Great Ideas on Energy: Geologic Storage, Sawdust Stoves, Wind Law

A century ago, The University of Texas was built on energy. Some sources may have changed, but as these brilliant innovations prove, UT is still charging ahead.

8. Sequester carbon under the Gulf of Mexico.

By digging up and burning fossil fuels, humans release carbon stored deep beneath the Earth’s surface millions of years ago. As greenhouse gases pour into the atmosphere, the future of climate stability looks bleak. But what if we could put the carbon back underground?

Geologic storage, or tucking carbon dioxide thousands of feet down where it can’t cause climate havoc, is gaining momentum. Armed with a $23 million grant, a team of UT researchers with the Gulf Coast Carbon Center is injecting millions of tons of CO2 deep beneath layers of near-impermeable rock in Mississippi.

And it’s working just fine. “I haven’t been able to show that CO2 stored underground would be seriously damaging in any dramatic or unfamiliar way,” says Susan Hovorka, MA ’81, PhD ’90, a senior research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology and principal investigator of the GCCC. “This technology’s ready if the consumer wants it.”

During eight years of field studies, the researchers monitored the reservoirs and studied the consequences if the CO2 should escape. Though the gas can pose a suffocation risk in enclosed spaces, Hovorka says large-volume releases that could kill people in the open are not possible when CO2 is stored in porous rock.

When the team checked to see if any CO2 was migrating from its reservoir, they found negligible leakage even into nearby underground areas. They’ve also examined whether CO2 could cause earthquakes or leach toxic minerals into drinking water.

In all these cases, safety depends on choosing the right spot. It’s key to avoid volcanoes, faults, and places like coal beds that might contain hazardous minerals. Depleted oilfields are ideal, as they’ve proven themselves by harboring buoyant oil safely for millions of years before humans tapped them.

Geologic storage isn’t a free ticket to a cooler planet. Capturing and compressing CO2 costs energy and therefore money, so customers would have to demand and pay extra for so-called carbon-reduced electricity, just as we do for recycled paper towels. Hovorka sees geologic storage as part of a portfolio of strategies to curtail global warming, as it can bring fossil-fuel costs more into line with those of renewable energies.

But she believes it will take a “Rachel Carson-type move” to make that happen on a large scale. “We need the consumer to step up and say, ‘I want my electricity carbon-reduced. I’ll pay.’” —Jenny Blair

9. Turn trash into treasure in Ghana.

The villagers of Patriensa, Ghana, were making do with expensive, labor-intensive wood stoves. Gathering wood took hours, and smoke posed a health hazard. Meanwhile, at a nearby sawmill, thousands of pounds of sawdust were burned as waste.

Enter UT. A team of UT students saw potential in the burn- ing sawdust. So they designed 37 sustainable sawdust-powered stoves and spent a month in Ghana teaching people to use them.

The Projects for Underserved Communities class, launched in 2009 by UT engineers Janet Ellzey and James O’Connor, teams up social work and engineering students to work on real problems. The class culminates with a summer trip to Ghana, where students and locals work together to implement the new technology. —Rose Cahalan

10. Teach the nation’s first course in wind law.

Texas may be a state built on oil, but today it’s also the undisputed national leader in wind energy. Seven of the nation’s 10 largest wind farms are in the Lone Star State; more than 2.7 million Texas homes draw power from wind.

In 2008, UT became a wind leader in another way: scholarship. That year, energy law professor Ernest Smith began teaching the nation’s first-ever course in wind law. The class, now taught by Steven Dewolf and Rod Wetsel, has inspired similar courses at peer schools like Texas Tech, the University of Oklahoma, and Drake University.

“It’s been exciting and very challenging,” Smith says. “Law classes are based on analyzing cases, but with wind law there are very few cases to analyze.” So Smith and his students got ahead of the curve by studying theory and other states’ decisions. —Rose Cahalan

Read the next great ideas on energy here.

Photo courtesy Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin.


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