Researchers put state at forefront of renewable energy revolution
May 4, 2009
Texans like to think of themselves as the best. Over the past decade, environmentalists have rated the state No. 1, but not in a good way: number one for per capita energy consumption, major environmental complaints and emission of air pollution and greenhouse gases.
What if the state could add a new ranking: No. 1 in green energy. Sound far fetched? It’s not, according to Michael Webber, an energy specialist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and Jackson School of Geosciences, where he is associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.
In “Green Star State,” an essay Webber wrote for the May edition of Texas Monthly, he explains how close Texas already is to becoming the country’s green energy leader.
“Texas is already doing much more for clean energy than the world realizes,” writes Webber.
“I wrote the article to break a myth that the green energy transition will somehow be bad for Texas,” he says. “The myth comes in part from our long relationship with the traditional energy industry. We assume that what worked in the past will work in the future, and nothing else will.”
In fact, despite its strong connections to the traditional oil and gas industry–and in some ways because of those connections–Texas is already a major player in the emerging economy of clean energy.
The state’s early adoption of renewable energy portfolios (requiring utilities to draw certain percentages of their power from renewable sources) helped set the stage for the current success. Today, Texas leads the nation in wind energy by a large margin and has the greatest combined potential of any state for renewable energy from wind and solar sources.
Public-private partnerships, like the nation’s first municipal green building program and first technology incubator for clean energy startups (both in Austin), have created national examples. Texas universities house leading researchers in key energy technologies for the future. And the state’s business sector is home to the world’s largest traditional energy companies, likely to play a major role in any transition to new forms of energy.
Most analysts expect traditional fossil fuels to continue to be the dominant form of energy for several decades. In 2007, energy derived from hydrocarbons (coal, oil and natural gas) accounted for 79 percent of U.S. production, according to the Energy Information Administration. Renewables, mainly hydroelectricity and biofuels, accounted for just under 10 percent. Wind and solar are the fastest growing forms of energy, in terms of annual production, but together they still account for only about 5 percent of the country’s renewable portfolio, and half a percent of U.S. energy production overall.
And yet concerns about climate change, pollution and volatile energy prices have fueled the search for new forms of energy that are less carbon-intensive.
Far from being a threat to Texas’ traditional strength in energy, the rise of green energy should reap windfalls for the state as new industries generate jobs, wealth and a more diversified tax base.
California is the country’s unofficial green energy leader, based on its No. 1 ranking for installed solar energy, No. 3 ranking for wind energy and track record of high environmental standards for everything from building codes to vehicle mileage requirements. (California’s universities also dedicate substantial funds to research and development of new energy technologies in joint ventures with industry, such as the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.)
With the right combination of policy, business strategy and public support for research, argues Webber, Texas could readily overtake California.
Webber identifies five areas where Texas can be or already is a leader in green energy: wind, solar, carbon capture and storage, biofuels and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin play leading roles in each area, and their work will be essential to the state’s ongoing success.
Power of the Plains
Just as Texas was blessed with natural resources in oil and gas, another natural bounty–the wind of the Southern Plains–has placed the state at the forefront of renewable energy.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas has more than three times the installed wind power capacity of any other U.S. state. And Texas continues to add capacity at a breakneck pace, installing more wind power in 2008 than any country except China and the U.S.
If Texas were a country, notes the association, it would rank sixth in the world in installed wind power, just behind Germany. Texas’ recent growth in wind is the main reason the U.S. just passed Germany as the country generating the most energy from renewable sources.
West Texas has considerable room to expand wind power, a necessity if the U.S. expects to approach some of the more ambitious goals put forth by wind advocates, such as achieving 20 percent of the nation’s power generation from wind by 2030.
Whether or not this lofty goal can ever be reached, the good news, reports Webber, is that Texas has ample room to expand wind power–offshore. While the coastal areas of other U.S. states extend three miles offshore, Texas (and Florida along the Gulf of Mexico) extends three marine leagues offshore, or about nine miles, under its original terms of statehood. So in addition to having a lot of wind in the Gulf, Texas has exceptional room to place turbines. Offshore wind farms could generate power during the peak energy days of summer, when the West Texas winds breezes tend to die down.
