was co-moderated by Ashish Arora, a professor of economics and public policy in the Heinz School.

As natural gas and oil resources are depleted and awareness grows about the damage these sources of energy cause the planet, companies are exploring alternatives. These companies, Westinghouse Electric, Equitable Resources, and Plextronics, are searching for the best alternatives, taking into account price and greenness.

Westinghouse is currently focusing their research on nuclear energy, which has come a long way since its development. Aris Candris, president and CEO of Westinghouse, reports that this is one of the cheapest, cleanest, and safest forms of energy available, but that consumers are still afraid of nuclear energy due to the old associations with nuclear weapons. Candris believes that Westinghouse and other companies researching nuclear energy have “missed the boat” when it comes to educating the public about the innovations and changes in this field.

“Nuclear is the only source of energy that deals 100 percent with its waste,” Candris said.

By the year 2016, it is expected that there will be at least nine nuclear power plants in the southern United States, with others emerging in China by 2013. Gutierrez also advocates spending more money on nuclear power, as there has not been a permit approved for a new reactor since 1978.

Equitable Resources, one of the 10 biggest producers of natural gas in the nation, is also trying to find cleaner, cheaper methods of providing gas and oil to the American people. Murry S. Gerber, the chairman and CEO of the company, emphatically declared the American education system inadequate as far as providing potential future employees to energy-developing companies.

The third corporation, Plextronics, is a Carnegie Mellon start-up company that is researching and implementing solar energy. The president and CEO, Andrew W. Hannah, described the efforts of the company to make solar energy more affordable by using a material other than silicon.

Further discussion on the problem of education in America brought up the question of how to reform the American education system. All three companies seem to agree that the education system falls short, and they use this as a rationale for bringing in more international workers.

“How do we make math and science desirable for our kids, and more importantly, how do we make sure we don’t dumb down the standards for kids who can’t do it?” Gerber asked.

While none of the representatives had a solution, they all agreed that something should be done to fix this, asking the question, “Why aren’t our people ready?”

Discussion continued with moderators asking questions about relationships between government and energy producers, as well as suggestions on improving the nation’s infrastructure to make energy cheaper and cleaner. One topic in particular that arose was the issue of government regulation in the energy market.

Panel members discussed the positive and negative effects of deregulation, suggesting that government may have gone too far in deregulating the market. As Gerber remarked, the lack of regulation in the energy field especially has led to shortages and higher prices.

Perhaps one of the issues panelists felt most strongly about was the need for energy independence. They agreed that finding domestic energy solutions is an issue of national security. While independence is stressed, the panel does not recommend a complete block of foreign resources, but rather an increase in the amount of energy that comes from domestic sources.

“I don’t think [the problem] goes away if gas goes down to $3 a gallon,” Hannah said. “Most importantly is the energy independence factor because, ultimately, it’s an item of national security that we need to understand and we need to solve.”Despite the talk of alternative energy and cleaner, cheaper methods, none of the panelists suggested any short-term solutions for the current energy crisis. Candris said that this search for an immediate solution is part of the problem. Rather, we should be looking for solutions for the future so that we do not end up in an energy crisis again 10 years from now.

“We believe that this needs to be looked at in a very long-term sense,” Gutierrez said. “In the short term, in order to get to the future, we’re going to need to produce more of our own oil. It also means that as part of the future, we have to do things we haven’t been willing to do, such as invest in nuclear energy.”