Students shown new perspective on renewable energy

Caleb Martin

Clean, renewable energy is not a new or revolutionary idea. The concept of renewable energy has been quantified, researched and advanced for more than 100 years since the invention of the battery in 1912, but the world still relies heavily on oil and liquid gas. According to Edith Newton Wilson, research associate at the University of Tulsa’s Department of Geosciences, as well as founder, president and CEO of Rock Whisperer, this is a growing issue. Wilson visited MSU on Feb. 16 to show her research presentation Transformation: From Fossil Fuels to the Future, the first of four installments of the Geoscience and Environmental Science Colloquium Series. 

Wilson’s presentation emphasized the need to improve energy efficiency and reduce pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions around the world in a time where clean, renewable energy is slowly becoming more widespread and affordable.

Wilson expressed that there are options available to help cities or regions reduce the amount of harmful pollutants produced, while the world’s technology advances to become more capable of handling the global call for clean renewable energy. 

“The most promising developments that are already available off-the-shelf are [for electric plants] to completely convert from coal to natural gas for electricity generation where we can’t use solar [power],” Wilson said.

For example, energy provider Dynegy purchased 17 power plants for $3.3 billion on Feb. 7. Of the 17 power plants purchased, the Coleto power plant in Fannin, Texas, has become a hot topic in the world of energy because of its possible future as a natural-gas-run power plant. If Dynegy chooses to convert Coleto’s power supply from coal to natural gas, it would become the first natural-gas-run power plant in the state of Texas. 

“On the transportation side, we don’t really have that option of getting off liquids all together without some technology advances, but we do have the option of improving the efficiency and cost of electric cars and then using clean electricity to charge them,” Wilson said.

Wilson explained that companies like Tesla Motors were moving in the right direction of clean energy, using advanced lithium-ion battery technology to propel its vehicles. Companies with gas-electric hybrid vehicles like Chevrolet’s Volt and Toyota’s Prius that use liquid-gas engines and lithium-ion powered motors, are paving a way for consumers to be able to own more environmentally friendly vehicles. Chevrolet is set to release the Chevrolet Bolt EV (electric vehicle) Nov. 28, 2017. The Bolt will reportedly revolutionize the electric automobile industry because of its $30,000 price tag and the battery’s 238 mile range.

Clean renewable energy has become a more privatized sector of commerce as companies are pushing their own clean energy provisions. BP Alternative Energy’s wind farm “Trinity Hills” in Olney, Texas; NextEra Energy Resources “Wolf Ridge” wind farm, north of Muenster, Texas; and Gamesa’s “Barton Chapel” located south of Wolf Ridge in Bryson, Texas, are the three closest wind farms to Wichita Falls. Wind farms are sprouting all across the country, with more than 11,000 wind turbines alone in Texas, and more than 48,000 turbines across the United Sates.

Some companies have developed their own solar panel technology; the Smartflower company, who has developed the Smartflower POP — a self-calibrating and autonomous solar panel array that follows the sun for maximum power intake and efficiency while, on its own, producing enough electricity to power the average American home for an entire year, approximately 4,000 kWh per year.

“It [decision to convert] will be an economic decision leading the way rather than political decisions,” according to William Scott Meddaugh, professor of geosciences, as he explained how the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy will be economically pushed before it’s politically enforced. “People can vote with their pocket book a whole lot easier than they can vote with their ballots.”

Wind and solar energy combined are expected to become less expensive than fossil fuels by 2018. Solar energy was reportedly cheaper than fossil fuels by the end of 2016. 

Countries around the world are facing two common goals: become less reliant on fossil fuels and more reliant on clean, renewable sources of energy. This will prevent further consequences of global warming — a task that current and future generations will have to combat, according to Wilson. 

“I hope to see them [MSU students in the geoscience disciplines] working globally, not locally, understanding a multi-discipline of tools including remote sensing, geothermometry, extensive mapping skills in order to place solar or hydro-electric [energy sources] and understand where natural gas resources are,” Wilson said.

Some students like Gabriel Jacobs, geoscience graduate student, left the colloquium with a new perspective on the science of renewable energy. 

“It was interesting. It was definitely a perspective that I don’t immediately gravitate to,” Jacobs said. “I’m one of the regulatory types, who think that if you want to change the way things are done, to improve practices to make them more sustainable, more efficient, more eco-friendly, then you need a regulatory regime. But, it is encouraging how entrepreneurship and the ‘corporate activism’ have made serious gains [in the clean renewable energy field].”

Wilson encourages students around the nation to put forth their best efforts into research and development for more sustainable, clean and renewable energy.

“I would expect them [students in their future careers] to be working collaboratively across universities and across disciplines and languages and continents. I would expect to see them using all of the basics of geologies, not just one expertise but structural geology, hydrology, geochemistry. Everything to solve the problems [they will face] because the problems will be more complex and different,” Wilson said.