Compression

21 Dec

Leo Prent was new to Pittsburgh. He had chosen the old industrial center in Western Pennsylvania as one of the several best locations for attempting to realize his vision for the storage of solar and wind energy. That was why he had made an appointment with Thomas Berg, a venture capitalist with his office in the downtown U.S.Steel Tower. Would he be able to win backing and support for his risky project? he wondered. Was Berg sharp enough to see the possible profits and savings involved in exploitation of what lay underground throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region?

The secretary of the private investor led the tall, skeleton-thin engineer into the simple, unadorned office of the eighty-year old capitalist who had a reputation across the U.S. for his innovative contributions to the modernization of his native Pittsburgh. The spry oldster with a full head of snowy hair sprang from his chair and rushed to greet his visitor.

The two men exchanged greetings and Berg invited to take a chair beside his old-fashioned oak desk. Once both of them were seated, the older man started to describe his past achievements on the frontier of technological breakthroughs.

“As everyone in Pittsburgh can tell you, I was the earliest pioneer in the financing of our plants that produce liquefied nitrogen. No need to boast about the way that the new fuel in its compressed tanks has revolutionized automobile transportation. Gasoline fuel has become only a minor part of vehicle power in today’s America, and I believe that I played a significant role in bringing about that important change. Both trucking and private cars now use long-term nitrogen containers turned out here in Pittsburgh facilities.”

“Your contribution has been a major factor in lowering carbon pollution and reducing transport costs, sir,” said Leo with a wide smile. “Few people, though, would have taken the early risks the way that you did. That is why many, including me, admire you so much.”

Grinning back at the one praising him, Thomas Berg continued.

“I am not finished, not at all.” He furrowed his wide brow. “My ambition today is to turn electric generation and distribution upside down. Our society still depends mainly upon coal, oil, and natural gas. Solar and wind power are still only about a third of the energy market.

“Before I die, I want to see renewable sources of electricity completely dominant, close to total dominance over carbon in all its forms.”

“That would be difficult to reach,” softly murmured Leo. “There are so many obstacles that still exist. Sun and wind are variables that come and go over time, like the weather itself.”

The entrepreneur leaned his large head forward. “I know where and how electrical power can be stored, as if in a battery.”

“Many methods have been tried, but they have been failures,” noted Leo. “Storage is still the major handicap hindering wind and solar. That has been the sad history that keep coal and oil in business.”

“We have an unused alternative here in Pittsburgh,” said Berg in nearly a whisper. “There is a system of abandoned mines right under us. I intend to harness them into batteries of potential electricity by filling many of them with supplies of compressed air that will then power new, scattered generators.

“Pittsburgh will become a model of what the world can achieve with cheap, convenient environmentally safe energy.”

Leo felt his head swim about. “I would be willing to participate in that type of project, I confess.”

The older one grinned. “My plan is to make you the technical chief in the construction of such a completely new electric system.”

Leo spent the next several months hiring a number of specialists to help him survey the numerous abandoned coal mines of the region and plan possible conversion of sites within or near Pittsburgh into holders of artificially compressed air. Could these subterranean repositories become banks of clean electricity for the metropolitan area? The answer given to Thomas Berg was an affirmative one.

“I firmly believe that we can make solar and wind dominant over coal, oil, and natural gas,” the engineer declared to the venture capitalist. “The key to success lies right under our feet,” he swore with the ring of iron in his voice.

But Berg suddenly frowned. “There are powerful forces who already strive to block our program,” he said mournfully. “Duquesne Energy is the biggest producer and distributor of electric power and is already arranging political barriers with local and state government agencies. We are facing colossal obstacles in winning the use of any empty mines. Environmental and public safety laws and regulations are weapons in the hands of our economic rivals. These enemies are part of the business and industrial establishment and have exercised power and influence for many decades.

“They are to be feared, Leo. They stand in our way and will block our progress with their connections and resources.”

A pause followed, till the engineer decided to express his determination.

“We will have to fight back, Tom,” he slowly pronounced. “This may become a kind of war.”

The most important politician in Pennsylvania was Governor Thor Grun, the first state leader at that level running as a New Conservative, successor party to the defunct Republicans.

A giant bruin with a perpetual smile on his reddish face, Thor seemed to know everyone of the slightest significance or importance within the state he loved and had dedicated his life to.

In a very short period of time, he had the question of compressed air storage in abandoned coal mines presented to him by all the agencies involved in investigating and licensing the innovative project.

