Research, Policy and Industry Leaders Discuss Energy at Student-led UT Energy Forum

Engineering faculty and students discussed global energy challenges – and the innovations needed to help solve them – during the UT Energy Forum.

Dr.Tad Patzek, professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, speaks during a panel at the UT Energy Forum.

Dr.Tad Patzek, professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering speaks during a panel at the UT Energy Forum.

An inaugural student-led energy forum at The University of Texas at Austin drew more than 300 students, policymakers, industry leaders and researchers to discuss global energy challenges and the innovations needed to help solve them.

The Feb. 3-4 UT Energy Forum was organized by graduate students at the Cockrell School of Engineering and their peers in business, law, public policy and geosciences.

“This is people from different roles and walks working together on what has to be one of the great challenges and issues for the 21st century,” said university President William Powers Jr. during his address on the first day of the forum. “That is: How are we going to deal with our energy needs, and our need to conserve our resources with sustainable energy use, and have the kind of environment that is also sustainable?”

The forum featured eight panels addressing everything from energy resources for the next 20 years, how to power transportation of the future and new developments in the oil and gas industry. Keynote speakers included mechanical engineering Professor Michael Webber, Internet pioneer and Professor of Innovation at the Cockrell School, Robert Metcalfe, and Director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), Dr. Arun Majumdar.

Snow and inclement weather caused the university to close Feb. 4 and forced the second day of the forum to start late, something speakers cited in their addresses to students.

"The fact that you guys are here despite the weather means you must be the most enthusiastic energy rock stars in this country and it's amazing,” Majumdar said. “I'm delighted to see students organizing themselves into these energy clubs...I think there's a movement around the country where there's this feeling [students] can change the world, and you guys can."

Among  the biggest challenges to supplying the world with clean and affordable energy are finding low-cost capital to fund new technologies at the pilot-scale level, as well as grappling with the world’s growing population, which is expected to reach 11-11.5 billion at the end of the next century largely due to increases in India, China, Asia and Africa, Majumdar said.

Majumdar said solving the energy challenge is the “biggest business opportunity” of our time, one that requires innovation to be aligned with policy, education, science and research.

“Unfortunately today, these vectors are pointed in different directions and we need to align them to get our nation back on track,” he said.

Citing the fact that Texas is the only state with its own electric grid and is the largest consumer of coal, oil and wind resources, several speakers said there’s no better place to talk about energy than in the Lone Star State.

Webber, who was the forum’s kickoff keynote speaker, illustrated the state’s  consumption of energy resources in comparison to the U.S., world and other nations. According to data he presented, Texas would rank No. 7 for CO2 emissions if it were its own country, but also be the No. 6 producer of wind energy.

 He predicted Texas could become the No. 2 producer of solar power by the end of 2011. Currently, Texas doesn’t even rank among the top solar energy producing states.

“We will do what we did with wind last year, with solar this year … that’s my optimistic view,” Webber said, “and UT has the right ingredients to lead this optimistic future.”

In a panel titled “Energy resources for the next 20 years,” panelists fielded questions from the audience and made their own cautious predictions about the future of energy consumption and production.

“We’re very bad at predicting the future,” said Dr. Tad Patzek, professor and chair in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. “But 20 years from now, we as humans will realize that it is the environment that protects us. We will realize that human economy is embedded into the economy of the earth.”

The panel was led by Ray Orbach, director of the university’s Energy Institute, and panelists included Patzek; Juan Garza, president of Advance Technology Initiatives for NRG Energy; Dr. Scott Tinker, director of the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology; and Dr. Carey King, research associate at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.

In order to achieve energy security over the next 20 years, Tinker said “clean” needs to become a part of the “three E” equation – energy, economy and environment.

“When the economy is not doing well, it’s hard to invest in the environment, and the environment suffers.  Our Federal government needs to give up on energy independence – it’s not going to happen,” he said. “Let’s have energy security. And you can have that with dependency.”

Alanna Gino, Forum Leadership Committee member and a McCombs School of Business MBA student, said she and other organizers were pleased with the turnout and support for the forum. The caliber of speakers and sponsors made the event successful, she said.

“We look forward to future UT Energy Forums and hope the event will continue to bring together leaders from academia, business and engineering to showcase UT's leadership in energy," she said.

Tad Patzek holds the Lois K. and Richard D. Folger Leadership Chair in Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering and the Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering.