renewable energy

Douglas Arent, executive director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, speaks about the energy sector at a lecture held in the Peter O’Donnell building Thursday evening.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

The head of a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable energy discussed the challenges and opportunities the energy sector faces as a result of impending climate change.

In order to help the U.S. combat the effects of climate change, the energy sector must reduce its carbon footprint and reduce the amount of energy needed to power the domestic economy, according to Douglas Arent, executive director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis.

“Carbon productivity must rise three times as fast as labor productivity did during the Industrial Revolution in order to reach the world’s demand for energy,” Arent said.

The Department of Energy asked Arent’s team to conduct research, and the team found the United States could meet the bulk of its 2050 projected electricity demand using renewable energy, meaning that renewable energy will represent anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of energy consumption, Arent said.

According to Arent, older people tend to invest more in clean, renewable sources of energy because of their desire to create a sustainable earth for younger generations.

“The older people get, the more they care about their children and grandchildren,” Arent said. “When you look at people’s purchasing behavior for solar systems in California, it actually skews to older people, and it is not because of the availability of money.”

Finance sophomore Trong Nguyen said he believes that carbon productivity could rise to the levels necessary to sustain the world’s energy demand in the future.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if future technological innovation allows society to easily reach the carbon productivity levels that would meet the world’s demand for energy,” Nguyen said.

With the decarbonizing initiative gaining more traction, energy investments are being increasingly allocated to clean and sustainable energy, Arent said.

“Bloomberg Energy Finance forecasts a decrease in fossil fuel investment globally for the next 20 years and a continued and relatively significant increase in investment in clean energy technologies,” Arent said.   

Public health freshman Jonathan Tran said that he believes increasing research should be devoted to finding more feasible sources of renewable energy.

“Adopting an increasing amount of renewable sources of energy will help us address both the long-term problem of energy sources, as well as limit nonrenewable energy’s harmful impact on the environment,” Tran said.

Business professor David Spence spoke as part of a panel Thursday for the University's Energy Week. Spence is part of a research team creating an online calculator that looks at the efficiency of different sources of electricity.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

Researchers are working on new ways to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels for energy, according to Benjamin K. Sovacool, director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology at Aarhus University in Herning, Denmark. 

Sovacool, a professor of business and social sciences at Aarhus University and associate professor of law at Vermont Law School, spoke Thursday about the progressive measures Nordic countries are taking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions linked to climate change. The lecture was part of the University’s Energy Week, a series of conferences designed to showcase emerging technologies in the energy field.

Nordic countries have harnessed the power of renewable energy sources, including wind and waste, which has created more energy efficient buildings, according to Sovacool. He said the countries have made use of carbon capture and storage technology, which captures 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuels. 

Denmark has also worked to join its energy resources and make them more efficient, Sovacool said. 

“The country has a lot of combined heat and power facilities,” Sovacool said. “There’s talk about integrating systems together, so we can provide heat, steam and pressure [energy] in one go.”

While Nordic countries have made advancements in renewable energy, they still have to make more changes to energy consumption if they are to reach their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, according to Sovacool.

Sovacool said Nordic countries have worked on using renewable energy for decades, starting with the oil shock of 1973, when the price of oil spiked worldwide after an embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries.

“There was a national push for independence and sufficiency,” Sovacool said. “There was a desire for job and technological innovation and a rush to experiment with local sources of energy like water and waste.”

While Nordic countries have taken great steps towards using renewable energy, the city of Austin has also worked towards positive change, according to Matt Weldon, a member of the board of directors for Solar Austin, an organization that works to promote renewable energy.

“Austin was an early investor in wind projects, [and] Central Texas has low solar rooftop installation costs,” Weldon said. “The city of Austin is arguably ahead of its renewable energy goals.”

Kevin Merrill, a graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said he was concerned about the cost of implementing similar measures in the United States.

“We need to focus on our inefficiencies and focus on a better way of transporting electricity,” Merrill said. “We need to focus on what is suitable and feasible.”

Clay Butler, a managing partner at The Butler Firm, speaks about the growing solar industry at the UT Energy Symposium on Tuesday evening.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Three members from the energy industry discussed the future of renewable energy in an on-campus panel hosted by the UT Energy Symposium on Thursday.

