February 25, 2012

‘Invent and create:’ Manchin pushes homegrown solutions to energy challenges | Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — USA Today reports that the average gasoline price in the United States is somewhere around $3.65 a gallon. 

In West Virginia, the average price of gas is $3.71, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report, six cents above the national average, and a decline in price is nowhere in sight. 

Part of the price increase is due to unrest in the Middle East, but another huge factor in the price of gas is increased demand in growing markets like China and India and Brazil. 

President Obama pointed out in a speech in Miami on Thursday that these countries continue to expand economically, adding tens of millions of cars to their roads every year. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., concluded his “Our Values, Our Priorities” tour of his home state with a visit on Friday to some of West Virginia’s high-tech research facilities and businesses, promising to do everything in his power to promote homegrown energy and reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil. 

“I don’t need to tell you all the challenges we face,” Manchin said to the staff at the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) of West Virginia University. “(We need to be) trying to use all the resources we have in this great country.” 

Manchin visited Protea Biosciences, a laboratory focused on bioanalytics that, in Manchin’s words, could “change the healthcare industry and the world”; the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a Department of Energy research facility; NAFTC; and KeyLogic, an IT solution and management consulting firm, all in Morgantown. 

Much of Manchin’s trip focused on alternative energy sources that West Virginia has access to. He said that he’s been pushing in Washington to look at natural gas, especially as an alternative to oil as a fuel source for vehicles.

“I’ve been on a big kick,” he said. 

Manchin proposed that states consider transitioning their fleet vehicles to natural gas. He said that, over the next decade, this switch could reduce the United States’ dependency on foreign oil by as much as 25 percent. 

Fleet vehicles owned by the state are diverse, ranging from school buses to garbage trucks to municipal buses. The benefit of using state vehicles as a testing ground, Manchin said, is that these vehicles are refueled at special bulk stations instead of commercial gas stations. Refitting these stations to dispense natural gas instead of gasoline would be relatively inexpensive compared to creating the infrastructure statewide. 

Bill Davis, assistant director of operations at the NAFTC, said that they work with mechanics, emergency-response personnel and others to educate about alternative- fueled vehicles. NAFTC works with electric, hybrid, natural gas and hydrogen vehicles. 

Davis, who personally drives an electric car, says that they see people making the switch both because they feel it’s the right thing to do and because the cost of gas keeps rising. 

“Our phones ring a lot more when gas prices are high,” added Judy Moore, NAFTC assistant director of communications. 

“We’ve put it together, we’ve tested it, we’ve used it, and we know it works,” Davis said of the technology and curriculum that the NAFTC distributes. 

Manchin was invited to take a Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric car, for a spin around the complex. The car started without a sound, and when Manchin got back from the drive, he exclaimed that “it’s the future, but it’s here now.” 

He also was shown a natural gas car, which can be refueled from home with the proper setup. Natural gas, with road taxes attached, costs about $1.90 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. 

At KeyLogic, Manchin spoke about the need for clean-energy technology, but how it is important to work with the resources we have in the meantime. He touched on the possibility of using land cleared by mountaintop removal to grow switchgrass, creating an agricultural industry in the state and providing material to fuel a biofuel industry within the state. 

The key, according to Manchin, is that these are all things that the country could do tomorrow and make a real difference for the environment and the budget instead of waiting for a pie-in-the-sky solution to very real energy issues. 

Natural gas, propane and biofuels are technologies that are available today and can be implemented relatively easily, Manchin noted. 

Converting the state fleet to natural gas, for example, could pay for itself in as few as five years from fuel costs, Manchin said, with minimal start-up costs. 

No matter how high gas prices get, Manchin has faith in West Virginia’s creativity and industry to find a solution to the energy issues that face the nation.

“What we can do here (in West Virginia) and produce here, and invent and create ... can be used all around the world. 

“It’s unbelievable the talent that we have right here in West Virginia.”

By:  Jonathan Williams