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.”

Stephanie Perrone (left), project manager of the Energy & Water Conservation Program, speaks to UT staff members at the solar panel charging station launch party Friday.

Photo Credit: Claire Schaper | Daily Texan Staff

Three organizations hosted a party Friday to promote their latest innovation: solar panel charging stations on campus.

At the party, the UT Green Fee Committee, Science Undergraduate Research Group and Sol Design Lab celebrated the installation of two solar charging stations intended to promote a greener environment on the University campus. According to Megan Archer, environmental science senior and Green Fee Committee student assistant, the project’s main goal is to inspire conversations about renewable energy, starting with the solar-powered charging station. Both charging stations, which were installed in June, provide 12 110-volt electrical outlets, six USB charging ports and Wi-Fi.

“This solar panel, for example, will still work and provide electricity if there is a blackout. That’s why solar itself is so important. We want to spark environmental initiative.”

In 2011, Archer collaborated on the project with Beth Ferguson, founder of Sol Design Lab. Ferguson, who graduated from the University with a master’s in design, first thought of the idea when she was a student.

“The idea of solar panel charging stations became my thesis project when I bought an electric scooter and had no place to charge it,” Ferguson said. “That was back in 2008.”

Ferguson provided the solar charging stations from her lab in San Francisco, but throughout every step of the process, UT students from different departments were involved in learning how to design with solar and fabrication model making.

“Basically there is a charge controller that acts as the ‘brain’ and is connected to solar panel and battery,” Ferguson said. “Then, the battery is connected to the inverter, and the inverter is connected to the outlet, which provides the DC power.”

The two stations are located near the Perry-Castañeda Library and the Art Building and Museum. At Friday’s party, which was held at the station near the Art Building and Museum, chemical engineering junior Eddie Zhan said he was impressed with the station’s wide range of capabilities.

“I learned it harnesses solar energy to create electricity and allows you to charge anything, [like] electric cars [and] phones,” Zhan said.

Ferguson will teach app-building workshops hosted by the University the next three Sundays.

“We actually did our first round two years ago where kids made solar charging station designs, but now these upcoming workshops will be focused on creating apps to promote the solar panel charging stations,” Ferguson said.

A research team led by Harold Zakon, integrative biology and neuroscience professor, discovered how genes and pathways in electric fish caused their electricity-producing organs to evolve independently six times throughout their evolutionary history.

This study, which was initiated around eight years ago, was published in the journal “Science” on June 27.

“My colleagues and I are very proud,” Zakon said. “‘Science’ is one of the premier journals in [the sciences].”

Zakon said that many traits in most animals, including mammals, evolved only once throughout the evolutionary history.

“Evolutionary biologists are always interested in knowing how things evolved,” Zakon said. “Vertebrate limbs evolved once. Our teeth and hair [also] evolved once. In this case, you would never ask, ‘would’ve it evolved the same way at another time?’”

The study found electric fish were shown to be different. Their muscles, which developed into electricity-producing organs, evolved six times independently. Now that they have identified the genes expressed in these electric organs, Zakon and his colleagues plan to manipulate those genes in the muscles of a standard lab fish. Zakon said this will cause some of those genes to be expressed at higher levels and some others at lower levels, resembling the evolutionary process in the electric organs.

“This will give us a much stronger sense of proof that these genes are in fact the ones that make the electric organs,” Zakon said. “One very far out idea is people can have their own bio-batteries, say, heart pacemakers. [We can] make human cells into electric-organ cells [by constructing] little implantable bio-batteries.”

For the study, Zakon worked with Manoj Samanta of the Systemix Institute in Washington and Michael Sussman, University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor.

“I do want to stress that this is a group effort,” Sussman said. “We met on the phone every week. It [wasn’t always] easy, but we hung in there.”

Neuroscience senior Evan DeLord, who took an evolutionary biology class taught by Zakon last semester, experienced firsthand Zakon’s passion for electric fish.

“He’s a humble, but awesome, disciple of Charles Darwin,” DeLord said. “He’s just in love with evolution and the natural world.”

 Last year, the University consumed 3,920,381 MMBTu, or million British thermal units, of natural gas. According to the University’s Utilities and Energy Management department, energy consumption correlates with the amount of people on campus and variations in the weather. 

Photo Credit: Mengwen Cao | Daily Texan Staff

While switching off all lights in the Tower is an insignificant action in terms of conserving electricity, the gesture still makes a difference, according to Jim Walker, director of sustainability for the Office of Campus Planning and Facilities Management. 