The panel, held in the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Building, addressed the specific aspects of how to move toward a solar powered society.

Clay Butler, managing partner at The Butler Firm, a consulting firm focused on clean and renewable energy transactions, said citizens need to turn their attention and actions to the solar industry.

“What are you passionate about?” Butler said. “Whatever you are passionate about, you can do it with the solar industry. The market is being born and it is unlimited.”

The speakers said that the solar industry is new, though, the idea of solar-derived energy has long been established. The panelists said people usually oppose solar energy because they do not have enough information about its benefits.

Spivey Paup, solar development manager at the energy company E.ON, said several preliminary actions need to be taken in order to build solar fields and wind farms.

“Environmental analysis, historical survey, permitting, geotechnical engineering design, energy sales, financing and construction are some of the factors that are taken into consideration,” Paup said.

After the speakers finished their presentations, members of the audience had time to ask questions or bring up concerns about solar power. Several audience members discussed the economic impact of solar powering, including the potential tax revenues and other incentives for local communities to make the transition.

Colin Meehan from First Solar, an American provider of photovoltaic solar energy solutions, said cost is an incentive for switching to solar energy.

“Under current [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] assumptions, solar [will be] cost-competitive in 2021,” Meehan said.

Allan Aw, a global policy studies graduate student who attended the symposium, said it was his interest in solar power that specifically brought him in to listen.

“I was part of the Alliance for Energy Public Policy club that hosted this talk and I think, in general, all of us that are in that club in the LBJ school are very interested in energy policy,” Aw said. “In general, I think all of us have interest in utilities and power, and that is what brought me here.” 

Dr. Ernest Moniz, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, gave a talk in the Avaya Auditorium on Thursday morning. 

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said in a speech Thursday at the University that he attributes progress in the field of renewable energy to the efforts of
immigrant citizens.

“The president has been very clear that immigration will be a major focus this year,” Moniz said. “The Department of Energy can’t avoid that major pushes in the investment of clean energy have come from people who came to this country, were educated in this country and have now contributed to our economy.”

Moniz, who was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before his appointment as secretary of energy, said the development of more efficient energy sources is an important nationwide issue.

“There is no ambiguity about the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” Moniz said.  

Moniz, who spoke with engineering students about their ideas on renewable energy, said the solution to clean energy problems will require creating opportunities for various ways to fix the issues.

“There is no single low-carbon solution that will be the magic answer everywhere,” Moniz said. “What we need to do is enable all of the fuels, all of the technologies, to have a marketplace position in a future low-carbon economy.”

University Provost Gregory Fenves said he believes the goals of the University were in sync with those of Moniz’s department.

“When we look at the mission of the Department of Energy and compare that to what we do at the University of Texas, there is tremendous alignment in our education mission, in our research mission, and also in how we get our innovations out to serve the world through entrepreneurship and communication,” Fenves said. 

Engineering professor Michael Webber, who introduced Moniz, said he has been impressed with the secretary’s performance since his appointment in May.

“He works hard, he hustles for the American people and he’s an advocate for energy solutions that stand the test of time,” Webber said. 

Moniz said his department hopes for a more diverse workforce in future years.

“When we look at what is going to be the resource needed to get the kind of energy system we want mid-century, we’re going to need a really good workforce,” Moniz said. “We just don’t have an energy workforce that reflects our demographics and our future demographics.”

The UT Solar Vehicles Team has been working on its solar car, the TexSun, for two years. The car cost $100,000 to build. The team will compete against other college solar car teams nationwide at the International Formula Sun Grand Prix in June.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

Two years and thousands of dollars later, the UT Solar Vehicles Team is geared up and ready to race its car, called the TexSun, at the Formula Sun Grand Prix this week.

Beginning Monday and ending Saturday, the Formula Sun Grand Prix features solar cars built by college students nationwide. The winner of the race is not the car that passes the finish line first, but the car that completes the most laps without running out of power.

The race will be held at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, which hosted the U.S. Formula 1 race last year. There are 12 teams registered to compete.

UT students who worked on the car say building it gave them the opportunity to use the skills they learned in class. Building the car is not cheap, and students faced challenges buying parts for the car.

Overall, students say the spotlight is on renewable energy. If solar energy can be harnessed to make cars run, renewable may eventually go mainstream and be used in aspects of everyday life.