Research on wind power takes place in several departments at the Cockrell School of Engineering. One important resource is the Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Electric Power and Integration of Renewable Energy Systems under the leadership of Surya Santoso, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Santoso works on making wind farms more efficient at generating electricity. As an offshoot of that research, he develops models that simulate wind farms and wind power plants so researchers can predict their performance in the field. The model development is funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Department of Energy.
Students from around the world come to the university to work in Santoso’s group, yet many alumni are finding post-graduate employment right in Texas–a natural result, given the size of the state’s wind market. These alumni could become a valuable commodity. Just as, in the 20th century, Texas exported scientific and engineering expertise to petroleum markets around the world, the state could soon be training and exporting scientific and engineering expertise for wind energy.
Santoso believes Texas will continue to be a major force in wind power for a long time to come, but to solidify its position, the state should continue to invest in research. He would like to see greater investment in energy generation methods to make power from renewable sources less intermittent, “and hence more reliable and economic.” New technologies, such as mass storage capacities for intermittent energy resources, are critical areas for research and development. And Santoso would like to see policy and regulation that incentivizes further use of renewable energy.
“These research initiatives will in the end have huge beneficial societal impacts in emissions, energy security and trade deficit reduction,” says Santoso.
Where Texas dominates in wind, California dominates in solar, with the most installed capacity, biggest industrial base and largest incentives for new installation. Texas does not even make the list of top 10 states for installed photovoltaic capacity tied to the power grid, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.
But according to Webber, because Texas is a “photon-rich state,” it should be able to leapfrog cloudier and smaller states like New Jersey by installing utility-scale power plants in West Texas “and slapping photovoltaic panels on every south-facing non-shaded roof in the state.”
Webber also believes the state could form a consortium (similar to Sematech, which works for the semiconductor industry) to take on some of the research challenges facing the solar energy industry. Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are at the forefront of resolving several of these challenges.
With $15 million from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a group of 18 faculty members from the College of Natural Sciences and the Cockrell School of Engineering will focus on the molecular processes that underpin nanomaterials for solar energy and batteries.
“The current pace of industrial research and development for solar energy and battery technologies is not fast enough to address society’s energy needs, which are growing more critical every day,” said Paul Barbara, holder of the Richard J. V. Johnson Welch Regents Chair in Chemistry and director of the both the new center and the existing Center for Nano and Molecular Science and Technology.
In October 2008, the Center for Electrochemistry at The University of Texas at Austin received a $5 million grant from the Houston-based Welch Foundation to start the Renewable Energy Initiative, a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort to promote advances in renewable energy technologies.
Two of the center’s major projects relate to solar energy: an effort to develop new kinds of photovoltaic and photoelectrochemical materials that could make solar power competitive with fossil fuels, and the pursuit of better batteries that can store energy over long periods of time. Such storage is needed to maximize the utility of renewable energy sources, such as wind farms and solar panels that intermittently generate electricity.
Mack Grady, associate chairman of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department in the Cockrell School, where he is the Jack S. Josey Professor in Energy Resources, leads another group working on technological problems and national outreach for renewable energy. In solar energy, Grady works closely with Austin Energy, operating solar radiation monitoring stations in Austin and West Texas to assess the performance of photovoltaic cells, predicting their power output based on orientation toward the sun. Austin Energy is a recognized leader in solar energy, “perhaps the top utility on the subject,” says Grady.
Grady also organizes and chairs the university’s renewable energy workshop, which annually draws about 150 participants to campus.
He sees a bright future for solar in Texas because of the state’s sun potential and because the widespread use of wind energy sets a precedent for working with renewable power. But if solar is to proliferate, he says, the cost must be more in line with energy from other sources.
Dealing with CO2
According to Webber, Texas might make its biggest contribution to green energy “by helping the globe with carbon dioxide.” One proposed solution for reducing levels of carbon dioxide is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)–the process of taking carbon dioxide from power plants and industrial sources and injecting it into geological formations for permanent storage.
