Associated Press Photo
On Feb. 23, Shell Oil Company announced a partnership with UTSA to help create jobs in the Carrizo Springs community through municipal training and a project series regarding the Eagle Ford Shale area—one of the largest deposits of natural gas in the United States, which stretches 400 miles from the Texas-Mexico border to East Texas. This is the latest effort by UTSA to work alongside the energy industry of a state that led the nation in energy production in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
It is the goal of Shell and UTSA, according to General Manager of Shell South Texas Jan Sherman, “to develop new and innovative pathways for continuing the growth of the Carrizo Springs community that will benefit generations for many years to come.”
Eagle Ford Shale energy mining was responsible for $25 billion in revenue and over 47,000 jobs in South Texas in 2011, according to a May 2012 study conducted by the Center for Community and Business Research at UTSA’s Institute of Economic Development (IED). A 2012 follow-up study will be released on March 26.
Currently, natural gas production accounts for 3.1 percent of the state’s workforce and 14.9 percent of gross state product, according to StateImpact Texas, NPR.
UTSA’s IED, Rural Business Program and College of Public Policy will work with local government and business owners to enhance the public’s understanding and to address concerns about Shell’s future productions.
The UTSA Rural Business Program will also host monthly business workshops.
Sherman said, “Shell is focused not only on the business, but the people who make our business possible.”
Shell’s desire to expand the community’s awareness of what the company is doing in the Eagle Ford region is in part due to the criticism of hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking—a process used to obtain natural gas from porous rock formations such as Eagle Ford Shale.
Natural Gas in Texas
Fracking, which involves sending down highly pressurized mixtures of water and various chemicals into the ground in order to force oil and natural gas to the surface, is still not formally regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Overall, Texas has been highly supportive of natural gas production. According to StateImpact Texas, “Texas leads the nation in natural gas production, holding around 23 percent of the nation’s natural gas reserves.”
Texas also led the nation in natural gas production, accounting for 28 percent of the nation’s total in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Associate Professor of Research at the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute Afamia Elnakat said the natural gas extraction “could be done to minimize environmental impact… and maximize efficiency in natural gas harvesting.”
“Energy independence at a national level creates better security for us and for our children and the future and promotes economic growth for us,” Elnakat said. “There is a big natural gas movement down south in Texas, and it provides economic growth [locally].”
However, there have been accusations of chemicals being used in the process seeping into the groundwater, making it hazardous for human consumption and even flammable. The New York Times has also reported that new criticisms of fracking have emerged, such as that the process makes the ground unstable, causing earthquakes in the surrounding area, along with the fracking process depleting the water supply of the already drought-stricken state; these have led to fracking being banned in some areas, such as Tulsa, Okla. and the majority of New York.
Gov. Rick Perry supports fracking and said to ABC News in 2011 that “There is no scientific proof hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater.” That same year, Perry signed into law a bill that required natural gas companies to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process.
According to StateImpact Texas, “The act of drilling and fracturing itself” is not a cause for concern, “but rather the disposal wells.”
Scientists at both University of Texas and Southern Methodist University (SMU) have found “conclusive scientific evidence that the injection of [fracking] fluids is causing quakes in the U.S.”
Cliff Frohlich, associate director with the UT Institute for Geophysics, told StateImpact Texas the easiest way to explain the earthquakes connection to disposal wells is what he calls the “air hockey table model.”
“You have an air hockey table, suppose you tilt it. If there’s no air on, the puck will just sit there. Gravity wants it to move, but it doesn’t because there’s friction [with the table surface]. But if you turn the air on for the hockey table, the puck slips,” said Frohlich. “Faults are the same. If you pump water in a fault [which acts as the air in the hockey table], the fault can slip, causing an earthquake.”
Frohlich stated, “If disposal is causing earthquakes, you can find a different way of disposing of it. You can dispose of the stuff in a different well, or you can even take it to a fluid treatment plant.”
The most recent earthquake occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with a magnitude of 3.0 on Jan. 22.
Currently, Texas has more than 50,000 disposal wells, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.
The EPA projects the completion of their study on fracking in 2014. The study will cover the impact fracking has on drinking water resources.
The Rise of Renewables
These fears have led many to question the true impact of fracking and other non-renewable sources of energy. Additionally, many worry that the energy market, which is currently heavily dependant on coal and natural gas, is not diverse enough to support long-term stability.
With such concerns in mind, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) introduced HB 303 in January, a bill which is currently being reviewed in the State Affairs committee. HB 303 aims to increase Texas’ renewable energy dependence from 4 percent in 2010 to 35 percent by year 2020.
According to his website, part of Rodriguez’s platform is “the promotion of renewable and sustainable energy as part of a statewide approach to improving environmental quality and creating economic development opportunities.”
