The Future of Energy
Over 20 alumni gathered in Sage Hall to
deliver short TED-style talks focused on
energy innovation at the second annual
Johnson Energy Connection on Sept. 30.
Speakers discussed current renewable
and non-renewable energy practices and
resources, and provided a glimpse of the
Since wind is among the most highprofile sources of renewable energy, many environmental groups and politicians advocate installing wind turbines; but, in practice, this energy source has proven to be problematic. When the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built a wind farm in Northeast California, for example, the project had unintended consequences. The turbines killed 6 golden eagles, an endangered species, explained Leah Bissonette ’73, MS ’76, managing partner for the power sector, North America, at Environmental Resources Management (ERM). “Once they’re on the endangered list, killing the birds is called ‘taking’ and it’s against the law,” she said. “The LADWP is in serious trouble now,” she said.
“We do know some of the migratory bird paths, and that definitely helps. But there are still many we don’t know,” she said. “Learning about more of them is something we’re doing to make wind energy safer in the future.” Germany is the leading country in production of solar energy, followed by Spain and Italy, with the U.S. in fourth place, said Vaha Energy’s Gaye Tomlinson, MBA ’05. Several factors drive the solar energy market, but adequate sun exposure and high utility costs are among the most important. “Because Germany has about as much sun exposure as Alaska, one might wonder why they are leading the pack,” reasoned Tomlinson. “The answer is they have very high utility costs that just keep going up.” Relying on the sun has proven cost-effective in Germany.
Conversely, in the U.S. it’s not financially feasible to use solar because our utility rates are not that high “yet,” said Tomlinson. “When it makes monetary sense for people to switch, they’ll do it,” she said. In fact, New Jersey, a leader in solar use in America, relies on an incentive program to encourage citizens to go solar.
Despite innovations in new and renewable energy, the U.S. is still heavily dependent on oil — and oil is still very much in the country’s future, said Chevron’s Shannon Wells, MBA ’08, in a presentation that sparked numerous questions. New oil retrieval techniques will increase the percentage of oil recovered from each reservoir, which is currently at 35 percent, he said. An increase of as little as one percent can mean an additional 80 billion barrels.
Non-conventional oil — including heavy oil and oil extracted from oil sands — will play a major role, said Wells. “Future technology that will allow for access to these elements is going to be crucial, and probably the biggest piece of the pie in terms of our future,” he said. In perhaps his most controversial point, Wells also predicts new discoveries of oil will be made: The World Energy Outlook’s 2008 data reports there are over 800 billion barrels yet to be discovered. “Considering that we’ve used about a trillion barrels of oil to date, this is a significant amount that we haven’t found yet,” he said.
The energy sector continues to undergo dramatic change as new technology is constantly being developed. The consensus: The future of the industry is still unknown. There is a lot of work yet to be done, and a lot yet to learn, about oil as well as renewable energy. According to Bissonette, “It’s up to all of us to do it.”