Katrina may have long-term silver lining

Gas prices may hurt, but the expense could create demand for cleaner energy.

Than Tibbetts

As the Gulf Coast continues to clean up from what is likely to be the most expensive Atlantic storm in Hurricane Katrina, the rest of the country is indirectly feeling the effects of the storm’s devastation.

Energy prices quickly climbed into unseen heights, most notably at the gas pump. Prices rose into the $3-a-gallon range after more than 90 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil production was halted for almost a week, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

Several University experts said this could be the beginning of a new era in energy.

“We’re at a new equilibrium,” said Carlson School of Management professor Alfred Marcus. “Two-and-a-quarter (dollars for a gallon of gas) is going to be considered low.”

Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the Gulf Coast, the center of the U.S. oil industry, revealed the thin balance between fossil fuel production and consumption, Marcus said.

“Refining capacity has been substantially hurt, which is going to be a big reason for the continued rise in energy prices,” Marcus said. “There wasn’t much excess refining capacity available.”

But the University, several experts said, is particularly suited for research into alternative and renewable energy sources, which could eventually alleviate future energy crises.

The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment is a coalition of researchers working across the University in a variety of disciplines and interests.

IREE Director Dick Hemmingsen said researchers are looking at alternative approaches to petroleum and fossil fuel-based energy. The economics of rising oil prices helps to drive some of the conversion to renewable energies, he said.

Some of the projects under way include using fuels from biomass-based sources, using a variety of renewable sources for hydrogen conversion – including the wind turbine at the Morris campus, and using solar-based systems in residential and commercial buildings.

Ken Keller, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy, said his office is looking at ways to stimulate people to use more renewable energy.

“We’re really only at the beginning of what has to be a very, very long problem,” he said.

Keller said the major change would be to set goals for renewable energy that policymakers know are attainable. He added that a change in energy consumption could solve two problems at once.

“We don’t have the supply of fossil fuels and using them isn’t good for the environment,” he said.

College of Natural Resources Dean Susan Stafford said reconstruction of cities along the Gulf Coast could present an opportunity for energy conservation in the future.

“As you start to look at the devastation in the South, and in New Orleans, our housing people would strongly encourage and promote energy efficient housing as we go forward,” she said.

She said it will be interesting to see if there is an effect on the building materials market, such as shortages or a spike in prices, similar to what occurred after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Marcus said high energy prices will eventually change consumers’ habits and that everyone is going to adjust in little ways.

“I don’t think anyone is going to turn in their SUV tomorrow,” he said. “Our behavior will change gradually. We’ll not take marginal trips. We’ll gradually change the kinds of car that we buy.”

One major obstacle to change may be our own memories, Keller said.

“People have short memories, we need people to talk (about) more than a week or two or a month,” he said, recalling the oil crises of the 1970s. “It gets your attention, but doesn’t necessarily keep your attention.”