“I like a challenge,” said team member Benton Greene, an aerospace engineering graduate student. “It is fun to design something, to meet some problem and see it actually work and get to compete against other people who designed for the same problem but had different creative ideas for how to make things work.”

The UT Solar Vehicles Team is made up of 50 students who worked on the car’s mechanical, battery, electrical, software, and body and wing teams. The team spent $100,000 constructing the car, said Neda Abdul-Razzak, the team’s president and a mechanical engineering and psychology senior.

“To be able to finish making the car is itself a huge accomplishment,” Abdul-Razzak said. “The main thing is that it is a learning process and a really good way to apply all the engineering theories we learn in the classroom by building an actual car.”

Built low to the ground, made of aluminum and mounted with a solar panel, the UT car weighs slightly less than 200 pounds. Computer systems, including a user interface and battery protection, are also used to conserve energy while the car is not in motion.

Abdul-Razzak said the first four days of the race are dedicated to scrutineering, a process where officials test the car and make sure it is up to safety regulations. The on-track competition takes place the last three days. The teams charge their solar panel twice a day at a specific angle so that the sun directly hits the components of the solar panel that convert solar energy to electricity. The car runs as long as the battery packs last.

The team got a significant donation from a UT alumnus to finish the TexSun. Bobby Epstein, chairman and founding partner of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin, contributed $50,000 to the UT Solar Vehicles Team.

Team members said the money was used to buy the most expensive and critical components of the car, including the carbon fiber, the solar panel array and motor. 

Budget, unfortunately, often plays a significant role in the outcome of a car, Epstein said. Because of this, he said the solar car challenge has much in common with Formula 1 races because car design, rather than driver, is often the key factor in determining victory. 

“I visited the workshop where the UT car was under construction, and I was impressed by their enthusiasm and depth of understanding,” Epstein said. “I also am certain there is no waste and that resources are maximized.”

Win or lose, at the end of the day the purpose of building the TexSun was to promote research into the use of renewable energy, Greene said.

“This event is a way to get more local people to learn more about solar energy and hopefully consider installing solar panels in their house,” Greene said. “Get the word out for green energy.”

Key changes to energy consumption and production could transform energy processes in Texas, energy experts said Thursday.

The Texas Observer held a public forum June 14 at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs to generate awareness for more environmentally friendly approaches to energy use in Texas. Panelists included energy experts and representatives from commercial energy companies, who spoke about the future of wind and solar energy investment in Texas.

Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering assistant professor who spoke at the forum, said Texas needs to make better use of its flat land and equip it with wind turbines and solar panels to produce renewable energy.

Webber said Chilling Station Six, UT’s Thermal Energy Storage facility, produces fewer greenhouse gases than older cooling stations on campus, and UT’s array of solar panels produce 400,000 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy every year.

“We installed Meridian Solar panels on campus,” Webber said. “A couple hundred thousand people see [these solar panels] every day.”

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources could gradually progress in the next ten years, Webber said.

Andrew McCalla, president of Meridian Solar, Inc., a company specializing in solar energy, also spoke at the forum and said solar energy is a better alternative to hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses water to extract natural gas from the earth. He said the non-polluting aspects of capturing the sun’s energy are superior to oil extraction through fracking, which uses large quantities of water. He said using water is an inefficient way to extract natural gas, and his company currently supplies two arrays of solar panels for UT.

Bill White, former Houston mayor and Texas candidate for governor, said he has continuously looked for ways to adopt alternative energy practices in Houston despite its connection with the oil industry. He said Texas should set a goal for growth without having hazardous toxins in the air.

“Texas imports coal to make electricity, which degrades our quality of air,” White said.

Shalini Ramanathan, vice president of development of RES Americas, a renewable energy company, said technology will lead energy production and use into more efficient methods. She said the use of wind and solar power could potentially be used to generate energy to run electric cars.

“More electric cars are beneficial for those in Austin who only drive a few miles per day,” Ramanathan said. “[They are] an elegant suggestion.”

Rubens Ometto Silveira Mello, left, chairman of the board of the Brazilian ethanol production company Cosan, prepares to give a speech in the Harry Ransom Center Thursday afternoon. Mello and several other speakers were hosted as part of The Faces of America series to speak about the future of alternative energy sources.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: Some portions of this interview were translated from Portuguese and Spanish.

