winds of change

New report finds coal and wind energy usage tied in Texas for the first time

Wind energy usage in Texas has been slowly creeping up on coal — and now the two are neck-and-neck. Getty Images

In an electrifying sign for the renewables sector of Houston's energy industry, wind for the first time has essentially tied with coal as a power source for Texas homes and businesses.

In 2019, wind (19.97 percent) and coal (20.27 percent) were locked in a statistical dead heat to be the No. 2 energy source for customers of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Natural gas ranked first (40.2 percent). The Austin-based nonprofit manages about 90 percent of the state's electrical grid.

Houston stands to benefit greatly from these winds of change.

Long dominant in the oil and gas industry as the Energy Capital of the World, Houston is adapting to the shifting tide from traditional energy sources to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Over 30 companies involved in wind energy are based in the Houston area. Major local players in wind energy include BP Wind Energy North America Inc., EDP Renewables North America LLC, and Pattern Energy Group Inc. In addition, many of the state's more than 130 wind-generation projects are operated from Houston.

Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, says the region's "unparalleled experience" with massive energy initiatives supplies an edge in the burgeoning renewable energy sector.

"Houston's talent base knows energy, from development to commercial operations, and the region offers a competitive advantage to renewable energy companies looking to develop projects both domestically and around the world," Harvey says. "Houston and Texas are well positioned as leaders who are developing large-scale renewable energy projects in both wind and solar."

Harvey says ERCOT's aggressive pursuit of wind and solar power also bodes well for Houston and the entire state.

"When combined with our natural advantages of great sites for wind and solar, our market structure has made Texas a global leader in the transition to low-carbon power generation," he says. "We expect Houston will continue to play a major role as wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources continue to rise on a global scale."

Susan Sloan, vice president of state affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, notes that Texas leads all states for wind energy, with 25 gigawatts of capacity generated by nearly 14,000 wind turbines. The Lone Star State produces about one-fourth of the country's wind power, and the wind energy industry employs more than 25,000 Texans.

With another 9 gigawatts of capacity coming online, "Texas continues to champion investment in wind energy as the state's electric load continues to increase," says Sloan, who's based in Austin. "Wind is an established and growing part of the Texas energy economy, and will be for years to come."

Texas has made great strides in wind energy in the past decade. In 2010, wind represented only 7.8 percent of ERCOT's power generation and ranked as the grid's No. 4 energy source, while coal stood at 39.5 percent and ranked first.

In September 2019, Norwegian energy research firm Rystad Energy predicted wind will bypass coal as a Texas energy source in 2020. Rystad Energy, which has an office in Houston, expects wind to generate 87 terawatt-hours of electricity in Texas this year compared with 84.4 terawatt-hours from coal. One terawatt-hour equals the output of 1 trillion watts over a one-hour period.

"Texas is just one of many red states that have recently 'gone green' by harnessing their great wind-generation potential," Carlos Torres-Diaz, head of gas market research at Rystad Energy, said in a release. Renewable energy sources like wind "are reaching a level where new installations are not driven solely by policies or subsidies, but by economics," he added.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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