The University kept the Tower dark Saturday in support of Earth Hour — an international movement organized by the World Wildlife Fund to celebrate commitment to the planet by shutting off all lights for an hour.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not saving a whole lot of energy,” Walker said. “We get the most bang for our buck in raising awareness. One evening of the Tower not lit isn’t putting a dent in [electricity usage], but you see the Tower from the highway and come home on a Friday and turn a power strip off for the weekend. … That’s where we see the real savings.”

According to the University’s Utilities and Energy Management department, total natural gas consumption in 2013 was 3,920,381 million British thermal units, or MMBTu. Laurie Lentz, manager of business and financial services, said energy usage from lighting is not metered separately and cannot be determined, but the campus does use less energy when there are less people on campus.

“The amount of energy used on campus does vary,” Lentz said. “Variations are mainly due to weather but are also affected by the number of people on campus. Energy use declines during the winter break, for example.”

In addition to dormitory lighting, which is up to the discretion of the students, some lighting on campus must remain on at all times. Walker said turning lights off outside could be dangerous for students out at night.

“We have to be careful with lighting on campus because all of the lighting on campus that is outside is a matter of safety,” Walker said.

Stephanie Perrone, project manager of the University’s Energy and Water Conservation program, said the Tower going dark was a gesture similar to turning the lights on or off for any campus event, since there are already lighting controls in place throughout campus.

“No one decides which buildings on campus keep their lights on or off,” Perrone said. “Several buildings have lighting controls, either based on occupancy sensors or based on a time schedule. Beyond that, it is up to the occupant to turn off lights at the end of the day.”

Engineering graduate student Tianyang Bai waits for the Far West bus Thursday evening in low 30 degree weather. Austin will be seeing ice, sleet and possible snow as an Arctic cold front pushes through Texas. 

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Engineering graduate student Tianyang Bai waits for the Far West bus Thursday evening in low 30 degree weather. Austin will be seeing ice, sleet and possible snow as an Arctic cold front pushes through Texas. 

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Minutes after midnight Tuesday, electricity went out in several large swaths of West Campus. Apartment complexes, including the Block on Leon, the Block on 25th and Waterford, were affected, as well as the 7-11 on the corner of San Gabriel and 24th Street and the Orange Market on 25th Street.

Representatives from Austin Energy and City of Austin Utilities could not be reached for comment.

“Everything just shut off at once, it was actually kind of funny,” said Cesar Trevino, African and African diaspora studies junior.

Many UT students tweeted about the power outage using the hashtag “#WestCampusBlackout.”

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

A future where humanity would be able to harness the power of renewable resources, such as water and sunlight, to produce energy for the world may seem to be too good to be true. But that is the future envisioned by one Harvard scientist, formerly from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who created an artificial leaf out of cheap and abundant natural materials.    

Daniel Nocera, an energy professor and founder of Sun Catalytix, an energy storage engineering company, set out to create a technology that mimics the process of photosynthesis while minimizing waste and pollution, increasing energy yields and keeping the price of the resulting product affordable for developed countries. 

Photosynthesis has powered the world since the evolution of the first cyanobacteria 2.7 billion years ago. The first land plants followed suit about half a billion years ago, starting with mosses and liverworts, eventually resulting in vascular plants such as trees, ferns and grasses. 

Plants use light energy, carbon dioxide and water to store energy in the bonds of sugar. In a typical vascular plant, carbon dioxide enters through holes in the leaves called stomata while the majority of water enters through the plant’s root system. From the sunlight, the plant can rearrange chemical bonds to produce carbohydrates in the form of food and oxygen. 

The technology behind the artificial leaf follows a similar process. It takes the energy of the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen but does so without the need for carbon dioxide or connection to a power grid. In effect, the wafer-like artificial leaf stores the hydrogen and oxygen and uses them as energy, similar to what a leaf does during photosynthesis. While the chemical process is not identical, Nocera says that the spirit is the same.

A silicon wafer about the size of a quarter is coated with a hydrogen-producing catalyst on one side and an oxygen-producing catalyst on the other. When the wafer is submerged in water and placed in direct light, the catalysts begin the process of splitting water. The hydrogen and oxygen then travel in streams through a wire and tube network in a device invented by Nocera and his lab team. The elements reunite in a chamber within the device to create a surge of power that results in electricity. 

