Experts at UF discuss climate

Published: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 11:55 p.m.

A panel of University of Florida researchers described an energy future Thursday that included hydrogen-fueled vehicles, wider use of nuclear power and community power plants running on locally grown crops.

"The landscape of the future points to using everything you've got," said Ann Wilkie, an environmental biotechnology researcher.

The panel was part of Focus the Nation, a national event to encourage discussion of solutions to climate change. UF's day of events included a climate change awareness fair and a speech by Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.

The energy panel discussed technologies that provide an alternative to fossil fuels. Tim Anderson, a chemical engineering professor, said the dropping costs of solar power make it a more viable option in the Sunshine State.

"The state of Florida is the richest solar state this side of the Mississippi," he said.

James Klausner, a mechanical engineering professor, said the abundance of hydrogen makes it an attractive possibility to fuel cars, ships and planes. But he said there are major obstacles such as a lack of infrastructure to distribute hydrogen and the immense energy required to pull hydrogen from water.

"If we can split water with solar energy, then we would have a truly renewable fuel available to us," he said.

Alireza Haghighat, chairman of UF's nuclear and radiological engineering department, dominated much of the discussion by promoting nuclear energy.

He said the U.S. has a small number of nuclear reactors as compared to a country like France, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

"The French are not crazy," he said. "As you know, they enjoy their life a lot more than us."

He said nuclear energy is the most efficient and least expensive way to produce electricity, dismissing concerns about problems such as storing waste.

Other panelists said any discussion of energy must start with conservation and more efficient construction.

Americans are increasingly building bigger homes with more energy-draining appliances, said Robert Ries of the Rinker School of Building Construction.

"We still have a lot of potential for conservation in our buildings," he said.

People will need to change their habits to conserve energy, said Skip Ingley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. He pointed to the UF buildings around campus that were lighted at night despite an absence of people inside.

"I think it's really the habits that we have," he said.

Ingley recalled that the U.S. made a major push for conservation during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Energy use went down for a few years, he said, before climbing and today reaching record levels.

"It's like nothing has happened over the last 20 years," he said.

Wilkie said public policy must change to provide incentives for independent energy producers. She said that could lead to small power plants producing energy from sources such as animal waste and native crops grown close to the site.

But she said the idea was just one piece of the energy solution.

"I think there's no silver bullet," she said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville

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