The Sciences

Texas Hosts the Inaugural UT Energy Forum

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 15, 2011 1:50 PM


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This is a guest post by Melissa C. Lott, an engineering research associate at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Webber Energy Group. Her work includes a unique blending of technology and policy in the field of energy systems research. Melissa studies the economic and environmental tradeoffs of energy systems, including electricity generation (power plants) and transportation fuels. In this work, she focuses on electricity transmission (smart grid, RETI, CREZ) and energy efficiency programs.She has worked as an engineer and consultant for YarCom, Inc. for more than 6 years. Melissa holds two master’s degrees from UT Austin – in Mechanical Engineering and Public Affairs – as well as a bachelor’s degree in Biological Systems Engineering from the University of California at Davis. She has interned for the Department of Energy and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Energy & Climate Change Team for the Obama Administration. Melissa is also the author of the blog Global Energy Matters: Energy and Environment in Our Lives.

Serious energy discussion in this country is breaking out on many levels – national, state, local, and community. And, in the big energy state of Texas, the conversation recently extended into academia. On February 3-4, University of Texas at Austin student volunteers organized and hosted the inaugural UT Energy Forum – an event exploring energy in the context of “fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.” Over the two-day meeting, a diverse group of academics, government officials, and businessmen discussed the future of energy – and what that future could look like. As a speaker (on the topic of the smart grid) and an attendee, I joined in both days of discussion despite the harsh winter weather that shutdown most of the city on day 2. Along with hundreds of other attendees, I listened to keynote speakers including as ARPA-E Director Dr. Arun Majumdar and UT assistant professor Michael E. Webber of the Webber Energy Group. I also enjoyed the format of panel discussions and 7-minute TED-style talks along with intelligent discussion both inside and out of the meeting rooms. Throughout the forum, several themes emerged:

1. Scales.-– Energy is huge. But does it have to be? The world consumes about 500 quadrillion British Thermal Units each year (also called a quad, a quadrillion BTU is 10^15 or one thousand million million BTUs, 1 kWh = 3412 BTUs). In the US, we use about 20% (100 quads) of the world’s total. Americans live some of the most energy-intensive lives in the world and we also have some of the largest energy generation and delivery systems. When we discuss today’s energy systems, we speak in terms of trillion dollar investments, Gigawatt (GW) power plants, and millions of miles of transmission and distribution lines. Bottom line – the systems that supply our energy demands are HUGE. But, do they have to be? In the future, our energy systems could become smaller and more distributed. As regions take advantage of local fuels, particularly renewables, our energy systems might shrink in scale. Source-to-sink downsizing could bring many advantages in terms of energy efficiency and increased system resiliency. However, the total amount of energy that the whole system supplies is unlikely to decrease as populations continue to grow and the world continues to electrify. 2. Tradeoffs – Every change to our energy systems has tradeoffs. We look toward innovative technologies, policies, and markets that will enable us to be more sustainable, efficient and resilient. But, even the best innovation has tradeoffs and energy-related decisions must properly weigh the economic, environmental and security consequences. UT Chemical Engineering Professor Gary Rochelle illustrated this theme as a member of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) panel. This group sought to discuss the ways that we can reduce the environmental footprint of coal for power generation. One of the world’s leading CCS experts, Dr. Rochelle calmly listed the tradeoffs of trying to “cleanup” the nation’s coal fleet. According to Dr. Rochelle, using carbon captures and storage to reduce coal’s environmental impact will have three large negative tradeoffs: large economic cost, significant parasitic load (which reduces the amount of electricity that a coal plant can generate for us to use), and a huge physical footprint. 3. Interdisciplinarity – Energy is more than technology. This theme echoed the forum’s purpose – interdisciplinary collaboration. Energy is not just technology – it bridges the space between many fields including engineering, business, science, and policy. My 7-minute talk on the smart grid spoke to this theme, as I discussed how the smart grid is more than smart technologies; it is also smart energy markets and policies. The “Policy Tools to Advance New Energy Technology” panel included a lively debate between Texas State Representative Mark Strama and UT School of Law Professor Monty Humble. This panel went toe-to-toe on the policies that enable and inhibit the success of new energy (in particular, renewable) technologies.

To see my live feed from this 2-day event, please look for me on twitter at mclott.

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