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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Engineer predicts dangerous emissions

By Lynn Nystrom

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 5 - September 22, 1994

Currently, the world spends about $100 billion per year on new generation of electricity capacity. Unfortunately, some $50 to $60 billion of this amount is consumed by developing countries where considerations for the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels is not regarded as a priority.

This growth in electrical demand "raises concerns about the ability of the environment to sustain this development without harm to itself. Roughly 63 percent of the world's electricity is obtained by burning fossil fuels, 60 percent of which is coal," explained Saifur Rahman, director of Virginia Tech's newly formed Center for Energy and Global Environment.

Rahman has authored a paper, "Environmental Impacts of Electricity Generation: A Global Perspective." He presented his findings at the meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in San Francisco in July. Rahman and his graduate student Arnulfo de Castro have forecasted what the increases in fossil-fuel emissions will be through the year 2000.

The problem with burning fossil fuels is that they emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxides which are "known contributors to either global warming or acid precipitation, or the depletion of the ozone layer," Rahman said.

To solve the global problems, Rahman indicated two major hurdles must be cleared: all countries must believe in international cooperation and better scientific answers on the actual environmental impacts must be defined.

Rahman cited Japan and China as examples of the need for better cooperation. "Japan's clean-air efforts predate those of the U.S. However, neighboring China, with 555 million MWH of fossil generation (about 82 percent of its total electricity production), only has limited emission-abatement rulings in place. This has raised concerns about the transport of acid-rain emissions across their boundaries."

With his Center for Energy and Global Environment, Rahman hopes to be able to help foster international cooperation. By seeking support from foundations and government agencies, Rahman plans to offer low-cost seminars and training activities to interested groups in developing countries as well as the U.S. He hopes to travel to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and parts of Europe and "build relationships with institutions, not individuals" to ensure ongoing activities.

Rahman's Center for Energy and Global Environment is dedicated to offering technical support to countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Among the issues he hopes to target with developing nations are: electromagnetic-field effects, greenhouse-gas emission, power-plant waste generation and disposal, and advanced techniques for power-system planning.

Rahman is a 10-year veteran of such workshops. Most recently, he organized the International Symposium on Electric Energy Systems held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, sponsored jointly by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the government of Bangladesh. This symposium reviewed the electric energy needs in south Asian countries and offered recommendations for their efficient operation within their realm of capabilities.

In Rahman's IEEE presentation, he outlined what he has found to be the effects of electricity generation on the environment in terms of the greenhouse and acid-rain emissions. Some of his projections for the year 2000 indicate that the former USSR, which emitted 246 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 1991 will increase its production to 305 million metric tons. China's sulfur dioxide output will almost double during the same time frame from 4.9 million metric tons in 1991 to 8.6 million metric tons in the year 2000.

"The need for additional usable energy such as electricity, and the characteristics of its use, have to be balanced against its impact on the global environment," Rahman said.

To date, Rahman and his colleagues at the Energy Center have a list of contacts in some two dozen countries such as Belarus, Brazil, Croatia, India, Kenya, Mongolia, Pakistan, the Phillipines, and Yemen. Working with Rahman are William Mashburn and William Thomas, professors of mechanical engineering; Gerry Luttrell, professor of mining and minerals engineering; John Novak and John Little, professors of civil engineering, and Arun Phadke and Robert Broadwater, professors of electrical engineering.