Grid Expectations: UT Energy Roundup



  • Microgrids use energy from local power sources, which helps them continue running during natural disasters
  • Consumers who get information about solar panels from their neighbors decide to install them about 4.6 months earlier than those who don’t
  • Methane hydrates within undersea rocks could emerge as a major source of natural gas, but their environmental impact remains uncertain

The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll may grab headlines, but it’s certainly not the last word on energy coming out of UT.

To prove that point, we’ve highlighted some of the most interesting energy-related studies and expert opinions from around campus. Below, learn how smaller-scale energy management can help stabilize power grids during natural disasters; why nuclear energy is still safe; how researchers are addressing the challenges of getting natural gas from undersea rocks; and other advancements in the world of energy.

Small Grids Withstand Big Disasters

While conventional power grids manage the electricity needs of large areas such as states or groups of states, sometimes it’s better to manage energy on a smaller scale. That’s where so-called microgrids come in.

As the name implies, these systems manage power needs for a much smaller region. They also offer greater control: Microgrid operators can limit the amount of power delivered depending on factors such as the time of day, and they can also incorporate local power sources such as solar, wind, and natural gas. That approach can be especially important in times of natural disaster and during blackouts.

So why aren’t we already using these microgrids? Researchers at UT Austin are trying to figure out how to integrate these newer self-contained microgrids into the existing grid systems.

“Microgrids allow us to design power systems in a fundamentally different way,” says Bob Hebner, director of the Center for Electromechanics and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Fifty years from now, we hope to have a system that’s greener, less intrusive, and much more reliable. What we are really trying to understand is how a microgrid can work in the future.”

Improving the Image of Nuclear Power

The massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that slammed into Japan in March 2011 killed thousands of people and caused a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. For some, it also struck a blow to the image of nuclear power as a viable alternative energy source. But Dale Klein, associate director of the Energy Institute, argues the Fukushima disaster doesn’t necessitate sweeping changes to oversight of U.S. nuclear facilities in order to protect the health and safety of the U.S. public.

Klein explains that Japanese power plants actually survived the earthquake, and would have also survived the following tsunami, too, if they had been supplied with enough backup power. “Indeed, what has emerged as the fundamental failure has little to do with the nuclear reactor design but rather the decision of where and how to site the facility and, most importantly, the design of back-up systems to withstand titanic tsunamis,” Klein writes.

Nuclear experts therefore need to fight against public misinformation and fear. “Those of us involved in nuclear energy must continue to educate the public on the risks and the benefits of nuclear generated electricity,” he writes.

The Power of Neighborly Advice

In order to get consumers to more quickly install solar panels on their homes, UT researchers say we need to get them talking with their neighbors who already have the technology installed. UT’s Varun Rai and Scott A. Robinson polled more than 900 Texas residents who had adopted solar panels, and found that consumers who get information about solar photovoltaics (PV) from their neighbors make the decision to install them about 4.6 months earlier than those who don’t.

“Although information about PV is not hard to find, it’s the right kind of information, coming from someone a consumer knows and trusts, that is the most effective during the decision process,” Robinson says. Seeing other local homes with solar panels and leasing a system rather than buying one were other factors that speeded up the decision-making process.

Mysteries of Methane Hydrates

You can’t get blood from a stone, but you can get natural gas from a rock. That’s why a team of researchers is taking a closer look at methane hydrates, which are flammable icelike compounds found in rocks deep beneath the sea. Methane hydrates could emerge as a major source of natural gas, but there are unanswered questions, including how warming methane hydrate, which releases methane gas bubbles into the sea, could impact the environment.

“If we understand how methane hydrates work, we can start to make much more informed decisions,” says UT petroleum engineering Professor Steven Bryant. “We can decide as a society whether or not methane hydrates are worth pursuing.”


About The Author

Jeremy Simon

Writer, McCombs School of Business

As a writer for Texas Enterprise, Jeremy covers business-related research and news from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he manages...

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