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Building a ‘Green Star State’

A Q-and-A with graduate student Melissa Lott, who recently blogged for “Scientific American” on Texas’ renewable energy resources.

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This Q-and-A originally appeared on the Cockrell School of Engineering Web site.

Melissa Lott is a dual degree graduate student in the Cockrell School of Engineering and LBJ School for Public Affairs. She is also a graduate research assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. She responded to questions from the Cockrell School below:

You recently blogged for “Scientific American,” and in your post you say “the Lone Star State is quickly becoming the Green Star State.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
In the past decade, Texas has installed more renewable energy in the state than it has in the past 100 years, and no one is talking about — Texas is doing it quietly. Texas has so many green, renewable energy resources and it has realized it can be economically advantageous to use them.

Texas is generally known for its rich oil and gas resources, but now it is becoming a leader in green energy. When did this transformation occur, and what was the impetus for the shift?
In the state, we’re business oriented and we’re practical. If there is a resource Texas can use that will help make the state stronger, it will use it.

Texas is good at looking at resources and figuring out what it can do with them to help the state and the people in it. It has these renewable energy resources; they are sitting there waiting to be used. Texas said “let’s figure out how we can make this work in people’s lives,” and I am very practical in the same way. Texas did it with oil and gas and now it is doing it with wind.

Photo of Melissa Lott

Melissa Lott Photo: Mary Christenberry Lott

The modern U.S. electrical grid is broken down into three areas: East, West and Texas. Why is Texas the only state to have its own grid?
From what I have seen, a lot of what it came down to is Texas said, “We have resources here so let’s use them. We want to have say over them, and the way we have that say is to have our own grid;” that way Texas keeps the control within its borders and it doesn’t have to wait for Washington, D.C. or other states. Texas makes decisions and implements them; it doesn’t wait on anyone else. That’s pretty powerful.

What does this independence mean for Texas?
It means that largely, with a few exceptions, Texas is the master of its own destiny. It chooses where it goes — it doesn’t need to confer with surrounding states before making a decision. As a result, Texans have control over Texas’ electric grid and I sincerely doubt that will ever change. It’s too easy to keep Texas isolated, and at this point wind is way too valuable of a resource to give up.

Seventy five percent of Texas’ landmass is covered by its grid with the other 25 percent on other grids — that’s 85 percent of the state’s electricity demand. Most of the large cities are within the coverage area, and Texas has control over all of that. If other states had a chance to set it up this way, I think they would choose the same kind of independence.

You’re a graduate student in the Cockrell School as well as the LBJ School. Explain the cross-disciplinary research and application.
I study energy systems with emphasis on the transmission and distribution of energy. For example, how does electricity get from a power plant to my computer? In my work, I look at the whole system — generation to consumption.

Understanding the technical piece is really important but you need to understand the policy, the legislation, the economics — all of it. I’m an engineer first, but being an engineer doesn’t mean I don’t see beyond the system components. Engineers solve problems, and in doing so we have to understand more than just the technical to provide comprehensive solutions.

So while I’m an engineer first, I’m a lot of other things, too. If you don’t understand the politics and the legalities of how these things function, you can have an incomplete picture of energy systems and lack an understanding of whether things will work in the real world.

Your graduate adviser is Dr. Michael Webber. What have you learned from him in relation to energy in Texas?
He’s a very smart technical engineer, but he also understands the larger picture. He gives his research team, his students and his post docs the freedom to explore, and encourages each of us to think of the bigger picture. We need to be experts in what we do, but he encourages us to keep the broader impacts in mind all the time, and I love working in that environment. That is why I am working with him after I graduate.

So you’ll be staying at UT to work with Dr. Webber. What will your role be?
I’ll be a research associate in Dr. Webber’s group, studying energy in Texas. And when I say energy, I don’t mean renewable energy OR conventional, I mean AND — renewable AND conventional energy — everything. We will have to use all types of energy to move forward, and Texas is a great example of that.

What do you envision for the future of Texas’ energy resources?
If Texas goes along the trajectory I think it will, it will continue to be the national and world leader in energy — and by saying energy I’m not saying just oil and gas, I’m saying energy as a whole. I think renewable energy will be an increasing part of the pie, but we probably first need large scale energy storage. Right now renewables are limited because it matters when the sun shines and the wind blows. Once we figure out storage, once a breakthrough in the storage barrier occurs, we are getting really, really close. I see renewable energy taking off once that happens because economically it makes sense in the long-term.

When business, the environment and policy come together, it works out great, and that is what I see happening once we break through this last barrier, and that is a wonderful situation.