Scientists have calculated that two to three 16-ounce bottles of water combined with the artificial leaf and direct sunlight can theoretically power an average home in a developed country for an entire day without the use of additional electricity or gas. 

The artificial leaf can collect and store small amounts of energy — enough to power a small fan, for example. A system for safely storing large amounts of the volatile hydrogen and oxygen is not yet available to the public, which led Nocera to found Sun Catalytix, a company geared at producing a safe energy storage system.

The chemical engineering department of the Cockrell School of Engineering cites the need for sustainable energy as one of the most important challenges in science and engineering fields today. Research from the department includes efforts to both produce and store energy, which has the potential to provide answers to some of the questions left by the artificial leaf technology.

One of most pressing issues is the cost of producing clean energy. For Nocera, the rise of the artificial leaf is stunted by the price of producing energy on a large scale. Furthering the development of the technology is costly, which is why some scientists do not believe the artificial leaf will be introduced in the commercial sphere any time soon. Others predict that Sun Catalytix will be able to develop an energy storing system that could support the artificial leaf, but that it will look similar to the current model in which the public pays a company for their energy use instead of producing it on their own.

Clean technologies continue to be a pressing topic in the energy conversation, an exchange that may soon have another voice through the artificial leaf with the support of Sun Catalytix. The idea of using renewable resources to produce electricity for the world is certainly attractive to those who seek to uproot the energy system of the current day and sow a new seed of sustainability. 

Suzi Sosa of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs continues to influence the world of social innovation as executive director of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, a contest designed to find the answers to pressing social and environmental issues all over the globe.

Young adults from 105 countries entered socially and environmentally innovative ideas into the Dell Social Innovation Challenge last year. The competition challenges students to develop solutions to pressing global issues, including lack of electricity in developing countries. After a series of evaluations, one finalist or group of finalists is granted $50,000 to further develop their project. Sosa, associate director for programs at the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, was named executive director of the competition last year.

Sosa worked in the private sector before volunteering for three years as a judge in the final round of the Dell challenge. After the close of the competition in 2011, Dell granted an additional $5 million to expand student participation in the challenge to more countries.

Sosa said her goal is to transform students into social innovators and empower those students to make their ideas happen. There are many ways to get involved in the innovative process that students have not been educated about, Sosa said.

“All you need in order to get started changing the world is passion. You don’t even really need an idea,” Sosa said. “This challenge is about becoming an entrepreneur and an innovator.”

The grand prize winners of the Dell challenge in 2011, TakaTaka Solutions, developed a method of environmentally responsible waste management for rural communities. The Humanure Power Project won the popular student vote for the 2012 challenge with a design to harness human waste to produce electricity. 

One of Sosa’s former students, nursing sophomore Kruti Patel, said Sosa’s Undergraduate Studies class on social innovation changed the way she views an individual’s potential to change the world.

“Every time she spoke, you could hear how passionate she was about getting all of us to think of the problems in the world differently,” Patel said.

John Doggett, McCombs School of Business senior lecturer, collaborated with Sosa on the competition after she was named executive director.

“She really cares about students and has created an amazing new opportunity with Dell. I wish we had a thousand more Suzi Sosas,” Doggett said.

Printed on Tuesday, October 2, 2012 as: Dell competition fosters innovation

Members of the blue-grass folk inspired Navasota String Band, Mateo Clarke, Joseph McGill, Ryan OÂ’Donnell and Zach McLean, jam out on their string instruments by the 360 bridge. (Photo courtesy of Navasota String Band)

Turn off the electricity and a majority of musicians would lose their ability to make their sound resilient. You can’t say the same for The Navasota String Band. Their instruments resonate, even without the amps and electronics, accompanied by all four distinguishable voices.

Mateo Clarke, Ryan O’Donnell, Zach McLean and Joseph “Juicebag” McGill are the eclectic musicians who make up the Navasota String Band. They draw their inspiration from roots, blues and old time bluegrass-inspired folk and artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Norman Blake and Old Crow Medicine Show.

“I like making people realize they can appreciate a banjo and fiddle,” McLean said.

O’Donnell performs lead vocals, guitar and harmonica, seemingly the lead of the group with his charming smile and energetic performance. Clarke plays mandolin, fiddle and backup vocals; he began the violin at 7 years old. McLean plays banjo and has for four years, seldom stopping his fiddling only to answer a few questions. And McGill, who seldom surrenders to any seriousness, plays bass fiddle, an instrument he first took up at age 13.

