Energy Institute

Benjamin K. Sovacool, director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology at Aahus University, spoke Thursday as part of the University's Energy Week. Sovacool discussed Nordic countries' plans for becoming carbon neutral and their increase in the use of alternative energies.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

Researchers from the University’s Energy Institute are working on a way to decrease the costs and risks associated with using electricity in both homes and public buildings. 

Three panelists discussed their research on electricity Thursday at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center as part of the University’s Energy Week, a conference designed to raise awareness of issues in the energy field.

Gary Rasp, communications director for the Energy Institute, said his research team is working on creating an online calculator to determine the most efficient form of generating electricity. 

“The online calculator enables anyone to change the variables for electricity, [and] it not only benefits for consumers, but also policy makers,” Rasp said.

As the team’s research expands, they have to understand both the environmental consequences, such as pollution, and costs associated with electricity use, according to business professor David Spence.

“If you take coal, for example, you can see from the results that in the air there are large pollutants,” Spence said. “As we look at the effects it will have on humans, we will use the differences between morbidity and mortality and try to put a dollar value on the lives that end prematurely being exposed to these pollutants.”

Spence said over the course of the last several decades, the industry has shifted from localized production of electricity within a service area to a broad system in which electricity is produced by third party members located somewhere else. In areas with third-party control, electricity providers have a more robust and active market, but Spence said other parts of the nation, including Texas, have more limited options for electricity use.

“In places like the Northeast and Texas, you have retail competition, so you have retail markets as well,” Spence said. “Those places are places where you have price determining which power is generated and what kind is dispatched to the grid.” 

Workers in Texas decide what kind of generators to use to dispatch power to the grid based on the price, according to Spence. 

Business professor Jim Dyer said one of the benefits of using a large research team was getting input from experts in different fields. 

“In this study, we are fortunate to do it at a university like this with such expertise,” Dyer said. “We are able to use engineers, lawyers, business leaders and members of the LBJ School as we look to bring all the aspects together and break it down to understand the big picture.”

Chemical engineering professor Thomas Edgar will serve as interim director of the Energy Institute at UT. Edgar will replace former Energy Institute director Ray Orbach, who resigned after controversy surrounding conflicts of interest in a publication by the institute on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 

“It was a selection by the provost with input from various parties on campus in that decision,” Energy Institute spokesman Gary Rasp said. 

Edgar began in his new role Jan. 15 and will serve in the interim position for one year while overseeing the development of sustainable energy plans by the institute. 

The Energy Institute at UT is a research group that seeks to provide sustainable solutions to energy issues. The institute is responsible for promoting UT and its faculty as leaders in energy research and for helping create new energy policy. 

“We’re really trying to start with a clean sheet of paper here,” Edgar said. 

Orbach resigned as head of the institute, but not from his faculty position, last December in the wake of a controversial report the institute released on fracking. After a watchdog group found that the study’s lead author had undisclosed ties to an oil and gas company, an independent review of the study also found problems with its construction and findings, which downplayed the environmental impact of the drilling technique. Fracking uses sand, water and chemicals to break through rock and release natural gas, but also has been accused of contaminating and depleting water reserves. The lead author retired after the study was released and scrutinized. 

Edgar said he envisions both challenges and opportunities with his new position as interim director of the institute. 

“One of our challenges is to promote what the faculty are doing in terms of the research,” he said. “Making the average student more familiar with energy issues and policy issues is something we should be doing.”

Edgar also said cooperation among members of different academic fields, a process he refers to as integration function, is important for the purposes of research. 

“The way of the future and the way now is to do things on an interdisciplinary basis,” he said. “No one discipline has all the answers.” 

Edgar joined the University faculty in 1971. Since then he has held numerous offices in the Cockrell School of Engineering, including that of professor, department chair of chemical engineering and associate dean of engineering. He has published hundreds of articles and co-written three textbooks on optimizing coal and chemical processing. 

In addition to his new interim duties, Edgar will continue to teach a chemical engineering course for the spring semester. Chemical engineering senior Julie Fogarty is a student in Edgar’s process control class. 

“Dr. Edgar is one of the most well prepared professors I have had at UT — he is clearly very familiar and invested in the material,” she said. “Dr. Edgar uses process control to tie in all of the material we’ve learned over the past four years and relates it to industry.”

While Edgar said he seeks to promote key issues in energy as interim director, he continues to educate and prepare students for the world of chemical engineering.  

