Michael Webber

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

A recent report has linked the disposal of wastewater from fracking to small earthquakes in Texas and other areas, including the Central and Eastern U.S.

“We have had no seismic activity for decades, and then suddenly when [fracking] has been brought in, we start seeing it,” said Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “I don’t think this a stretch from the facts.”

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, uses high-pressured water to release natural gas from underground rocks.

Researchers from the United States Geological Survey, a science organization based in California, conducted the report. They analyzed changes in the rate of earthquake occurrence using USGS databases of earthquakes recorded since 1970. The team found the average number of earthquakes jumped from 21 per year from 1972–2008 to 99 earthquakes per year from 2009–2013.

The largest of a series of earthquakes this year in Texas occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with a 3.3 magnitude. 

“I’m not surprised,” mechanical engineering professor Michael Webber said. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that has revealed these earthquakes near the regions of wastewater injection.”

According to the report, the increase in seismicity has been linked to the injection of wastewater, a byproduct of fracking, into disposal wells deep underground. Although fracking is not directly related to the earthquakes seen in affected areas, wastewater injection has been found to be the cause.

Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute, said the state legislature has been fairly inactive in response to recent earthquakes.

“There is room for the state to take action on it,” Webber said. “It involves finding a way to reduce the wastewater and minimize [its] injection. We need to figure out better locations on where to inject the wastewater.”

According to USGS’s report, evidence from case histories suggests the magnitude of an earthquake tends to increase as the total volume of injected wastewater increases.

“I think it’s a sign to continue [research and development] for other renewable sources, and I feel we shouldn’t be using natural gas as a crutch,” said Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, Campus Environmental Center director.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the effects of fracking on the environment. According to a statement on the agency’s website, the EPA is investigating how fracking affects natural water resources but does not yet have an investigation into its link to seismic activity.

It’s been a year since UT launched its first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and, despite low completion rates, Steven Mintz, executive director of the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said they are part of building a learning platform for the future.

After looking at data from the University’s first eight MOOCs from the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters, Mintz said a total of about 281,000 people from all over the world enrolled in the courses. Of this number, only about 1-13 percent complete the MOOCs.

Mintz, who is also a history professor at the University, said there might be several reasons for the low completion rates, including the age of MOOC students and their motives for taking the free online courses.

“Your parents aren’t paying $10,000 for you to be sitting in a class, and they expect you to finish,” Mintz said. “It’s a very different experience. Also, most MOOC students are older. They often have degrees. They’re doing it either out of interest or because of professional credentialing. They’re not there to get a BA for the most part.”

In 2012, the UT System invested $5 million into edX, an online learning platform and provider of MOOCs and allocated an additional $5 million to be used for course development. Only $1.5 million of the additional funds have been used for course development. Founded in 2012, edX first offered MOOCs created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before expanding to offer content from other universities.

Mintz said UT is increasing the spread of its international image, and its ability to compete with other top colleges by being one of the first universities to use MOOC technology.

“We play football in the big leagues, and, academically, we need to be in the big leagues,” Mintz said. “Faculty members of the caliber that UT-Austin has need to feel that they have exactly the same opportunities as a Princeton professor or a Harvard professor, and I want to make sure they have those opportunities.”

Engineering associate professor Michael Webber, who taught the “Energy 101” MOOC, said teaching these free courses is beneficial for the University because professors become better at teaching through learning how to internationalize their content and prepare it for a digital format.

“It forced me to think about how the course I taught works around the world,” Webber said.

While University students don’t directly benefit from MOOCs unless they take the online course, Mintz said materials are currently being developed for MOOCs that can be used in UT classrooms.

“Instead of having a textbook, the MOOC might be the textbook,” Mintz said. “A lot of money is being spent to create interactives, virtual laboratories, virtual reality environments and immersive learning experiences. Even if you never take a MOOC, some of the materials we have developed for the MOOC will be used in classes you will take.”

Mintz said there is also potential in the future for MOOCs to be offered for credit, but Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, said there are still problems to be worked out before this can happen.

“One of the problems with offering MOOCs for credit center around being able to authenticate who is taking the MOOC,” Keller said. “You don’t know if it’s the same person every time.”

In addition to making sure the person who registers for the MOOC is the same person taking their exams, Webber said MOOCs are bad at being able to see whether students have mastered the material.

