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Joe Powell has done a little bit of everything over his long career in chemical engineering at Shell.
He worked on enhanced oil recovery projects, then on to chemical development, then to biofuels – just to name a few – all while on his way to becoming the first chief scientist of chemical engineering for the multinational oil and gas company.
After holding that position for 14 years, Powell decided to step down from the company, but not from Shell’s influence in the Houston community. Powell, who has called the Bayou City home since 1984, has been named the inaugural director of the University of Houston’s Energy Transition Institute. Shell’s $10 million funding commitment helped start the institute, which is slated to focus on developing hydrogen, carbon management such as carbon capture and storage projects and circular plastics, last March.
Powell, who has also been teaching a hydrogen economy course at the university, sat down with the Houston Chronicle to discuss the Energy Transition Institute’s approach to the shift to low-carbon energy and how he sees the institute’s relationship with the Houston community. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: The term “energy transition” is used in the industry a lot, but there isn’t necessarily one clear definition of what it means, and I wanted to give you the opportunity to describe how you define it.
A: We’ve actually had a number of energy transitions – there was early humankind with the torch and fire, and then moving into coal and the industrial revolution, and then oil and then gas. And what’s happened most recently is the invention of low cost renewables in wind and solar, and this drive for sustainability, addressing climate change and the needs thereof. It’s a fundamental transition in terms of the type of resources that we’re dealing with. For all of the previous transition, we’ve been dealing with storable fuels. Now we have low-cost instantaneous electrical energy, which is really great, but you might need it when it’s not available – and so that’s where the puzzle comes into play.
Q: The energy industry is a major economic driver in Houston. One concern about the transition to low-carbon energy is how and if oil and gas workers will shift to new energy jobs. I know that workforce and talent is one of the focuses of the institute – what is your vision for how the institute will work with Houston’s energy workforce to make the shift?
A: The UH Energy Transition Institute will host seminars, webinars and discussion events for students, industry and the public. We will develop classes within the context of the broader university curriculum for both currently enrolled and postgraduate students. One example is the Hydrogen Economy continuing education course, which offers micro-credentialing credits and will soon be offered for the fourth time. We will also coordinate internships and research opportunities for students, and will sponsor and expand energy research with faculty, schools, departments and centers from across the university.
Q: What are some of the barriers to shifting the world to low-emissions energy systems?
A: I think a lot of the public sees low-cost renewable energy and says, “Game over, that’s all we really need,” and they don’t understand the storage issue. And so we really have to articulate what needs to happen to make that available to provide the energy services, and the 24/7 availability that they (the public) really want and need.
The amount of infrastructure required to deliver energy is enormous.What is the optimal way of developing and deploying these resources? Whether it be the footprints of fossil energy production or the land use required with some of these renewable energy systems, the transmission lines – we need to have a conversation about all that with all of the stakeholders involved. That’s one of the great aspects of being here in Houston, where we have the opportunity for outreach and get the engagement of this broader set of stakeholders. We want to see all of industry, we want to see the community, we want to see the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and those who care about the environment, all adamantly involved in this institute so we can get the conversation correct.
Q: If we were having this conversation a few years ago I would have expected you to say funding as the main challenge.
A: It’s amazing the amount of funding coming in from the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) legislation. A lot of funding coming out of the DOE (Department of Energy) to be launching and expanding these programs, many of them are really targeting to make sure that we maintain a leading position here in the United States on energy technology, because of the rest of the world is is catching up quite a bit on on hydrogen and elsewhere.
Q: The oil and gas industry has been criticized for its focus on things like carbon capture, given that it only addresses a sliver of the issue. What do you think, and how would you respond to someone critical of carbon capture?
A: We need all of the above, because it’s an energy transition, some also call it an “energy addition.” Because when you look at demand in the developing world, China and India and beyond, we need 50 percent more energy by 2050. We need all of the components of that energy system simultaneously while moving to make it cleaner. And so we will be into oil and gas, but we need to develop and deploy it more cleanly, especially on the natural gas side.
I’ve been involved with carbon capture and storage projects. We’ve de-risked them to the point where we know that they can work. This area has some of the best geology available for injecting CO2 into depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs. We know all about them and their geology, we know how to safely manage it, so we can lead the world in this space. We have the best salt domes in geology for hydrogen storage.
We need to be all in, and simultaneously drive to be cleaner and more sustainable.
Q: Houston is the most diverse city in the country. Research shows communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change, and at the same time some are concerned they are also being left out of crafting solutions to the climate crisis. How does the institute plan to address racial justice issues in the energy transition?
A: Literally 50 percent of the mission of this new Energy Transition Institute is to get the outreach and workforce development and the metrics correct so that energy is understood.
We’re going to be engaging the social sciences and policy side of the business school to be developing metrics in that space. But to do that, we need to get out and talk to people. And so basically, looking at for all of those opportunities to have the community come in to U of H and have some of those energy seminars go out to the high schools and really get the word around of “here we are and this is what the transition is about,” and make sure that those voices are heard.
Kyra Buckley is an energy reporter for the Houston Chronicle.
Kyra specifically covers the region’s oil and gas companies, focusing on drilling and oil field services. Before joining the Chronicle’s business desk in April 2022, Kyra covered energy at Houston Public Media for two years. She previously worked at NPR member stations in Colorado and Oregon, and is a 2015 graduate from the University of Oregon in journalism and political science.
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Director of University of Houston's new Energy Transition Institute on … – Houston Chronicle
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