Building a Clean Energy Economy
University Research Essential to Transformational Changes
Raymond L. Orbach
Director, Energy Institute at UT Austin
In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama challenged the nation to produce 80% of the country’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.
Such investments are critical, he said, because “the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”
What was striking about the president’s words was his inclusion of a new generation of “safe, clean” nuclear power plants as forms of “clean energy,” as well as continued investment in “clean coal” technologies and expanded use of natural gas.
The president also stressed the importance of pioneering research, urging scientists and engineers to assemble the greatest minds in their fields in order to tackle any obstacles in the way of advances in clean energy. Such research, he said, is necessary if we are to “out-innovate” the rest of the world.
In collaboration with other academic institutions and non-governmental organizations, as well as partners in the public and private energy sectors, our mission at the Energy Institute in The University of Texas at Austin is to develop viable energy resources needed to sustain and secure the nation’s energy.
Examples of current research projects underway include:
Large-Scale Electrical Energy Storage
Professors John Goodenough and Arumugan Manthiram are developing new batteries for base-load electrical energy storage, inventing new solid electrolytes, and using liquids instead of solids as electrodes (cathodes and anodes). A liquid cathode enables large amounts of energy to be stored, keeping the battery cool during charge and discharge, and matching the delivery of energy to base load uses from intermittent sources. This would enable energy from the wind and the sun to be there when we need them.
Energy Production from Carbon Capture & Sequestration
Another team of scientists led by UT Austin Professor Gary Pope has developed a new, game-changing idea that dramatically lowers the cost of “clean coal” through carbon capture and sequestration. The team’s work combines two separate technologies – the capture and pressurization of CO2, and the production of energy from geothermal aquifers – and adds a third: the dissolution of carbon dioxide into extracted brine, which is then re-injected back into the aquifer.
This alternative approach to CO2 injection takes advantage of both dissolved methane and heat content in geo-pressured geothermal saline aquifers. Conservative calculations indicate this alternative method could reduce the cost of CCS such that “clean coal” can compete in a market environment without subsidies or a price on carbon.
Environmental Consequences of “Fracing”
The development of hydraulic fracturing of shale to produce natural gas (methane) has revolutionized the energy security of the United States. Current estimates suggest greater than a 200-year supply, implying a transformation in electrical energy generation with half the CO2 emissions compared to coal.
In response to concerns that have been raised regarding potable water supply and seismic consequences related to “fracing,” the Energy Institute is developing a research process to examine both issues, providing the first peer reviewed experimental basis for the scientific assessment of these concerns.
Few people will argue that the U.S. needs to develop cleaner and more efficient energy sources if it wants to “out-compete” the rest of the world. As President Obama noted, government support of research initiatives is critical to that effort.
Universities can play a critical role in conducting research that shapes sound public policy. Such policies can lead to transformational changes, and in so doing help turn the President’s words into reality.