“I would call [the bill] reasonable and safe, because…the innovation and engineering is there,” Elnakat said. “It’s making the regulatory and political traits parallel to them.”
According to the EIA, from 2005 to 2010, Texas’ renewable energy consumption grew by more than 230 percent. While wind energy consumption from 2005 to 2010 rose by 500 percent in Texas, solar energy consumption expanded by just 83.3 percent. Texas, the national leader for wind energy, brought in almost 10,000 MWs in 2010, a national record.
Although wind has a growing foothold in Texas’ energy sector, many view solar as a key market component for long-term renewable growth, and Rodriguez’s bill calls for solar energy consumption to rise from .24 percent to 2 percent, increasing solar consumption by more than 700 percent in the next seven years.
Making an energy market in Texas that does not depend completely on the oil and natural gas sectors is a growing concern for many. As Rodriguez stated in Reporting Texas, “That’s what this is all about really. We’re trying to kick-start it a little bit for the non-wind renewable areas.”
“We need a diverse market, which is the intent of this [support for solar power], and I think it could be really good for the Texas economy,“ Rodriguez said.
HB 303 is just one of several bills dealing with upcoming energy changes, and changing energy dependence to more renewable resources is not just a topic at the state level.
“Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that,” President Barack Obama said in his Stat
e of the Union address. “Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”
As Elnakat said, “Energy independence at a national level creates better security for us.”
According to Environment Texas “Texas has the best solar energy potential in the nation.” According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Texas has the potential to generate more than 100 times our current electric use from solar power.”
As reported in Reaching for the Sun, a brief by Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group, San Antonio-based CPS Energy and Austin Energy make up 85 percent solar energy capacity for the state of Texas.
“Texas’ solar story is primarily a tale of two cities—San Antonio and Austin—with the rest of the state largely languishing in the shadow,” stated the Director of Environment Texas Luke Metzger. “It’s time we reach for the sun and bring clean solar energy to the rooftops of all Texas’ homes, schools and businesses.”
According to Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Texas ranks 13th in the nation for its solar capacity, with the ability to power just over 11,000 houses on pure solar energy.
The Reaching for the Sun report showed that CPS Energy supplies 52.6 MWs to San Antonio and its surrounding counterparts, bringing in the largest solar energy consumption in Texas. Second to CPS, Austin Energy supplies 41.3 MWs to its consumers. The third largest consumption of solar energy belongs to Oncor of Dallas and Fort Worth, at only 9.89 MWs.
While Blue Wing Solar Facility and Centennial Solar Farm supply 34 megawatts of energy to the San Antonio community, according to SEIA, CPS Energy and Nexolon have broken ground on a solar plant which will bring 400 more MWs of energy and 400 jobs to the San Antonio, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
“We believe that we have a once-in-a-generation chance to be a world leader in an industry that is growing stronger and stronger by the year,” Mayor Julián Castro told the Express-News. “This is very exciting for me because I see our new energy economy in San Antonio really taking off.”
Near the heart of San Antonio’s sustainable energy movement has been the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at UTSA. The Institute works on many projects including solar forecasting, the water energy nexus and electric vehicle issues in addition to research relating to Eagle Ford Shale.
“I mention these two things: Eagle Ford and renewables—I bring you back to our platform here at the Institute, and my personal view on the world,” Elnakat commented. “The best remedy is prevention. The best way to address our energy problem, also, is to reduce demand, to make things more efficient.”
To that effect, the Institute is working on a project incorporating more solar energy into the Texas grid, addressing several areas of solar power in San Antonio as well as evaluating solar energy deployment through CPS Energy and studying the smart grid. Additionally, their research also focuses on improving energy storage and creating solar forecasting methods. The Institute is also working on circuit reliability in partnership with Blue Wing Solar.
Although much of their work relates to the greater San Antonio area, the Institute’s SmartLiving project brings innovative energy technologies to the UTSA campus. The SmartLiving project seeks to integrate 1228 solar panels, 21 inverters and 18 smart combiner boxes to the UTSA Main and Downtown campuses. The initiative also implemented “a real-time monitoring system that allows researchers and students to study solar power, irradiance and variability,” as stated on its website. The SmartLiving project aims to bring LED lighting to all downtown campus buildings, carbon monitoring sensors in some classrooms to fluctuate room A.C. based on class sizes and scheduling and also thermal camera sensors in the downtown cafeteria.
“San Antonio is trying really hard to be the new energy economy. We’re showcasing our city,” said Elnakat. “It goes to show the nation that we’re a microcosm example of what tomorrow’s America is—and we can still have this culture, this heart, but we can make it innovative in science and engineering. We can also be energy independent and secure, but also still have that culture and diversity.”