Consortium introduces Permian Energy Development Lab

A new consortium is ready to take advantage of the Permian Basin’s vast expanse and position as center of the global energy economy to address energy challenges around the globe.

The Permian Energy Development Lab was introduced this week at the University of Texas and is a project incubated by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation of Austin. Midland College, Odessa College and the University of Texas Permian Basin are participating along with the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at El Paso, New Mexico Tech, New Mexico State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

“The entities are collaborating, focused on research, education and community engagement,” Marilu Hastings, executive vice president of the Mitchell Foundation and director of the Mitchell Lab, told the Reporter-Telegram in a telephone interview.

Jennifer Myers, associate vice president of workforce education at Midland College, told the Reporter-Telegram in a telephone interview she sees the new lab as a regional approach to energy and that the college will focus its efforts on helping meet the regional’s workforce needs.

Some participants are into scientific research and development – New Mexico, for example, focuses on renewable energy, Myers said. Other participants are into educating the workforce “and that’s where we come in through our continuing education programs and the Petroleum Professional Development Center,” she said.

Myers added that she has already met with what she called the workforce subgroup. “It’s exciting, it’s important work. We’re here to provide opportunities, whether reskilling, upskilling or changing careers,” Myers said.

George Nnanna, dean of UTPB’s College of Engineering and head of its Texas Water and Energy Institute, told the Reporter-Telegram in a telephone interview UTPB’s participation will be both in research and in workforce development.

Scientific research “will focus on four main areas of inquiry: Advanced energy, fuels and integration; carbon and materials management; water, land and agriculture; and economic development,” he said.

His department is exploring the feasibility of using renewable energy – wind and solar – to treat produced water to a level that allows it to be used elsewhere, such as for nonfood crops. That, he said, would create jobs and lead to economic development. The UTPB lab last year submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation Engine program, and Nnanna said initial comments seem to suggest it will be funded.

In the area of education, he said “we will concentrate on introducing students to advanced energy concepts with the goal of preparing them to excel in technology and energy careers,” weaving advanced energy concepts into existing curriculum at the university and local community colleges.

Even if students don’t want a degree, he said they can receive higher-education credentials that will provide career opportunities and that can also be used if students decide later that they want to pursue a degree.

Testing can be done at a large scale, he said, noting that results in a lab may differ from results in the field.

“The huge advantage of this laboratory is it brings together parties from various universities and national laboratories to solve common problems,” Nnanna said. “People at universities tend to work in silos. We are now removing those silos and bringing all parties together to solve common problems.”

Hastings said the participants will help address what she called current, urgent and ongoing questions related to traditional oil and gas operations, such as the safest and most efficient way to manage produced water. They will also address questions that she said are underappreciated.

“Rarely discussed is the land impact of any energy development,” she said. “We don’t appreciate that the loss of land and habit is a significant problem. As an example, and you can say this about any energy development, solar farm development. The current practices have significant impact. An important question is what are better, more effective practices any industry could adapt to avoid habitat destruction during development. Do we really have to scrape all the land and destroy organisms to put up a relatively temporary installation? It would take many decades for that ecosystem to restore itself naturally.”

A third topic will be advancing the energy research portfolio and the role of the Permian Basin in the burgeoning hydrogen economy, Hastings said. “And what about geothermal in the Permian Basin? There’s also massive potential for carbon storage. (The consortium can study) does that carbon stay? What’s the best way to monitor it?” she continued.

“We’re also going to look at the potential for earnings revenue for landowners (who) devote some acreage for research and testing at scale, which the Permian Basin is uniquely positioned to do.”

She continued, “We’re intrigued by the idea of a living laboratory that allows us to build on scale. That will inform and drive the world. It’s not just oil and gas, it’s energy activity, positioning sites to be part of development of geothermal, hydrogen, carbon storage, direct air capture. We want to be a resource for all; we want to move forward in a positive way to advance energy for all.”

Hastings expects some companies will play a role in the new lab’s work. More importantly, she hopes to hear from the communities surrounding the efforts about what they see as challenges and opportunities.

“The burdens, benefits and opportunities that come our way should be equally shared so they’re not for the benefit of the few at the cost of everyone else,” she said.

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