Balancing renewable energy growth and grid resilience requires a multifaceted approach. Photo via Getty Images

The global energy sector is on an exhilarating trajectory, teeming with promising technologies and unprecedented opportunities for a sustainable future. Yet, we find ourselves grappling with the challenges of reliability and affordability. As both a researcher in the field of power electronics and a consumer with bills to pay, I find myself experiencing mixed feelings.

As a researcher, I am thrilled by the progress we have achieved, particularly in energy conversion. The exponential growth of renewable energy technologies in Texas and beyond, including wind turbines and solar PV systems, is cause for celebration. These innovations, coupled with supportive policies, have facilitated widespread deployment and the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, combat climate change, and create a brighter future for our children.

While renewable energy resources can play a crucial role in maintaining the supply-demand balance of the grid, as they did by performing very well during the recent 2023 Texas heat wave, their intermittent and unpredictable nature can also pose a significant challenge to the power system. Unlike traditional power plants that operate continuously, wind turbines and solar PV systems rely on weather conditions for optimal performance. Fluctuations in wind speed, cloud cover, and sunlight intensity can lead to imbalances between energy supply and demand. This imbalance will worsen as the anticipated influx of electric vehicles and their charging needs come into play.

The volatility of renewables contributes to price fluctuations in the electricity market, which not only affects consumers but also raises concerns about grid resilience during extreme weather events. My electricity bill increased by over 20 percent compared to last year, partly caused by inflation, but mainly due to higher operational costs in the Texas electricity market.

Texas witnessed firsthand the consequences of a not-so-resilient grid through the severe power outages experienced during the "Polar Vortex" in February 2021. These outages not only disrupted lives but also disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations. During that time, my wife was expecting our second child. Enduring two nights in our frigid home without electricity or a fireplace was an ordeal that we navigated relatively unscathed. But it made me think of those less fortunate. These circumstances underscore the importance of establishing a robust, dependable and affordable electrical power system.

Balancing renewable energy growth and grid resilience requires a multifaceted approach:

  1. Investment in Infrastructure and Storage: It is crucial to strengthen the grid and ensure a reliable power supply. Upgrading transmission and distribution systems, integrating advanced monitoring and control technologies, and enhancing grid interconnections are essential. The Texas Legislature established the Powering Texas Forward Act, also known as Senate Bill 2627, a taxpayer-funded loan program, to encourage investment. While excluding certain renewable energy facilities and electric energy storage, it recognizes the need for a reliable grid. Hydrogen fuel cell generation facilities could be a potential solution, providing clean and stable energy while remaining eligible for the loan program. Additionally, implementing large-scale energy storage systems utilizing batteries and hydrogen storage technologies can mitigate renewable energy volatility by storing excess energy until needed. The Texas energy industry's push for these advances is a significant step in the right direction.
  2. Diversification of Energy Sources: While renewables play a crucial role in decarbonization, a mix of renewable sources, natural gas, and other low-carbon resources is necessary for the foreseeable future. Implementing carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies across industries can mitigate associated climate impacts. The failure of Senate Bill 624, which would have had significant repercussions for wind and solar facilities, indicates that Texas legislators are genuinely concerned about clean, alternative sources of energy. However, a lot more needs to be done, including coordinated actions between federal, state, and international governments, to address the urgent issue of climate change. Texas can leverage its hydrocarbon/energy expertise to produce economical green and blue hydrogen, advanced fuel cells and hydrogen-based internal combustion engine technologies, enabling a smoother energy transition in terms of usage and jobs.
  3. Educating the General Public: It is critical to help people understand the necessity of modernizing our energy infrastructure; the benefits and opportunities it brings and the transformations we can expect. Institutions like the University of Houston play a crucial role in advancing clean energy technologies and educating the future energy workforce. The establishment of the Texas University Fund (TUF), with a budget of over $3 billion, through a constitutional amendment in November 2023, will be a pivotal step toward this goal.

When addressing the energy transformation and grid resilience dilemma, the real-life impact on human beings must be of prime importance. Our leaders should focus on a balanced approach considering grid infrastructure investment, diversification of energy sources, energy storage solutions, and public education. By adopting this multifaceted strategy, we can ensure a reliable, resilient, and affordable energy future.

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Harish Krishnamoorthy is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate director of the Power Electronics, Microgrids and Subsea Electric Systems Center (PEMSEC) at the University of Houston.

Companies like ExxonMobil, NRG, and Shell play an important role in helping the world transition to renewable energy sources. Photo via htxenergytransition.org

3 Houston companies leading the way towards a low-carbon future

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As the world population makes a jump towards more than 9 billion people by 2050, the race to net-zero is more important than ever. An increase in population means an increase in the demand for energy. With everything from greenhouse gases, pollution, carbon and nitrogen deposition putting a strain on planet Earth, community and business leaders are making commitments to advance the energy transition.

Companies like ExxonMobil, NRG, and Shell play an important role in helping the world transition to renewable energy sources. Here are three ways that these energy companies are working towards an energy abundant, low-carbon future.

NRG Energy

Headquarted in Houston, NRG Energy is the leading integrated power company in the U.S. In 2022, NRG introduced a new Sustainability and Resiliency Impact Study as part of Harris County’s Climate Action Plan to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. The initiative includes $34 million in park upgrades and is expected to save $54 million.

That same year, Evolve Houston, a nonprofit working to accelerate electric vehicle adoption within the Greater Houston area, launched an e-mobility microgrant initiative funded by Evolve Corporate Catalysts, General Motors and bp. With five founding members, among them being NRG Energy and Shell, the goal of the initiative is to improve regional air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Greater Houston area.

At the top of 2023, Reliant Energy and NRG launched the Simple Solar Sell Back electricity plan for Texans aimed at providing solar panels to local homes for lower electricity bills.

Shell

On a mission to improve their own operations, Shell is addressing energy efficiency over time and capturing or offsetting unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions. Headquartered in London. Shell is on a mission to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050. In 2022, the British multinational company invested $6 million to create the Prairie View A&M Shell Nature-Based Solutions Research Program, funded through the company’s Projects & Technology organization dedicated to funding research to develop new technology solutions.

In March of 2022, Shell gifted the University of Houston $10 million to bolster the institution’s efforts to establish the Energy Transition Institute which focuses on the production and use of reliable, affordable and cleaner energy for all. The company also launched the residential power brand Shell Energy offering 100% renewable electricity plans.

ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil is one of the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas companies. In 2021, the multinational oil and gas corporation pledged to invest more than $15 million in solutions to lower greenhouse gas emissions initiatives across six years. As a part of their approach to improve air quality, ExxonMobil is working to:

  • Understand the composition and extent of our emissions
  • Meet or exceed environmental regulations
  • Reduce air emissions to minimize potential impacts on local communities
  • Monitor the science and health standards related to air quality

Throughout the years, plastics have become an essential component of products, packaging, construction, transportation, electronics and more. While plastics are durable, lightweight and cheap, they also emit 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Late last year, the major corporation announced the successful startup of one of the largest advanced recycling facilities in North America. Located in Baytown, Texas, the recycling facility uses proprietary technology to break down raw materials for new products and is expected to have nearly 1 billion pounds of annual advanced recycling capacity by the end of 2026.

According to their 2023 Advancing Climate Action Progress Report released early this year, the corporation plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 2030.

From resolving power grid issues to developing renewable energy technologies, Houston energy companies are powering today to empower the future.

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This article originally ran on the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative blog. HETI exists to support Houston's future as an energy leader. For more information about the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, EnergyCapitalHTX's presenting sponsor, visit htxenergytransition.org.

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

seeing green

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.