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WVU Evolving Energy Conference looks at a transition that involves fossil energy in the move to carbon-free future

MORGANTOWN — “Beyond Coal” and “Beyond Gas” have been catchphrases signifying the generally adversarial nature of the clean energy transition in West Virginia.

But “Beyond Despair” would be a good catchphrase for the spirit of WVU’s Evolving Energy Conference taking place at the Marriott Morgantown Waterfront Place Hotel Thursday and Friday.

Fossil fuel company leaders shared the stage with green energy advocates to discuss West Virginia’s role in the energy transition — a transition that has a role for fossil energy.

Hope Gas became the first tenant of WVU Innovation Corp.’s building — the former Mylan plant — in August, and Thursday Hope CEO Morgan O’Brien shared his vision with the crowd of business and industry leaders and academics.

Most utility customers think of energy in two ways, he said: gas heat in the winter, electric-powered air conditioning in the summer. “When are people going to think of how to use this resource differently?”

To open people’s minds, he said, he brought a new vision to the Pittsburgh airport, which in July 2021 became the first airport in the world to be completely powered by a natural gas and solar energy microgrid — all generated on-site. The microgrid saved the airport $1 million in energy costs in its first year of operation.

And the vision drew a company from Texas to relocate by the airport — moving away from the power problems of Texas to a reliable energy source in Pittsburgh.

Now O’Brien wants to bring a new vision to West Virginia, he said. “We can’t think of energy the way we’ve all grown up.” People who don’t want pipelines in their communities can learn that energy means jobs, economic development and manufacturing opportunities.

Hope is bringing 100-plus jobs to Morgantown, he said, for a start. It’s pledged to spend $64 million per year upgrading its system, with about $30 million of that going to labor.

He tells his technicians, “We’re not replacing pipes — we’re cleaning the air.” And he told the audience, “This is an opportunity for West Virginia to change its economic vitality, the way it thinks of things.

“I want to see more local gas being drilled in the state,” he said.

While ever-changing White House policies frustrate people on both sides of the energy question — as politics drives the energy industry in various directions, depending on who’s in charge — a panel discussion offered a different perspective.

The discussion was titled, “Manufacturing Needs Driving the Energy Sector.” Much of the talk was about the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) — a collaboration of the state of West Virginia, EQT, Battelle and GTI Energy, and Allegheny Science & Technology. ARCH2 is expected to be centered in West Virginia while expanding its impact, through cooperative efforts in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Jacqueline Fidler, vice president for Environmental and Sustainability at CONSOL Energy, described a hub in terms of a mall with anchor tenants that draw smaller businesses. Shawn Bennett, Energy and Resilience Division manager for Battelle, said, “It’s really about connecting everything else together to let other technologies come together.”

There won’t be one mega-hub here, but a set of mini-hubs linked together, and over time, hubs across the nation linked to launch a hydrogen economy. It’s not just about hydrogen-powered cars he and the other panelists said, but about decarbonizing industries.

Blue hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming, which requires burning natural gas to reform methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, from which they capture and sequester the CO2.

One key element of decarbonizing, they said, is carbon capture and underground storage (CCUS).

Fidler said CONSOL is taking the first steps in creating a CCUS hub with the planned construction of a 300 megawatt advanced carbon-negative power plant that runs on waste coal and biomass, to be built next to Consol’s Pennsylvania Mining Complex. It will remove about 97% of the CO2 from its smokestack, compress it and pipe it to wells for underground injection.

The Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia shale triangle is the nation’s second-largest gas region, Bennett said, which puts the area on a good footing for a hub and a hydrogen economy. “We have a great workforce that’s going to be able to step up.”

Producing hydrogen is expensive he said, but because natural gas prices are lower here than anywhere else, producing it here will drive the price down.

Panelist Mike Docherty, executive director of Appalachian Energy Future, said the U.S. Department of Energy DOE is looking at the region as a good test bed for blue hydrogen. “Let’s get in the game and be a part of this.”

While the region has a heritage of a skilled workforce and talent, he said, we face a couple challenges. One is insufficient wells to use for CCUS injection.

Another is inconsistent regulations among the three states. There needs to be some streamlining and harmonizing of the regulations to offered industry some consistency and to ensure the states work together.

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp