David Spence

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.”

David Spence, law and business professor, said at a lecture Thursday that although fracking enables efficient access to natural gas, it also poses several risks to communities.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process that involves shooting pressurized water, chemicals and sand into deposits of bedrock — in this case shale — to extract natural gas for use as fuel.

Major risks Spence discussed include water leakage and contamination, higher air pollution levels and an increased potential for earthquakes in the area. Direct impacts on citizens include risks to the local quality of life, such as noise, local emissions and general road issues.

Spence said shale gas burns more cleanly than both oil and coal, causing the environmental benefits to outweigh the risks. In less than a decade, Spence said, shale gas has notably affected the fuel industry, reaching the commercial transportation sector in an extremely accelerated span of time.

“Shale gas production has revolutionized the energy industry,” Spence said. “We were importing almost 60 percent of our fuel in the 1970s, and thanks to recent innovations, prices have plunged, and the U.S. is able to now export some of its unused coal.”

Spence’s outlining of the potential arguments against fracking was apolitical and touched upon topics ranging from environmental to socioeconomic impacts.

Carson Stones, a master’s candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said Spence’s lecture draws students of all majors. 

“We come from all disciplines,” Stones said. “You can’t be an engineer or a businessman and expect to solve all the problems yourself.”

The U.S. is the leading producer of shale gas, and Texas has access to some of the cheapest natural gas in the U.S., according to Spence. 

“If prices stay cheap, [shale gas] could displace coal altogether and permeate into the private fuel industry, introducing new jobs to communities,” Spence said.

Varun Rai — assistant professor at the LBJ School and instructor of the UT Energy Symposium course, which organized the lecture — said he has high hopes for the program in the future.

“What’s interesting about shale gas fracking in particular is the sheer speed of its impact,” Rai said.