“We would like to see more students in all fields become aware of what the Energy Institute is doing,” Edgar said.

Published on February 8, 2013 as "Provost hires Energy Institute director". 

With a campus as large as UT’s, it is easy for graduate and undergraduate students to become disconnected from one another.

Assistant public affairs professor Varun Rai said UT’s Energy Institute started the UT Energy Symposium in 2011 in an effort to bridge that gap by putting graduate and undergraduate students in the same space. The symposium brings speakers to campus throughout the semester and held its second one-week Student Research Showcase Thursday. The showcase featured four graduate students and their research on different aspects of energy resources. The goal is to get both sets of students to interact with each other.

“We try to make that interaction possible,” Rai said. “We have done three semesters of it and have had 30 speakers so far,”

The symposium is also available as a course. Students who register for it receive one credit-hour for the 15-week program, according to the symposium’s website.

Rai said he believes the showcase has been rewarding for the students who have attended.

Civil engineering graduate student Ashlynn Stillwell, who spoke about the effects of water on thermoelectric generation, said it was a great way to kick off the semester for the symposium.

“It is nice to talk about student research and then have professionals and experts throughout the semester,” Stillwell said. “That way you can touch on what is happening here and around the state and country.”

Stillwell said she hopes undergraduates hearing her and the other students become inspired to think about the issues their research brings up.

“In order to have sustainable solutions for generations to come, we have to think outside the box,” Stillwell said. “That takes young, fresh minds, or minds that have not been engraved in it for five, 10, 15 years, to bring new energy to the energy sector.”

Still new to the symposium series, Rai said they tried to get the word out about the showcase as much as possible this year, including sending out e-mails and running advertisements in The Daily Texan.

Freshman Oscar Escajeda said he received one of those e-mails from a graduate student he knows and decided to check it out.

“I’m really interested in energy,” Escajeda said. “I think that solving energy problems is ultimately going to solve the world’s problems.”

After hearing the four graduate students speak, Escajeda said it made him want to do the same when he is a graduate student.

“In a couple of years, hopefully I am up here talking to everyone,” Escajeda said.

Rai said that the event was videotaped and would be put on the Energy Institute website in two to four days.

The University will hire an outside group of experts to review a UT professor’s now controversial study regarding the effects of fracking, a method used by many companies to extract natural gas, on the environment.

Provost and Executive Vice President Steven Leslie announced UT’s intent to review geology professor Charles Groat’s fracking study Tuesday after media reports surfaced that Groat received compensation from an oil company during his research, which turned out to be false. Last week, the Public Accountability Initiative, a non-profit public interest research watchdog group, reported Groat has been a member of the Plains Exploration & Production Company’s board for several years. The company does hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Texas and other places around the country. Since the report came out, critics have claimed Groat’s financial ties to the company present a conflict of interest.

Environmentalists have opposed fracking because of concerns to its impact on groundwater. Groat’s report on fracking, which was published by UT’s Energy Institute, claims that fracking has a minimal effect on groundwater contamination.

“The most important asset we have as an institution is the public’s trust,” Leslie said in his statement. “If that is in question, then that is something we need to address.”

UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said the team of experts to review Groat’s research has not been selected yet.

“We are working on that now, but we have not identified who they will be yet,” Doolittle said. “We hope it will be soon.”

Doolittle said she did not have an exact timeline for the selection of the team of experts. In his statement, Leslie said UT hopes to have an evaluation on Groat’s study within a few weeks.

Since the Public Accountability Initiative’s report on Groat’s ties came out last week, critics have said Groat should have disclosed his position on the Plains’ board in the study. Doolittle said employees are required to annually make requests for employment outside the University, and while Groat had done so in the past, he did not do so this year.

Leslie said in his statement that Groat was reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment.

“If the University had known about Dr. Groat’s board involvement, the Energy Institute would have included that information in the report,” Leslie said.

Groat did not immediately return The Daily Texan’s request for comment. He told the Austin American-Statesman Tuesday that he did not think revealing his role with the Plains Exploration & Production Company was necessary because he did not write the final report. Groat said he merely coordinated the work of other researchers who wrote the report.

Does baking a cake make a mess in the kitchen? No, not literally. The chemical changes that occur when cake batter sits in a hot oven do not directly cause spills, greasy counter tops and other reasons for clean up.

