Webber Energy Group

UT researchers have found that women in underdeveloped countries are in need of energy education to increase society’s efficiency and better the surrounding environment.

Researchers Michael Webber, UT’s Energy Institute deputy director, and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the Energy Management and Innovation Center associate director, look at energy education, which includes basic knowledge of energy technologies and household energy usage.

Webber said women’s roles in energy matters came up after years of studying and teaching energy.

“It’s hard to cover this topic in depth without realizing the important role women have as decision-makers in the household and as victims of bad energy decisions — from pollution, old technologies … and beneficiaries of good energy decisions, because of reduced burdens for manual labor,” Webber said.

Their research is not technical-based but rather involves looking at energy issues in policy and social justice contexts, Webber said.

Organizations focused on educating people in lesser developed countries travel and teach the local people about a variety of topics, often including health care or religion, but energy is not known to be a priority topic. In order for energy to play a bigger role in any society, there needs to be an educated body willing to teach, Kirshenbaum said.

“Energy literacy is very low, which isn’t surprising because it’s not a standard subject we learn about at school,” Kirshenbaum said. “It’s very interdisciplinary, but we tend to compartmentalize energy into ‘policy’ or ‘engineering,’ without providing the comprehensive context for how they interact. Fortunately, this is beginning to change.”

Even though the level of energy literacy is currently low, it’s a growing field, Webber said.

“I think awareness is growing about the importance of energy literacy,” Webber said. “At the same time, STEM education has been identified as a top priority for many stakeholders. Done the right way, education programs could tackle STEM and energy in ways that are good for society.”

As outreach efforts to these areas continue, researchers may be able to help make energy a part of the platform, Webber said.

“I think that educators like myself need to propose that energy be included in their philanthropic efforts,” Webber said. “Most philanthropists are open to good ideas, so if we make the case effectively, they will support it.”

While women are a group of focus for energy education, Webber said everyone needs to be knowledgeable about the subject.

“If we do energy the right way, then women and the whole world will benefit,” Webber said.

The researchers have been working together since Kirshenbaum joined the Webber Energy Group in 2010.

John Andrews, owner of Texas Ceiling Fans, looks through a magazine in his business. According to Texas Ceiling Fans manager Mike Sconce, there was a particularly high boost in fan sales this summer as compared to seasons past as rising temperatures in early May led people to seek relief. With the onslaught of record-high temperatures, Austin Energy had the highest peak demand ever recorded.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Record-high temperatures this summer have paved the way for record-high power usage in Austin with a new electricity demand record of 66,867 megawatts between 4 and 5 p.m. on Monday.

This peak demand record surpasses the former all-time record from last year, which was 65,776 megawatts, on Aug. 23. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s bulk transmission grid, expects another record to be broken this week.

To some, the new peak demand record was not shocking. Michael Webber, associate director of UT’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy as well as head of the Webber Energy Group, said that while this phenomenon was highly predictable, it was simultaneously impressive how the nearly 25 million in Texas people use this much power.

“If you think of how many watts a light bulb needs, [in terms of the necessary power to generate a grid] like 40-100 watts, big appliances need kilowatts,” he said. “If you have billions of watts to be generated and consumed, it means a lot of appliances are using lots of power.”

On Monday morning, the council wasn’t expecting the electricity demand to get so high, but demand increased quickly throughout the day, said Dottie Roark, head of media relations for the council.

“By the end of the afternoon, we knew we were going to be breaking a record,” she said.

The council has suggested methods that citizens may use to reduce electricity use for the rest of the week, especially during “peak hours” from 3 to 7 p.m. They emphasize turning off unnecessary lights and electrical appliances.

The council pays attention to what plans are available and try to hold the total demand 10 to 20 percent below the maximum power that’s available. If something catastrophic happens in the middle of the afternoon, there’s a little flexibility and margin in the system, said Robert E. Hebner, director and research professor at the Center for Electromechanics at UT.

Another conservation tip is setting air conditioners at 78 degrees or higher, and raising them to 85 degrees when individuals are away from home.

Air conditioning alone accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the average Central Texas home’s summertime power bill, and much of that cost is in electricity that is wasted, according to the Austin Energy website.

The average number of triple-digit-temperature days in Austin is 12, said Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova. In 1925, Austin saw 69 triple-digit days. Temperatures rose above 100 on 68 days in 2009. Cordova said the city is on the way to breaking those records this year. Aug. 2 was the 49th day of 2011 in which Austin temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.

“Out of the 365 days in the year there might be over 70 days where the temperatures are over 100 degrees. We need rain to break this heat-spell we’re in,” Cordova said. “All the utilities, including [the council] and Austin Energy predict the peaks for the year, but sometimes you can’t predict anomalies.”

The Webber Energy Group is currently working on alternative methods of generating energy. One project involves large-scale storage using compressed air. The air is compressed into large underground geological caverns at night, acting as a high pressure tank. During the day the air rushes out of the cavern, spinning turbines in the process that generate power.

The city of Austin also activated Phase 1 of its heat emergency plan, which requires monitoring at-risk individuals — including the elderly, babies and tourists — for signs of heat-related illness.

Construction workers set up one of three solar panels on top of the Manor Garage on Friday morning.

Photo Credit: Chase Martinez | Daily Texan Staff

Construction on the first large solar panel installation on the main UT campus began Friday.

Crews began putting up a support system for the installation on top of Manor Garage on Robert Dedman Drive. Webber Energy Group, a UT mechanical engineering research team, will study the output of three different types of solar panels from three different manufacturers under the same conditions.

The metal supports on the roof of Manor Garage should be completed by the end of this week, said Lawrence Littleton, a contractor for Webber Energy Group. UT sustainability director Jim Walker said the solar panels should be fully installed before the first football game this season.

Walker said the project will have a small impact on the University’s power production but could lead UT researchers to future innovation.

“The fuel for solar is free, so over generations, this shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind is inevitable,” Walker said. “We need continued research and development so that it becomes more efficient and more cost-effective to do it.”

Research on the new solar panels will show how they respond to different temperatures, partial dirtiness and aging, said Fred Beach, a post-doctoral fellow at UT’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and member of the Webber Group.

“They differ in their efficiencies,” Beach said. “The less efficient ones are less costly, but to generate the same amount of electricity, you need to buy more of them.”

Beach said the panels will produce some of the energy necessary to power the Manor Garage and will benefit parking customers.

“Several customers, when they buy parking spaces, expect a shaded parking space,” he said. “This will shade 10 to 12 parking spaces on the roof.”

Manor Garage is located between Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the Mike A. Myers Track and Soccer Stadium. Beach said visibility was a condition of the grant that helped fund the project.

“They wanted us to be visible, and that is one of the most visible spots on campus, especially on game days,” Beach said. “It can also be seen from the interstate.”

The project is being funded by a $195,000 grant from federal funds distributed by the State Energy Conservation Office and about $125,000 from UT’s Parking and Transportation Services, said Texas Comptroller’s Office spokesman R.J. DeSilva.

The State Energy Conservation Office chose seven projects from 25 applicants to receive a total of about $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy last October. DeSilva said the agency chose projects that could be built immediately and could help educate the public. In addition to the academic benefits, UT will provide information about the solar panels with a kiosk.

DeSilva said the grants will help local public entities save money.

“By helping them become more energy-efficient, it helps them reduce their electric bill,” DeSilva said. “They will then be able to use that money for other perks.”

Printed on 07/25/2011 as: Solar panels to aid UT energy researce. 

Updated on 07/25/2011 at 1:05 p.m.: byline correction