“I don’t think MOOCs should be offered as course credit until assessment in general gets figured out,” Webber said. “This is a solvable problem. We’re just not there yet.”

Editor's note: Mintz's comments and the amount the UT System has dedicated to the program have been updated for accuracy.

On Tuesday, the University launched its eighth massive open online course — better known as MOOC — “Effective Thinking Through Mathematics,” which will be taught by mathematics professor Michael Starbird, 

“The real goal of education is to get people to be better thinkers, so that’s the goal of the course,” Starbird said. “I think one of the most important things a person can learn is how to think deeply over a longer, extended period of time, when you don’t have a bunch of things coming in.”

According to Starbird, his MOOC has been in development for a year, and he has filmed more than 50 hours of content for the course. Starbird said one of his biggest challenges was finding an engaging way to present the material.

“It’s not exactly thrilling movie productions,” Starbird said. “We were joking about inserting a car chase to keep people’s attention.” 

Starbird said he approached his MOOC as an experiment, focusing on the interactions between himself and his students.

“I sat there with [two or three] students on either side of me and I would pose a question — either a mathematical puzzle, problem or concept — and have them work on that mathematical issue, and I would comment as they were working about strategies of thinking,” Starbird said. “I don’t know the extent of which people who are just watching this will actively engage in that same way — which was my hope — or not. That part of the experiment is not known yet.”

The University launched four MOOC courses in the fall that had completion rates ranging from 1 to 13 percent.

In 2012, the UT System invested $5 million in edX, an online education provider, in order to bring MOOCs to UT. Last semester, UTAustinX, UT’s MOOC program, offered four classes. 

The courses are open to anyone in the world, and, although UT will not offer any credit for completed courses, students who pass can obtain certificates of mastery.

Engineering professor Michael Webber’s MOOC, “Energy 101,” had the highest completion rate of all of last semester’s MOOCs, at 13 percent. Webber said one of his goals in the course was to have a high retention rate. 

“[A high retention rate] was an explicit goal and something we pursued as part of our MOOC development,” Webber said. “We did that through social media goals and our use of Facebook and Twitter to interact with students.”

Webber said he has several ideas on how to improve MOOCs in the future. 

“I’d like to see it get easier to do a good job with a MOOC and have the MOOC technology work better with integrating assessments,” Webber said. “If you’re teaching a class and you cannot assess the students, then you’re not really teaching — you’re entertaining.”

Germanic studies professor John Hoberman taught a MOOC called “Age of Globalization” last semester. 

“These courses were, in terms of compensation, one sixth of my salary and one course off in the fall,” Hoberman said. “In terms of the amount of work required, that’s modest compensation, but you don’t go into this to make money. You don’t make a MOOC to make money.”

Hoberman said he considers his course a success and would potentially pursue a different MOOC in the future.  

“In a real sense, a MOOC that has something substantial to offer to all sorts of people is a kind of public service,” Hoberman said.

A mechanical engineering professor received an award from the University’s Austin Technology Incubator for his contributions toward helping future technological entrepreneurs Wednesday.

Michael Webber, an associate mechanical engineering professor and UT alumnus, is the inaugural recipient of the John Sibley Butler Distinguished Alumni Award. The award is presented only to alumni of the Austin Technology Incubator, a support program for students interested in creating their own technology start-ups.

Webber, a member of the program’s leadership staff, said he believes receiving the award could be a result of his longstanding involvement in Austin Technology Incubator, also known as ATI.

John Butler, the award’s namesake and former director of University research institute IC2 — Institute for Innovation, Creativity and Capital — which ATI is part of, said Webber’s professional past has been essential to ATI’s success.

“[Webber] grew up at Austin Technology Incubator,” Butler said. “He was an intern at ATI … [and then became] a professor at UT. It’s important that he understands how to create a company.”

Webber said ATI’s focus on fostering student mentorships with established professionals in the field is important for producing successful student entrepreneurs.

“I think that the incubator is not producing products, but instead it’s producing people, entrepreneurs,” Webber said. “Students are an important part of that recipe. It’s really important because if you look at the most impressive [company] startups, they are mostly started by students — Google, Yahoo, Facebook.”

ATI also presented the Laura J. Kilcrease Civic Entrepreneurship Award to ATI alum Manoj Saxena, a software entrepreneur who works with IBM.

The Kilcrease Award is meant to recognize those who have not only succeeded as technological entrepreneurs, but have also taken significant steps to give back to their community and mentor student entrepreneurs.