Most bakers, however, will respond to that question about a mess more broadly. They will tell you “baking a cake” starts when they line up flour, eggs and sugar on a counter, ends when they confront a sink full of dirty dishes and definitely makes a mess.

Consider similar questions about the purported mess resulting from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is a method of natural gas extraction, which involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into soft, shale rock underground.

To geologists, “fracking” is the isolated act of fracturing the shale for the purposes of gas extraction. But to so many others ­­— lawmakers, regulators and landowners, especially — “fracking” begins when a geologist instructs an energy company to drill a fracking well on someone’s property, ends when the company leaves the same property and definitely makes a mess.

This summer, the Governor of New York is reconsidering a 2008 moratorium on fracking in parts of New York state. As a result, protestors have once more thrown the question of fracking’s consequences into the national spotlight and tied up Albany phone lines. The protestors express fears that fracking will cause irreversible harm to groundwater. To the protestors, their concerns about fracking focus on both its before-and-after consequences ­­—­­ including ground spills and mishandling of wastewater.

Where does UT fit into this picture of cake-baking, fracking and New York protestors?

Start with the UT Energy Institute, which was founded in 2009 “on the notion that colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to conduct independent and impartial scientific research,” according to its website. The Energy Institute aims to “inject science and fact-based analysis into what is often a contentious dialogue, and in doing so bring clarity to the debate that shapes public policy on energy issues,” the website says.

In February, the Energy Institute published a study about fracking and distributed an accompanying press release bearing the headline, “Study Shows No Evidence of Groundwater Contamination from Hydraulic Fracturing”. The study specifically argues that the baseline data available about the groundwater sources fracking wells are purported to have contaminated is too limited. Therefore, the study argues, researchers cannot draw conclusions that fracking caused contamination.

Charles “Chip” Groat, a geology professor and the lead researcher on the study, said that researchers defined fracking in the isolated sense — apparently he means not in the broadly defined (as in cake-baking from flour spills to dirty dishes) sense.

The Energy Institute’s study also analyzed media coverage about fracking and assessed it as, overall, “decidedly negative.” Such negative media coverage, the Energy Institute study concludes, spawns the hasty and inaccurate assumptions about fracking causing groundwater contamination.

Read in its entirety, the study’s most compelling point calls for more research and more restraint: “[T]he most rational path forward … is to develop fact-based regulations of shale gas development based on what is currently known about the issues and at the same time, continue research where need for information to support controls in the future.”

But by using the headline “no evidence of groundwater contamination” in its press release, the Energy Institute oversimplified its own study’s conclusions and thereby contributed to the media’s misreporting about fracking.

The fracking debate needs clarity not oversimplification. The oversimplified headline of the Energy Institute’s press release errs on the side of favoring the fracking industry’s viewpoint. Notably, UT gets significant funding from companies with stakes in the natural gas industry.

Review of news stories published, broadcast or posted after the Energy Institute’s press release in February suggests that the headline dominated what reporters told the public. Most of the media coverage of the Energy Institute’s study failed to mention its finer points. For example, the point that better regulations are needed for processes related to natural gas extraction. CNN, Fox News, The Houston Chronicle and the Natural Gas Alliance all ran stories or emphasized a quote that parroted the press release’s headline. Notably, the Fort Worth Star Telegram captured the subtleties of the study, but only in a second-day story.

The Energy Institute’s study cost $270,000 to produce, according to a University spokesperson. The Institute’s $1.3 million operating budget, most of which comes from the state’s Available University Fund, paid for most of the study’s costs. Some funding for the study came from individual colleges, including $100,000 from the College of Engineering. Natural gas companies did not contribute directly to the funding of the study. There is no evidence that the researchers were influenced or conscious of any industry funding. But could all of the researchers be entirely unaware of UT’s money from natural gas companies?

Regulated and determined to be safe, fracking could be a boon for this state’s economy, and an answer to the worrisome questions about U.S. reliance on foreign oil. But by releasing a study in a hurry with an accompanying press release that ballyhooed conclusions about fracking not contaminating groundwater, the Energy Institute contributed to public confusion about the fracking industry. Within the realm of possibility: Further research will show fracking, or at least fracking-related processes, have environmental consequences. By coming out so hurriedly and with a press-release headline so strongly overstating the conclusions drawn by the study, the Energy Institute muddied the waters.

— The Daily Texan Editorial Board