As fate would have it, many of the same geological formations that created Texas’ vast oil wealth in the 20th century could turn out to be ideal locations, or “sinks,” for storing carbon dioxide in the 21st century. With the looming prospect of federal regulation of carbon dioxide, states across the country could be looking for ways to offset their emissions of the greenhouse gas. Texas has both the geology and, thanks to its energy industry, the network and experience with gas transmission to build a carbon storage industry.
The state also happens to be home to the leading academic research group working on carbon sequestration, led by Susan Hovorka, a senior research scientist at the Jackson School’s Bureau of Economic Geology.
Hovorka’s group led the country’s first small-scale test of carbon sequestration, pumping 1600 metric tons of carbon dioxide a mile below ground in east Texas in 2004. In 2007 the group received $38 million from the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct the country’s first intensively monitored, long-term project in carbon sequestration, injecting carbon dioxide at levels comparable to the emissions from a power plant.
The group is also an integral part of a research center at the university that just received $15 million through President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Center for Frontiers of Subsurface Energy Security, focused understanding the movement of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in geological systems.
Sequestration projects are essential to the development of any carbon storage system.
“If a carbon sequestration market is going to develop, then you have to have monitoring to make sure the CO2 is going to stay there,” says Ian Duncan, associate director for environmental programs at the Bureau of Economic Geology.
The Right Kind of Biofuels
Corn-based ethanol is the most popular biofuel consumed in the U.S., but Webber, drawing in part on research from his group at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, believes corn ethanol does not deserve the “green” label. In fact, it’s possibly “very damaging to the environment,” he writes, because producing ethanol from corn uses tremendous amounts of both water and fossil fuel.
Texas is fortunate it is not a major player in corn-based ethanol, says Webber: “Since we’re not trapped in doing things the wrong way, we can leapfrog other states and do biofuels the best way.”
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are pioneering one of the most promising technologies for biofuels: algae.
R. Malcolm Brown Jr., the Johnson & Johnson Centennial Chair in Plant Cell Biology in the College of Natural Sciences, and David Nobles, a research associate, announced the development in 2008 of a new microbe that produces cellulose that can be turned into ethanol or other biofuels.
The researchers believe the microbe, a cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae), could provide a significant portion of the nation’s transportation fuel if further tests show production can be scaled up.
The algae uses sunlight as an energy source and can grow in salty water unsuitable for human consumption. Unlike corn and sugarcane, the world’s two leading crops for biofuel production, algae will not require the dedication of huge expanses of arable land that would otherwise go to food production.
“It’s likely that Texas, with its never-ending acres of sunlit nonarable land sitting atop saline aquifers, has greater potential to produce algae-based fuels than any other state,” writes Webber. And biofuels from algae are likely to be much more efficient than corn or sugarcane in gallons of fuel produced per acre, “so despite our late start, we can make up ground quickly.”
So, Who Cares?
In his Texas Monthly essay, Webber outlines another area where Texas has taken a leading role, incentivizing the use of plug-in hybrid vehicles. He also includes a detailed list of suggestions for policy makers and state legislators.
Residents of other states may ask, however, who cares if Texas is a leader in green energy? Sure, it may benefit Texans, but will it help anyone else?
Webber believes it will, unequivocally.
“The great thing about Texas being a leader is we’ll move the needle in ways other places cannot,” says Webber. “Thanks to our grounding in the traditional energy industry, with its refining channels and networks of pipelines, we have the scale of industry required for energy distribution. We have the expertise. And we have the business and regulatory culture it takes to get things done in the energy business.”
Ironically, the state’s tradition of not being preoccupied with environmental problems could be one of its greatest strengths in green energy. Unlike North Atlantic states, which have struggled to accept offshore oil development and offshore wind farms, Texas has a tradition, notes Webber, of trading blight for development.
“Because we don’t care as much as some other states about the environmental impacts of developing energy businesses, there are fewer obstacles in Texas,” says Webber. As a practical result, the wind industry has met little resistance in its phenomenal growth.
Finally, even Texas’ reputation as an environmental laggard may prove beneficial to the country as a whole.
“Because we’re seen as laggards,” says Webber, “when we change direction, it sends a strong message to other states and even countries that it’s time to get on board.”