Laura Kilcrease, the award’s namesake and founding director of ATI, said the award is important to students interested in pursuing entrepreneurship.

“It means a lot [for students], because people like Manoj [Saxena] hire graduates of UT and also come back and act as mentors to students,” Kilcrease said. “[Saxena] is someone who has been active in helping our students and faculty. How many times does a student get an opportunity to be in front of a serial entrepreneur and get mentorship and advice from them?”

Kilcrease also emphasized both Webber and Saxena are influential to the success of other entrepreneurs in multiple ways.

“What they epitomize is how the University both helps to grow successful entrepreneurs in our region and, through ATI’s internship program, helps to grow future faculty, like Michael Webber,” Kilcrease said.

Clean energy innovation in Austin will continue with $530,000 in approved funds by Austin City Council for research at the University’s Clean Energy Incubator, an organization which helps new clean energy companies expand.

The agreement was originally scheduled to come up for a renewal vote on Oct. 1, but it was not on the city council docket until Thursday, Mitchell Jacobson, co-director of Austin Technology Incubator, said. The funding is disbursed sporadically throughout the year, so there was not a delay in receiving funds, Jacobson said.

The funds, which are split into $265,000 per year for two years, will enable the innovation incubator to continue partnering with early-stage clean energy companies to help them raise money and find employees, Jacobson said.

The city is not the organization’s only source of funding. According to Michael Webber, Clean Energy Incubator co-director and associate mechanical engineering professor, the State Energy Conservation Office and the fees paid by the companies who utilize the incubator also help the Clean Energy Incubator run.

The $530,000 is divided into $100,000 for infrastructure and staff salaries, $80,000 funds the South By Southwest Eco Startup Showcase events, $60,000 supports two clean energy companies in the incubator and $25,000 funds research directed by Austin Energy, said Richard Morgan, Green Building and Sustainability manager at Austin Energy.

“[The incubator has] a mission to help UT companies and entrepreneurs, but it’s not just for UT,” Webber said. “It’s also for companies in Austin and entrepreneurs in Austin. We help recruit companies to Austin, and that’s why Austin Energy and the city of Austin supports us.”

Austin Energy has been supporting the incubator since 2006. Webber said the council’s repeated investments in the organization demonstrate the council’s focus on clean energy
projects.

“The city’s not overflowing with money, so if they invest money this way, that’s a sign they [support this] investment for the city of Austin,” Webber said.

Morgan said the goal of the incubator is not conducting research but rather promoting the growth of new energy companies.

“By incubating companies, we’re looking for early stage companies that have a technology to commercialize — that might be an efficient light bulb or a better way to produce energy or a cleaner way to treat water or something like that,” Webber said.

Omni Water Solutions, a water treatment company that aims to make oil and gas production cleaner, is one of the companies the incubator has worked with, Webber said. Another company is Ideal Power Converters, which works on electronic power converters for solar panels and electric car charging.

“This research helps Austin Energy and the city of Austin in identifying clean energy technologies that could be of substantial assistance to our municipally-owned utility company in the future to save energy or to use it more efficiently,” Jacobson said.

Webber said the incubator helps the University achieve success in its commercialization efforts.

“UT has major priorities for teaching and research, but it also has a priority for commercialization, and we’re part of helping UT fulfill its mission,” Webber said. “We also help those students who become entrepreneurs find pathways in life that are fulfilling and important and successful, so we like being part of that.”

The incubator usually works with companies, which include both UT students as well as alumni and other residents of Austin, for a time period between nine and 24 months,
Webber said.

“It’s exciting to see companies graduate from the incubator and raise millions of dollars in funding that they use to hire people, ramp up and sell products around the world,” Webber said. “We like being part of the economic development story in Austin. We like being part of the student growth story of UT.”

On Thursday, the Austin City Council authorized a $50,000 two-year contract with the UT faculty and a graduate student to help the Austin Water Utility reduce energy consumption and costs.

Mechanical engineering assistant professor Michael Webber, and Carey King, research associate of the UT Energy Institute, will team up with Jill Kjellsson, engineering and public affairs graduate student to study the energy used by Austin Water at specific times of day in order to maximize efficiency.

Webber, the project leader, said he is pleased with the city’s interest in energy conservation.

“This is unusual for a utility to be this forward-looking, so I want to commend and compliment Austin Water for having the vision that this is important,” Webber said.