“I am perplexed by the complicated aspects of doing this,” he told his personal staff and closest assistants in the capital of Harrisburg. “It is necessary for me to make a study tour and talk with the people involved with this in Pittsburgh. I’ll fly out there tomorrow morning. First of all, I will have to find out what Duquesne Energy thinks of it.”

The Governor smiled glowingly. He recognized whose interests were most involved in case the abandoned mines were transferred over to alternative energy makers.

Leo entered the office of the billionaire with a handful of rolls and papers.

“I have compared our options and settled upon one optimal location to take over abandoned mine shafts for storage,” said the engineer as he deposited his load onto the other’s desk. “Our best bet is to locate ourselves in the city’s South Hills, in the Brookline district.

“It was not at all an easy decision to make. There are 139 empty mines here in Alleghany County. Brookline holds some very old shafts, going back to the early decades back in the twentieth century.

“The Pittsburgh Coal Company, as well as the South Hills Coal Company and the Castle Shannon Coal Company, had mines along Banksville Road, Library Road, and McNeilly Road.

“It is best to start with the Ellwyn Mine Shaft between Kilarney an Willow Avenues. That is that best choice within Brookline, where mines were dug under 95 percent of the territory.”

Thomas Berg grinned. “That sounds good, but first we need approval from the state’s environmental and mining agencies.”

Leo went on to describe the starting steps planned once the state bureaucracies issued its decisions.

Governor Thor Grun landed at Pittsburgh International Airport, where a waiting state-owned limousine wisked him off to the downtown Golden Triangle. His appointment was for a private meeting at the dining center of the city elite, the exclusive Duquesne Club.

His two bodyguards led him into the brownstone building, up to a reserved private suite where the chief of Duquesne Energy, Lester Furst, waited to confer with him.

The short, wizened little man with orange-red hair rose from a large, ornate antique chair the moment the Governor stepped into the room by himself, leaving his companions out in the hallway.

The two men shook hands, embraced and greeted each other, then both sat down facing the other at a small teak table.

“Tell me what you think of this prospective use of abandoned coal mines down in Brookline,” requested the state chief executive.

Furst began to speak in a slow, careful manner.

“It is a preposterous scheme, and the man who thought it up and is promoting the plan is that well-known industrial adventurist, Mr. Thomas Berg. He is the heir to an early Pittsburgh iron-based fortune, and is always inventing new ways of losing and wasting it away. But he has the funds and can afford to follow his whims and fancies as he wishes.”

“He believes that he can stabilize the distribution of wind and solar?”

The electricity executive grimaced. “The fool has bought the idea that by compressing air and then feeding it down into the long-abandoned mines there will be the ability to calibrate the supply of so-called clean power with the fluctuations in demand. The daily cycle of society’s need can be satisfied by this new balancing device, it is claimed.

“Mr. Berg wants approval for this panacea from the state’s environmental and mine authorities. That is the point at which we have to stop him, sir.”

Lester Furst looked directly at the Governor with a persistent stare.

“But Duquesne Energy is using advanced atomic generators at the Shippingport and Beaver Creek stations,” remarked Grun. “Does this interloper dream of making wind and solar supreme in the Pittsburgh region, over fossil fuels and atomic both? Is that his ultimate goal in all this?”

“I believe his dream is to destroy my company and take over all public means of energy generation and distribution,” muttered Furst. “The madman must be blocked before he wins control over any abandoned mines in or around the city.”

The room turned silent as the Governor ruminated. “Let me think about how can deal with the troublemaker, Lester. I’ll get in touch with you as soon as I decide on a course of action that will stop the crazy scheme.”

Furst, realizing the meeting was finished, got up, said good-bye, and quickly departed.

The following morning, an e-message arrived at the office of Thomas Berg from Harrisburg. Excited, he immediately phoned Leo to share some extremely good news with the engineer.

“Leo, guess what? I just received word from the Environmental Administration that they have no objections to us starting to convert a mine down in Brookline into a storage area for clean energy. I am overjoyed, as I know you are. We have to start our operations there as soon as we can. The orders we have sent out for compressors and hydraulics can be delivered to us at once.

“Why don’t you go down to the site we’ve chosen and start laying out precise markers for locations. I am putting you in charge of preparations for energy delivery and distribution into particular old mine shafts. We will have to be very careful with every move and alteration we make. That subterranean level has been derelict and fully abandoned for decades and decades, close to a century till now. We can’t allow any slip-ups in what we try to do.”

