June 2000

Mountain air

ORNL researchers seek involvement in backyard southern Appalachian initiative

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as beautiful as they are, are cloaked in air quality issues. Directly in the path of prevailing winds, the peaks receive airborne pollution from the surrounding region. This degraded air quality directly affects the mountains’ flora and fauna and indirectly affects our quality of life.

Eight southeastern states joined several years ago in an initiative to study the issues and to provide policy guidance to state governments. The Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative, through tools such as emissions and atmospheric modeling and impetus such as the recently revised Clean Air Act, is developing strategies to “remedy existing and prevent future adverse effects” of air pollution on the mountains. These policy recommendations will be based on a consensus built among participating government agencies, environmental groups and industry.

On a clear day, you can see the top of Mount LeConte in the Smokies. But those good days are getting fewer and farther between.
Although ORNL is increasingly drawing on the mountains in its own backyard to symbolize the Lab, neither it nor DOE are active players in SAMI. But Energy Division’s Jan Berry is “working on that.”

“DOE’s work is important to management of air quality, particularly in predicting emission changes as new technologies come into play,” Berry says. “Understanding the state of the art of energy technology, for instance, can help predict what diesel truck emissions will be in the year 2040. ORNL has a wealth of knowledge that can be applied to developing strategies for managing air quality.

“SAMI will identify emission levels necessary to protect natural resources in South Appalachia. ORNL can help develop, demonstrate and advance a mix of energy technologies that can achieve emission levels that are protective of mountain air and stream quality.”

Berry says the National Park Service is particularly interested in these kinds of studies and in the deployment of advanced technologies. They’ve already seen adverse effects of air pollution in the form of acidified and dead mountain streams in the Shenandoahs. In other areas, including the Smokies, air pollution has been cited as a contributing factor in species die-offs—the Fraser firs as one example.

Socioeconomic impacts result, either directly or indirectly. For instance, the tourism industry warns of a dropoff in revenue as tourists become increasingly discouraged by murky vistas.

Some states have already taken steps to introduce technology by using their environmental policies
“SAMI’s stakeholders range from both sides of the issues, from green activists to industries,” she says. “During the Second Governors’ Summit on Air Quality, governors Sundquist (Tenn.), Barnes (Ga.), Hunt (N.C.) and Hodges (S.C.) recognized the importance of this type of consensus process to solving tough and wide-ranging issues over air and water quality.”

For instance, several major regional industries participating in SAMI contribute their share to air quality issues in the Appalachians. ORNL’s capabilities in assessments, computer modeling and technology development can help ensure that proposals are not only technically but also economically viable.

These industries, Berry says, know that sound science and technology are critical to remedying existing and preventing future adverse effects of air pollution on the mountains. This effort starts with meeting the requirements of the Clean Air Act and culminates in simply being good neighbors—maintaining and improving our quality of life.

“Energy Division works at the interface between the environment and the economy,” Berry says.

DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) supports an important ORNL program that includes projects that could improve air and water quality. As an energy lab with decades of experience in integrated assessment, technology development and field experiments, ORNL is well poised to help SAMI predict what new technologies will best help reduce the effects of pollution and which new technologies might best catch on with the public. The industrial participants, including utilities, are interested in analyzing new technologies that can reduce emissions through energy efficiency, such as microturbine power plants and fuel cells and alternative fuels such as ethanol. They are likewise very interested in their economic viability.

Some states have already taken steps to introduce technology by using their environmental policies. North Carolina, for instance, recently passed a statute requiring all state fleet vehicles to convert to natural-gas–fired engines.

Among Lab resources that SAMI can draw upon is the Energy Division’s Buildings Technology Center, which relentlessly promotes driving new, efficient technologies to the marketplace. The transportation research capabilities of the Center for Transportation Analysis could contribute, in that auto exhaust is a prominent contributor to mountain air-quality issues, particularly in the well-traveled Smokies. Chemical Technology Division could contribute its technology development capabilities, such as the ORNL Biochemical Research and Development Center.
Much to learn about atmospheric effects
Energy Division’s Moonis Ally is another Lab researcher enthusiastic about building a rapport with SAMI. He’s pursuing proposals on further research into aerosols, or atmospheric pollutants in chemical form.

Ally’s interest in atmospheric aerosols is an outgrowth of earlier work with retired ORNL chemist Jerry Braunstein to model the behavior of electrolytes—substances that ionize in water. He believes the same principles can be used to predict how aerosols can become supersaturated in the atmosphere. Ally and the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division’s Mike Simonson received a seed money grant to explore the possibility.

“We had no idea that someday we would be able to apply our theories to predicting the properties of supersaturated aerosols in the atmosphere,” Ally says. “Man-made aerosols in the troposphere can reach concentrations that are unimaginable in ordinary circumstances.”

The effects can be hard to predict. Ally says that some of the chemicals found in the troposphere, both manmade and naturally occurring, have an opposite effect to that of greenhouse gases in that they assist radiative cooling of the atmosphere. However, he says that should be no reason for complacency based on a belief that global warming could be allieviated by tropospheric aerosols.

“It wouldn’t be judicious to ignore the delicate and dynamic interrelationships that make natural processes tend toward equilibrium,” he says. “I didn’t know about SAMI when I started this work, but I think the Lab’s research in these areas can benefit the surrounding states by improving technology to reduce environmental impacts and ultimately realize economic benefits. It’s important globally, to be sure, but it’s also important regionally.”

The Environmental Sciences Division has a wealth of continuing research, including that done by its Atmospheric Chemistry and Aerosol group, that could lend volumes of data to help SAMI weigh proposals and options related to its mission. Other ESD activities represented—such as the Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Center, which is a global clearinghouse for atmospheric carbon dioxide data—are valuable DOE resources that could benefit state and industry initiatives aimed at similar environmental missions.

Berry is currently working on a proposal with SAMI to evaluate the performance of distributed power generation: specifically, powering a school with a stand-alone natural gas-fired microturbine power generator that uses waste-heat recovery and desiccant technology.

Tennessee is a lead participant in SAMI, joined by Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama. Gov. Don Sundquist announced at a recent meeting that East Tennessee would host next year’s SAMI meeting. Berry and other ORNL researchers would like to see a prominent ORNL presence at the meeting.

“Researchers who work at ORNL love East Tennessee,” says Berry, who has worked previously in environmental management programs both in Tennessee and at Hanford, Washington. “ORNL can lend much credibility to SAMI’s process. We should use our intellectual capital to help this region.”

If you would like to know more about SAMI, contact Berry at 241-1939, berryjb@ornl.gov.—B.C.


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