Amarillo Globe News – Industry leaders discuss future energy needs of Texas

September 17th, 2006  |  Published in Articles

There was no one answer to the energy needs of the future at Texas Tech’s Energy Sustainability Summit.

“We’re going to have to go down the buffet line,” Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams said.

Industry, political and research leaders from across the country spent Wednesday and Thursday in Lubbock talking about energy needs and the challenges of making any of the proposed solutions functional, reliable, efficient, and most of all, affordable. They discussed many possible methods – solar, hydrogen, nuclear and biomass – to meet the coming needs.

“The United States has 5 percent of the world population and 25 percent of the energy consumption,” said Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Worldwide, energy consumption could grow by 50 percent in 20 years, and developing technology, public-policy initiatives and business investment will have to merge if demand is to be met.

The cost to produce electricity using solar and wind power has dropped and should continue to decline, Arvizu said. As technology changes, solar may come to dominate the new technologies.

As far as powering vehicles, Arvizu said corn-based ethanol was only part of the future. The grain-based ethanol appears to return about 1.4 units of energy for every unit of energy used to make it, but this is still being debated. The future process of turning grass and harvest refuse holds more promise, creating five to 10 times the energy required to produce it. The process is not yet in use commercially.

“This is a technology about to come into play,” Arvizu said.

“We had 30 years to come up with answers, but instead we are facing the same questions.”

Stephanie Sparkman, head of West Texas Energy Technology Initiative Gasoline prices are driving the search for an alternate fuel, as are calls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“If it wasn’t for higher prices, we wouldn’t be here talking about what we’re talking about,” Hoxie Smith of Midland College said.

Others echoed his opinion that – even with federal subsidies to produce alternative energy – the real force behind any push for clean technology is money. The cheap gas that had been available after the oil embargo of the 1970s has ceased to exist.

“We are spoiled as Americans,” said Stephanie Sparkman, head of the West Texas Energy Technology Initiative. “We had 30 years to come up with answers, but instead we are facing the same questions.”

There were other proposals for solutions to transportation fuel problems. Making enough synthetic fuel from biomass, like corn and soybeans, is not feasible, said Rakesh Agrawal, a researcher at Purdue University. All those crops now produced in the U.S. would meet 12 percent of the nation’s current gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

He proposed growing crops on far fewer acres to create carbon that could, with hydrogen, be converted to fuel with hydrogen – rather than fermenting it for ethanol or making biodiesel from oil extracted from crops.

Wind energy also holds promise, but storing the power for times when the wind is not blowing is a problem, and transmission lines are set up for the existing power generation from large, central plants. When used, wind power can add electricity to that produced by other power plants and reduce the need for the coal and natural gas that those plants burn. Wind farms covering 30 square miles would create far more than the 2 percent to 3 percent of power now created by wind farms in Texas.

“Carson County could power the entire state of Texas,” said Walter Hornaday, head of Cielo Wind Power. “We are scavenging the transmission. The day you see transmission lines built for wind energy, you’ll see tremendous growth.”

The experts also consider nuclear power to be a component needed for future demand models. While more plants based on existing designs are needed for the near future, a new generation of nuclear plants is being studied. The technology they employ would be safer, more efficient, burn nuclear waste, and create hydrogen for other uses, said Michael Campbell, senior vice president of General Atomics.

All that energy creation, except for wind, will take water. Fresh water consumption for producing energy could double by 2025 if current trends continue, said Mike Hightower, an engineer at Sandia National Lab.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is actually a train coming at us,” he said. “The question is becoming, ‘Do I want water to drink or do I want water to turn on my lights, run my computer and drive my car?’ ”

Several possibilities being studied to fix the problem include desalinization of sea water and brackish underground water or transporting fresh water to where the power needs to be created.

Copyright 2006 Amarillo Globe-News
Record Number: 11435AD8C1F995B0