Two of the four men graduated from UT: Clarke in 2011, and O’Donnell in 2010, Clarke with a double major in Latin American studies and economics and O’Donnell in political science and French. They didn’t meet in Austin, though. O’Donnell, Clarke and McLean all graduated from Boerne High School, a town northwest of San Antonio.

McGill is the newest member of the band and the biggest character: thick framed glasses, full lumberjack beard, button-up vest, tie and all. Standing at his upright, plucking hard at the thick strings of his fiddle, Juicebag has been playing with the band for only three months but already seems comfortable with the other members that have a history together. He started with the trio after playing a show with them as a member of another group named “Uncle Lady,” which he’s still a part of.

“We string musicians get around,” O’Donnell explained.

The other three have been together since October 2009. They recall playing in Spain and France when Clarke and McLean went to visit O’Donnell during his year voyage overseas after graduating. They remember playing in the metro stations, bars and clubs in Paris and for the protestors in Barcelona that had consolidated to demonstrate against political corruption.

“We played everywhere we went. In bars and in the streets from Barcelona to Istanbul,” O’Donnell said.

Their memories together are plentiful and their passion for music is eternal. They’re traditional but unique and enjoy making the listener a part of their music, mentally or physically: they handed me two metal spoons before they began to play, explaining which fingers to hold onto them with and showing me how to slap them on my knee to go along to the beat.

“There’s so much energy that comes out of [the music], with no electricity involved,” O’Donnell said.

Their full sound reverberates through the wood that’s shaking underneath them in their living room, walls lined with guitars, banjos and various posters plastered on the sky blue paint, as they play songs like “Best Behavior,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Waterloo Blues,” stomping their feet to the beat when the break in the songs permit.

The four musicians have dreams for what lies ahead, but as of now, the fate of the band rests on love.

O’Donnell, who during his year overseas fell in love with the first woman he met in France, has decided to return with her in July, to live. He says the only way he’ll stay is if Obama puts them on his playlist.

The fate of The Navasota String Band is still undetermined, but for now, the focus never leaves the music. The band’s goals for the immediate future include finishing their album The Seed and solidifying their bond as friends and musicians.

The Seed will be their second album and is scheduled for release at the end of April. With the heart that these performers put into their music, it’s guaranteed to be a pleasure as long as you can appreciate what bona fide musicians sound like.

Printed on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 as: Folk band resonates with string acoustics

Sarah Arel clears snow from her roof in Ashburnham, Mass. on Sunday. Millions of people in Northeast lost power as a storm dumped heavy, wet snow over the weekend.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SOUTH WINDSOR, Conn. — When winter’s white mixes with autumn’s orange and gold, nature gets ugly.

A freak October nor’easter knocked out power to more than 3 million homes and businesses across the Northeast on Sunday in large part because leaves still on the trees caught more snow, overloading branches that snapped and wreaked havoc. Close to 2 feet of snow fell in some areas over the weekend, and it was particularly wet and heavy, making the storm even more damaging.

“You just have absolute tree carnage with this heavy snow just straining the branches,” said National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro.

From Maryland to Maine, officials said it would take days to restore electricity, even though the snow ended Sunday.

The storm smashed record snowfall totals for October and worsened as it moved north. Communities in western Massachusetts were among the hardest hit. Snowfall totals topped 27 inches in Plainfield, and nearby Windsor had gotten 26 inches by early Sunday.

It was blamed for at least nine deaths, and states of emergency were declared in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and parts of New York.

Roads, rails and airline flights were knocked out, and passengers on a JetBlue flight were stuck on a plane in Hartford, Conn., for more than seven hours. And while children across the region were thrilled to see snow so early, it also complicated many of their Halloween plans.

More than 800,000 power customers were without electricity in Connecticut alone — shattering the record set just two months ago by Hurricane Irene. Massachusetts had more than 600,000 outages, and so did New Jersey — including Gov. Chris Christie’s house. Parts of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland and Vermont also were without power.

“It’s going to be a more difficult situation than we experienced in Irene,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said. “We are expecting extensive and long-term power outages.”

Thirty-two shelters were open around the state, and Malloy asked volunteer fire departments to allow people in for warmth and showers. At least four hospitals were relying on generators for power.

In New Jersey’s Hamilton Township, Tom Jacobsen also recalled heavy spring flooding and a particularly heavy winter before that.

“I’m starting to think we really ticked off Mother Nature somehow, because we’ve been getting spanked by her for about a year now,” he said.