Kjellsson began working with Austin Water in the summer of 2012, using data to create hourly energy-use profiles to show what time of day electricity is being used by the city’s water sector. She began working with Webber later that year.

“My plan is to use the research so far to look at ways in which the Austin Water Utility can participate in the power market through demand response and shifting of peak energy use to other times of day,” Kjellsson said.

Kjellsson said there are students in other departments at UT working on optimizing and improving water-treatment technologies.

“The $50,000 will help cover part of the costs associated with graduate research assistant stipends and tuition,” Webber said.

“There are a lot of people who study water and a lot who study energy, but I don’t think there are a lot of people studying how much energy is in water,” Webber said. “Nationally, more energy is used for water than people expect — about 12 percent of energy consumption is water pumping.”

Jill Mayfield, Austin Water’s public information coordinator, said water and energy usage is greatest at night when the water is pumped into the reservoirs to be treated.

Austin Water is the largest energy user in Austin because the water treatment pumps consume so much energy, so the city is constantly looking for ways to reduce its peak energy demand, Mayfield said.

Before the project begins, the agreement must be signed by the assistant city manager and the University’s vice president, said Raj Bhattarai, City of Austin division manager.

“I don’t foresee any complications,” Bhattarai said. “We’ve entered into other contracts with other professors at UT … we do a number of other projects with UT. It should be pretty straight forward, pretty routine.”

In October 2011, the City of Austin switched to a more expensive but renewable energy provider, GreenChoice, which costs about $5 million more than the city’s previous energy provider that used 85 percent more greenhouse gases, Bhattarai said.

“Even a modest saving in energy would be quite substantial for us, so that’s the reason we’re doing this project,” Bhattarai said.

Bhattarai said the contract stipulates Webber and his team will brief Austin Water Utility up to four times each year for the duration of the project.

Webber said the research will benefit not only the City of Austin, but also the students at UT.

“This research report helps UT students understand the energy-water nexus better,” Kjellsson said. “Energy and water are linked in many ways, and this research addresses one of those ways — the energy used to move and treat water and wastewater.”

The history of energy concepts in movies such as “The Matrix,” “Wall-E,” “The Hunger Games” and “Back to the Future” will be the subject of a new series featuring a UT assistant professor that will soon begin syndication on Public Broadcasting Service stations across the country.   

The series will feature Michael Webber, assistant mechanical engineering professor, and is titled “Energy at the Movies.” The series will trace the history of energy by analyzing how it is portrayed in more than 60 different films. Producer Juan Garcia said he worked with Webber for five to six years designing multimedia presentations for his classes before producing “Energy at the Movies.”

“[Webber’s] goal is really to educate the public and increase energy literacy,” Garcia said. “That is his sole goal and his series does just that.”

The idea for the series began in 2005 when Webber, after being inspired by movie history courses, gave a presentation called “Energy at the Movies” to a group in California. Afterward, Webber turned his presentation into an undergraduate course at UT, which he taught in the spring of 2010 and 2011.

Kelly Sanders, a civil engineering graduate student, said she has worked and researched with Webber since 2008.

“Dr. Webber is an incredible researcher and professor, not only because he identifies the relevant questions to answer, but because he always communicates with his audience in mind,” Sanders said. 

Sanders said that public interest in current energy and environmental challenges will be crucial to help solve them.

“‘Energy at the Movies’ is a vehicle to engage people who might not normally tune in to energy issues to show them that these topics touch all of our lives in one way or another,” Sanders said.   

Filming began March 9, 2011 at the Austin City Limits Studio 6A in UT’s Jesse H. Jones Communication Center — Building B and lasted six months.

“This is something I’ve had my heart set on for a while,” Garcia said. “I think if it’s done right it can be extremely engaging and educational and informative.”

A special episode of “Energy at the Movies” is scheduled to run on KLRU at 9 p.m. on April 18 and will last an hour. 

“[The series] gives a deeper look into energy policy and the ways we shape energy policy,” Garcia said. “Everyone, including students, has a great opportunity to learn.”

Electrical engineering senior Brandon Crosbie said a TV series is a smart way to raise awareness about energy issues. 

“It needs not only people knowing about it, but knowing the importance of it,” Crosbie said. “The first step is getting people to know what we need to do.”

Printed on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 as: UT professor presents PBS series on 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.”

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.