Renowned Brazilian energy mogul Rubens Ometto Silveira Mello encouraged the U.S. to develop a green energy partnership with Brazil to increase the world’s energy sources and protect the environment in a lecture Thursday night.

Mello spoke as a part of the “Faces of the Americas/Rostros de las Américas,” a lecture sponsored by the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the Harry Ransom Center. Mello spoke on the history of Brazil’s energy consumption and the emergence of cleaner energy based on biofuels. Mello said he hoped President Obama’s trip to Brazil this past March would inspire a partnership between the two countries to help America become more energy-independent.

“One country cannot have an advantage over the other,” Mello said. “One can complete the other one, there are some advances they have that we don’t.”

Mello said the introduction of corn-based ethanol in the U.S. was a very important step for the country in terms of renewable energy but that there was still more that could be done. Mello said 48 percent of Brazil’s current energy comes from renewable sources. In comparison, the U.S. uses about 8 percent of renewable energy to meet its energy needs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Some people criticized [the introduction of ethanol to U.S. markets],” Mello said. “But the U.S. did a very good thing. It showed America and it showed the world that ethanol worked.”

Mello is currently head of Cosan, a Brazilian-based energy company that revolutionized the use of ethanol and helped make renewable energy more accessible in Brazil. Cosan recently joined with energy giant Shell to produce over 2 million liters of ethanol from sugar cane.

Marco Munoz, assistant director of the IC^2 Institute, said Brazil is 30 years ahead of us in terms of renewable energy, referencing the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Brazil imported 90 percent of its oil at this time and oil prices for Brazil rose from three dollars a barrel to $12. Brazil declared energy independence and turned to its sugarcane-based ethanol industry in the time of crisis and has relied heavily on the source ever since.

“Corn-based ethanol is not efficient because it affects the U.S. and world food supply,” Munoz said. “If the U.S. is dedicated to finding a cleaner source of energy, sugarcane-based ethanol is the way to go.”

Geosciences professor William Fisher spoke alongside Mello at the lecture and said the U.S. should follow Brazil’s lead on sustainable energy. Fisher has been traveling to Brazil since the 1970s and was in Brazil during the Arab oil embargo.

Fisher said in order to become more energy independent the U.S. needs to remove the tariffs and subsidies on Brazilian ethanol.

“Brazil has a very good product and they have a lot of investments in [renewable] technology,” Fisher said. “When they kill a hog, they eat everything but the squeal.” 

Printed on Friday, October 21st, 2011 as: Brazil's energy program could teach US

Austin has some of the most eco-friendly municipal buildings in the state, thanks in part to a plan created by former city officials.

That planning will be validated on Oct. 1, when Austin will reach its goal of becoming the largest local government to run off of 100 percent renewable energy. In 2007 former mayor Will Wynn proposed the Austin Climate Protection Plan with the intention of running Austin’s municipal facilities with only renewable energy by 2012. The city will reach its goal one year early. The plan states that city officials hoped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create cleaner air quality by powering city facilities with renewable energy alone, as well as achieving other green goals.

“Austin has established a new goal for other cities to try to achieve,” said Matt Curtis, spokesman for Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “We knew the easiest way to show our community and to show the nation our strong commitment to green power would be for us to use it ourselves.”

Curtis, who also worked for the city during Wynn’s administration, said city officials are excited to set the standard not only for other Texas cities, but for Austin residents as well. Curtis said officials have worked to “go green” by investing in wind farms and solar power for the city in order to achieve the first goal. Other goals listed in the plan included developing city transportation fleets powered by non-petroleum fuels, creating a reduction plan for household utility emissions and enhancing incentives for green builders.

Jeff Sabins, president of McCombs CleanTech Group, a graduate student organization, said he and other members chose to attend UT because of the environmentally aware mentality of Austin. Sabins, who is a business administration graduate student, said most CleanTech members are business students hoping to work with renewable energy, and he is glad the city wants to help students like himself not only make good choices, but possibly even find a career.

“A lot of people in our group are trying to find jobs and get involved in the [renewable energy] industry,” Sabins said. “We’re not a tiny city here, so to see innovation on that sort of scale makes us proud of the fact that we can work towards making this approach more widespread.”

