Extreme weather has been punching holes in the legendary ERCOT power grid of Texas, leading some to predict many years of doom and distress ahead. That could be, but the state has some renewable energy options hidden up its sleeve, and new pathways for improved resiliency and stability are popping up all across the state.
Lone Star State Stakes Renewable Energy Claim
Despite its status as a global oil and gas producer, Texas has somehow become a US wind power pace-setter and it is also coming on strong in the solar energy department, so let’s leave that aside and take a look at something new and different.
Earlier this month, Texas A&M University let word slip that it is working on a “Floating Renewable Energy Station” that can harvest energy from multiple sources including waves, currents, and solar energy, in addition to wind energy.
“With questions about the short- and long-term reliability and sustainability of Texas’ power grid, having alternate energy options is more vital than ever,” TAMU explained, “And while many forms of renewable energy, such as solar and nuclear, call land their home, other methods — such as offshore wind farms, wave energy and current/tide energy — are taking to the seas to generate electricity.”
Interesting! It’s kind of weird to call nuclear energy renewable, but that’s not what is really interesting. The interesting thing is the question of where they plan to park this ocean-going floating energy harvesting station.
Texas sits on the Gulf of Mexico, where offshore wind resources are less than optimal. Nevertheless, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently took a look at the potential for offshore wind development among the Gulf states, and Louisiana leaped at the opportunity. Texas did not seem interested, but piling multiple energy harvesting devices onto one platform could make the financials look more attractive.
The idea of combining solar panels with wind turbines is not a particularly new thing in the renewable energy field, but TAMU would be carving out a vanguard spot if it piles wave and current energy harvesting into the mix. Though both forms of renewable energy are promising, their commercial potential has yet to be unleashed.
The Energy Department, for one, is a fan. It is continuing to pump money into tidal and current-based energy harvesting R&D. Elsewhere around the world, a floating wind-plus-wave energy project is under way in Ireland, so let’s see what happens with that.
In any case, TAMU research leader Moo-Hyun Kim is looking far beyond the shores of Texas. Floating wind turbines are already a thing in coastal areas where the water is too deep for conventional, fixed-platform construction. In the US, that would include practically all of the Pacific coast as well as Hawaii. Maine is another floating wind-curious coastal state.
Of Course There Has To Be A Hydrogen Angle
Another angle to consider is who would off-take all that renewable energy from the Floating Renewable Energy Station. Kim has an answer for that, too.
“Offshore renewable energy can directly power remote islands, numerous ocean platforms, electric boats, and underwater drones and vehicles, as well as ‘blue economy’ systems, such as marine aqua-culture, fish or macro algae farms,” Kim explained. “It can also be combined with desalination plants and hydrogen factories.”
Hydrogen factories…interesting! The global supply of hydrogen relies almost entirely on converting natural gas, but not for long. Electrolysis systems can also be put to work teasing hydrogen out of plain old water, with an electrical current. That made no sense when costs were high and the grid depended almost entirely on fossil fuels, but now low-cost renewable energy has changed the game.
In terms of Texas, and other coastal states, offshore wind farms could provide the clean kilowatts for onshore electrolysis facilities in shoreline communities, where space for new wind turbines is limited. The Energy Department is already eyeballing the potential for offshore wind to step in and resolve onshore energy bottlenecks.
Texas Study Makes Space For Natural Gas, For Now
With that in mind, let’s move over to the University of Texas at Austin, which is behind the launch of a new green “hydrogen hub” research initiative that leverages wind and solar assets all over the state to provide the juice for electrolysis systems.
The project launched in January, and the University of Texas has not been letting the grass grow under its feet.
Earlier this week, UT released study on the potential for integrating hydrogen gas into the nation’s natural gas grid. There is already a movement afoot to transition from natural gas to green hydrogen for power plant turbines, so the big question is how to scale up green hydrogen production and make it cheaper, too.
UT noted Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has set $1 per kilogram as the 2030 target for the cost of “clean” hydrogen, bringing it down from $5 per kilogram today.
The “clean” hydrogen field covers a lot of ground, including some not-so-green systems that basically slap a carbon capture system onto plain old natural gas. The UT study makes the case for lumping that approach into the clean category, as an economical means of reducing greenhouse emissions over the short term until the cost of electrolysis systems comes down.
Ning Lin, who is chief of the Bureau of Economic Geology in the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, emphasized the need for speed.
“There is a lot of research being done, but not enough demonstration,” she said in a press statement. “In order to achieve the goal of having hydrogen as a meaningful sector in our current energy system with competitive cost, we need to see material progress in scaling up to pilot test capacity and strong cost reduction evidence in the next five years.”
Landfill Gas Can Fit The Renewable Energy Bill, Too
On the plus side, President Biden is all but certain to sign a new House resolution that effectively reinstates tighter methane emissions regulations at drilling sites, which the Trump administration had loosened up. That should help improve the carbon profile of carbon capture systems over the near term, but the UT team emphasizes that water-splitting is the way to go over the long run.
“We can utilize natural gas right now, if you’re prepared to move forward with carbon capture and storage, and give the electrolysis and related technologies a chance to catch up and become more economically viable,” said Mark Shuster, who is the associate director of energy at the Bureau of Economic Geology.
Another near-term solution that leans more on the renewable energy side would be to use landfill gas instead of fossil gas to produce hydrogen. A related approach is to cut out the middleman and just use solid waste to produce hydrogen.
On the economically viability side, keep an eye on Congress. A movement is afoot among Democrats in Congress to pull longrunning taxpayer subsidies out from under the feet of the fossil energy industry, which could leave more wiggle room to subsidize a more competitive scenario for green hydrogen.
Though prospects for Senate action on that score are dim, last week’s House resolution on methane rules could indicate the beginning of a broader shift. Twelve House Republicans voted with the Democratic majority to pass the resolution, and that could be a precursor to a deeper rift. It sure would make sense for Congressional representatives from climate-vulnerable states to start working on measures that prevent catastrophic climate change from wrecking their home turf, no matter what their party affiliation.
On the other hand…meh. Don’t hold your breath.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: US Energy Information Agency (screenshot).
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