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.

Harish Krishnamoorthy is one of four fellows recognized by the program — and the first from UH to receive the honor. Photo via UH.edu

Houston researcher tapped for prestigious fellowship for offshore safety innovation

big win

A University of Houston professor has been selected by a national organization to “contribute to the understanding, management and reduction of systemic risk in offshore energy activities.”

The Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced that Harish Krishnamoorthy, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is one of four selected early-career research fellows in the Offshore Energy Safety track. Krishnamoorthy is the first researcher from UH selected for the recognition.

“I am happy and honored to be the first one, but hopefully there will be a lot more in the coming years,” Krishnamoorthy says in a UH news release.

The award, which isn't granted based on a specific project, includes a $76,000 grant, mentor support, and access to a network of current and past cohorts.

Created in 2013, the program is an independent, science-based program founded as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its goal is "to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice and capacity, generating long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation," the release reads.

“These exceptional individuals are working hard to pursue new research, technical capabilities, and approaches that address some of the greatest challenges facing the Gulf and Alaska regions today,” says Karena Mary Mothershed, senior program manager for the Gulf Research Program’s Board on Gulf Education and Engagement. “We are incredibly excited to announce these new Early-Career Research Fellows, and to continue supporting them as they make lasting impacts.”

Krishnamoorthy, who also serves as associate director of the Power Electronics, Microgrids and Subsea Electric Systems Center at UH, has expertise is in power electronics, power converters, and offshore technologies. His research interests include high-density power conversion for grid interface of energy systems, machine learning-based methods for improvement in quality and reliability of power electronics, advanced electronics and control for mission-critical applications.

According to Krishnamoorthy, there are around 1,500 offshore rigs — with a large amount located North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. There's a need to improve existing systems, according to Krishnamoorthy, and this process of evolving the grid comes with safety risks and challenges.

“When there are so many electronics involved, safety and reliability are going to be very critical,” Krishnamoorthy says in he release. “I have been looking at safety aspects a lot in my research as well as how to connect subsea oil and gas systems with offshore renewable systems.”

In 2022, Krishnamoorthy was recognized as an OTC Emerging Leader at the Offshore Technology Conference for his contributions to offshore safety and workforce development in offshore, as well as reducing the carbon emissions.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.