“I’m so glad we can now start,” said Leo to his chief. “Yes, we must watch every step we take. This will be a pioneering endeavor we are going to make.”

“I know I can place confidence in you, Leo,” the financier assured him.

Governor Grun audio-phoned Lester Furst at Duquesne Energy headquarters and presented him with an abject apology for what had happened.

“…of course, I am deeply sorry for the mistake that I allowed to be made. It is all my personal fault, Lester, for having delayed any action from my office for so long a time. But how in the world could I or anyone else have foreseen that the Pennsylvania E.P.A. was full of such fanatics and zealots that it would issue such immediate licenses and permits to Berg’s crazy project? Nobody could have foretold what our hotheads were ready to do. And I am really very mad at my inability to prevent this grievous error, this gross stability on the part of Harrisburg experts and bureaucrats. I can understand why everybody has such hatred for those nerds, and I share their distaste.

“But done is done, and we have to look forward to the future, don’t we?

“I will pull all the strings at my disposal and attempt to correct and rectify what has already been done. It will be difficult to put the spilled milk back in its bottle, but be assured that I will go to work on it at once.

“My office staff tells me it will take some time to reverse all the harm that has already been done to you and your company, my friend. But rest assured that Thor Grun is not an average politician who has a very short memory.

“You have my guarantee, my word, Lester, that we shall find some excuse to put a stop to what Berg is trying to do in Pittsburgh.

“Tell me, how is your lovely wife and all your kids? I’d like to visit with you and see them some time when I come out there.”

The president of Duquesne Energy was relieved when the Governor finished this tactical apology for what he had allowed to occur.

It was a clear Pittsburgh morning with a brilliantly radiant sun when Leo and his employer rode in the latter’s nitro-powered limousine to the inauguration of the first compressed air supply into a Brookline abandoned mine.

A crowd of spectators from the curious public and reporters from the electronic media formed around the entrance to the new, modern elevator platform from which the air currents going down were to be controlled.

Leo accompanied Thomas Berg to the tiny corner alcove where the latter was scheduled to press the button that would begin the intense compression pressure, applying electrical energy so that a multiple of what was to be expended could be stored up for future use.

“I hereby start the operation of the energy bank under us,” proudly pronounced the venture capitalist, leaning down to push forward the control meant to initiate operations below.

A loud ovation arose from his audience seconds after he finished his simple deed. An informal celebration followed, with drinks and snacks for the attending crowd of enthusiasts and free-loaders.

Laughing with victorious emotion, Thomas presented Leo a glass of champagne from off of a table full of treats. “I did it, but I mean to say that we did it together, all of us have the right to be proud and boast about our achievement today, my boy. They said it couldn’t be done, but you and I showed Pittsburgh and the whole world…”

At that moment, a shaking sensation forced the entrepreneur to fall silent, as did everyone else who was present. For the rolling, rumbling underground motion continued on and on, not coming to any immediate end.

Faces turned pale in terror at what was happening under them.

Antique, rotted shaft structures were suffering collapse. The pressures of condensation were too much to withstand. A disaster was in process. The critics and sceptics were being proven right.

All mouths, including that of Thomas Berg, stayed speechless a considerable time. The reporters appeared to be the first to head for their nitro-cars and video vehicles. Then, it was the turn of the public to go into flight.

Thomas and Leo looked at each other, both of them suffering absolute shock.

“This is the worst possible outcome, a total disaster,” groaned the financier of the project, a poisonous bitterness underlying his dry, hollow voice.

It was six days later that the emotionally crushed Leo achieved a terse e-message from the man who had lost part of his fortune of billions in the coal mine collapse. Fortunately, no deaths had resulted from the subsidence of ground in the Brookline district or beyond. A large number of old structures had suffered foundation damage, as if an underground, geological hurricane had occurred. Surface collapses were visible in many locations.

Home in his Pittsburgh University apartment, Leo read the short note that thanked and fired him simultaneously.

It was a short, curt communication that lacked sympathy or compassion of any sort.

When Leo looked at the Post-Gazette on-line that evening, he learned what the master of finance capital now had in mind to do.

“Pittsburgh industrial investor Thomas Berg is reportedly planning to switch away from compressed air to the use of liquefied, refrigerated air as the vehicle and medium of storing clean electric energy generated from solar and wind sources. He hopes that liquid air will be successful where compressed air has so far failed to do the job…”

Leo felt a hard, acidic lump in his throat.

He realized that there was no place for him in this new current of experimentation.

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