How to make Houston the sustainable energy capital of the world

May 16, 2019

The global demand for a low-carbon future is undeniable. Scientific research, opinion pieces, political speechmaking and the global marketplace are all speaking loudly. The question is how? At what pace? At what cost?

And despite all the talk, the real leadership will be shown through actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also meeting the growing global demand for energy.

Houston and Texas must embrace a new mantle - Sustainable Energy Capital of the World, the place where new technologies and new policies are put into practice. This only makes sense: Texas not only produces the oil, natural gas, transportation fuels and plastics that allow the nation to thrive, but Texas also has the infrastructure in place - pipelines, transmission lines, storage tanks, rail and port access - that will be required if we are to transform carbon emissions into viable commercial products.

Texas contributes significantly to the energy mix and products demanded by modern life. Globally the economic uplifting of entire countries and the continued growth of population and prosperity means that demand for energy and material goods will continue to grow, and we must ensure that these products remain affordable and become more environmentally friendly. The solution will largely fall to the energy industries in the states and countries that produce energy to embrace this future as an opportunity.

That means Houston, and Texas, will be critical to success. And we have the good fortune to have forward-thinking, global energy companies that recognize this coming change. Virtually all of them have a strong presence in Houston.

Texans know renewables are important, today and for the future, as the state produces more wind-generated electricity than all but six countries. The amount of solar is growing rapidly. We must strategically integrate all sources of renewables and promote electrification via clean sources of energy. This is not simply good for the environment - it will offer benefits to consumers and create value for the industries.

Texas also consumes twice as much oil, gas and coal as any other state, by virtue of our large manufacturing base, so it falls to us to create this transformation to a low-carbon future.

This transformation will require more than the efficient and lower carbon production and generation of energy. For example, Texas has led the country in the integration of industry with infrastructure and demonstrated how to reduce and capture CO2 emissions in a way that is both cost-effective and useful, storing carbon dioxide in geologic formations and using it for enhanced oil recovery.

Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) has been practiced for over 50 years in Texas, used both in the Permian and East Texas for enhanced oil recovery with great success. There are challenges and opportunities for methane, as well. The primary component of natural gas, methane is also a valuable fuel and feedstock for petrochemicals.

We must invest in transformative technologies that will allow us to view carbon and methane as not simply a waste to be disposed of, but an opportunity to lead the nation in both eliminating emissions and creating value.

That won’t happen on its own. It will require new policies promoting investment and restructuring of the marketplace. We must all work to create a new energy ecosystem, not just new technologies to capture emissions, but to also produce lower-carbon fuels and products that can be differentiated and compete globally. It is not about choosing the “right” technology or product, but about incorporating all forms of fuels and technologies for both renewable and hydrocarbon-based energy while also lowering emissions.

Texas must embrace this immense opportunity to leverage our universities, energy companies and marketplace to take advantage of our world-leading energy infrastructure. If we get it right, we can become a playbook for the rest of the world. We can walk the talk here and accelerate the transformation that will benefit everyone.

There is no more important global challenge, no more important time and no more important place than Houston. Real sustainability requires meeting the growing global demand for energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly, as well as assuring energy is affordable and reliable for all. Houston and Texas must become the Sustainable Energy Capital of the World.

Charles McConnell, a longtime energy executive and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy, is executive director of the Center for Carbon Management in Energy at the University of Houston.