Sabins said CleanTech members speak with renewable energy companies on a regular basis and are involved in learning about new ways to create a cleaner climate.

The city offers residents the opportunity to subscribe to renewable energy in their homes, and while these services may be a bit pricier, Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark said he hopes residents will realize the difference their choice can make. He said although a current subscription to renewable energy may cost more, those who subscribe will save money in the future. Clark said the city is committed to its current renewable resources on a fixed rate which keeps prices from rising.

“Natural gas and other fuels used in the conventional generation are expected to rise,” Clark said. “By having a fixed price you put a hedge against rising prices in the future.” 

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: City of Austin meets goal of complete green energy

Texas can seem contradictory when it comes it energy conservation — although the state produces the sixth highest amount of wind energy in the world, it also produces the seventh highest amount of carbon dioxide, said a UT geologist. To address the challenges of a constantly evolving energy field, a group of students invited researchers, businessmen and policy-makers to the first UT Energy Forum. The forum, which started Thursday, will continue through Friday. Several of the panels focused on how society should evolve from using petroleum and coal to using nuclear and renewable energy sources. Keynote speaker Michael Webber, the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, said Texas will play a key role in the switch to renewable energy because of its increasing involvement in solar energy. He said although Texas is the United States’ largest consumer and producer of oil, gas and electricity, it also manufactures a large amount of solar and wind power. “We are part of the problem and the solution,” Webber said. Many panelists agreed that there is an increasing need for renewable energy, specifically water, wind and solar. “Texas will do for solar energy this decade what we did for wind last decade,” Webber said. Webber said Texans need to start emphasizing energy efficiency and conservation. If everyone was to use energy at the rate Texas uses energy, the nation could run out of energy up to 10 times faster. “We need to have thoughtful design of our system and a society with a desire to conserve, these two things go hand in hand,” he said. “I’m optimistic. Energy will get smarter. Energy is going to get cleaner. Renewable energy will keep dropping in price.” Scott Tinker, the director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the Jackson School of Geosciences, said the United States could face several challenges while converting to renewable energy. “[Wind turbines are] not a steady source of electricity,” Tinker said. “When the wind stops blowing, you have to support that electricity very quickly.” Tad Patzek, UT’s Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering chairman, said the weather — specifically the current freezing temperatures — plays an important role in energy consumption. He said Texans use more than 60,000 megawatts of electricity to power homes and businesses for one day. “That’s an astronomical quantity of electricity,” Patzek said. Patzek is a proponent of renewable energy, but said it was important to note that there is no such thing as clean energy. “All energy by its nature has to cause some damage somewhere. Although wind and solar power are definitely cleaner,” Patzek said.

A UT graduate student was awarded one of six scholarships that provide opportunities for students who show interest in the renewable energy and biofuels industry. Julia O’Rourke, a public affairs and engineering graduate student, will attend the 2011 National Ethanol Conference in Phoenix, Ariz., from Feb. 20-22 because she received a scholarship from the Renewable Fuels Association. “The conference is recognized as the premier gathering arena for delivering accurate, timely information on marketing, legislative and regulatory issues facing the ethanol industry,” said Taryn Morgan, spokeswoman for the association. O’Rourke is currently taking a policy research project course. As a group, her class is writing a paper that focuses on clean energy, O’Rourke said. Her part in the paper focuses on ethanol in the United States, which inspired her to apply for the scholarship. “I’m hoping to learn more about the policies that are affecting the ethanol industry so I can contribute to my paper better,” O’Rourke said. This is the second year the association has co-sponsored the scholarships with the Renewable Fuels Foundation as a way to expose students to job opportunities and what the industry has to offer, Morgan said. The scholarship only covers the registration fee for the conference, O’Rourke said. Her policy research project course is helping pay for the travel expenses. “We try to make up the difference so they can have a learning experience,” said David Eaton, assisting professor for the course. “These events have the most recent material and most recent information.” O’Rourke said she hopes to see a forecast for the future of the ethanol industry. She wants to speak to officials such as Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. “Different programs that promote ethanol on the federal level are changing,” O’Rourke said. “I am hoping to ask him for his spin on the policies he thinks the ethanol industry needs to be able to promote itself and where he sees the industry going.”