When Joe Powell first heard about the chance to lead the University of Houston (UH)’s newly formed Energy Transition Institute, the former chief scientist for Shell saw it as a “dream opportunity.”

This from a man with a sterling resume: that includes a 33-year stint at Shell, dozens of patents and induction into the National Academy of Engineers. He’s also served as a consultant, adviser and as an industry lecturer at the university.

Joe Powell, University of Houston
(Source: University of Houston)

The UH institute’s focus areas—hydrogen, carbon management and circular plastics—aligned with his passions, he said.

“I thought this is something that I just can’t pass up in terms of next stage,” Powell said of the director position at Energy Transition Institute, where Shell is a sponsor. “I don’t call it retirement; I call it Phase 3.”

“Phase 3” comes at a time of transition for the entire energy sector.

Countries and companies are targeting net-zero emissions goals, portfolios are getting greener and Houston is looking to become the energy transition capital of the world.

Powell understands the skepticism of the oil and gas industry — it’s their livelihood. But he also sees the industry playing a pivotal role in the transition, agreeing with industry leaders who see responsibly sourced gas as essential for the future. And, for renewables, he said wind and solar aren’t the end game.

Powell spoke recently spoke with Hart Energy about his new role, the energy transition, opportunities for oil and gas and the potential to bring stakeholders together.

Velda Addison: As director of the institute, what do you hope to accomplish during your first year in each of the institute’s four key work streams: science, engineering and technology; policy and regulation; equity, diversity and justice; and workforce and talent?

Joe Powell: There’s a lot to accomplish. Fortunately, we have a lot of research programs already going on at the University of Houston in terms of hydrogen, from seawater electrolysis to pipeline coatings for the transport of hydrogen and other opportunities in direct air capture of CO2. We’ll be leveraging that opportunity and expanding those Tier 1 research programs. The student education and workforce development is also really key: looking at expanding courses like the hydrogen economy course into a broader set of energy coursework for the students and professionals continuing their education. We want to solidify training and make sure all UH graduates have an understanding and founding in energy, so they can connect with their careers, whether it be in communications or policy or social sciences or the sciences and engineering.

Then, the equity and the Justice 40 [Initiative for disadvantaged communities] aspect of things. The University of Houston is a minority-serving institute. When you look at the funding opportunities and aspirations coming out of the DOE [Department of Energy], front and center is making sure all stakeholders are engaged in the new energy and chemicals opportunities going forward. We need to transition Houston for future jobs in the area but do so in an equitable way. You can only do that effectively by having very strong community and stakeholder engagement. We’re working to create those opportunities at the University of Houston.

…Houston has an air quality attainment issue. The infrastructure is located in a lot of disadvantaged communities. We want to look at how to make that better via cleaner energy systems like hydrogen.

VA: What do you find most challenging about global ambitions to transition to cleaner forms of energy?

JP: The cleanest form of new energy now is direct electrification from wind and solar. Many people think, well, that’s it. Game over. We’ll just do wind and solar. It’s low cost and that’s all that’s needed. But what about the energy storage needed to make that available 24/7 and the higher power density that’s needed for industry, to fly a jumbo jet, etc.? There are very challenging problems out there in terms of how you take advantage of some of these new low-cost renewable resources and generate the types of energy density and power density needed to provide services that people expect.

Then, energy globally needs to grow about 50% by 2050. We have the developing world needing more access to energy, namely India and China and the like. So, fossil fuels—natural gas in particular—will play a large role in the transition. How do you optimize a system that has renewable resources, but also fossil resources that you want to make clean and more sustainable? How do you manage that going forward? I’m really big on a systems analysis and getting into the details of those problems and finding the best solutions.

VA: As the co-inventor of more than 125 patent applications, with more than 60 granted. It’s safe to say you’re a technology expert. Does the technology already exist to get the world to net-zero or near net-zero emissions by 2050? If not, where are the major technology gaps?

JP: The technology is there. The gaps are in the cost and how efficient they are. Research can improve further on cost and energy efficiency utilization. That’s why we continue to have the R&D programs in energy storage, and safe deployment of vectors like hydrogen is very important. Talking about carbon removal and direct air capture as a possibility and so many opportunities to become more efficient via research. We need to be moving on that today because today’s investment will be with us 30 years.

There’s a lot of good technologies that have been developed out there, from carbon capture and storage coming off of natural gas supply chains, using hydrogen as a clean vector in place of diesel to clean air in cities and use of the same for the industrial complexes. We need to get moving with the implementation of what we know how to do now, and we need to continue with the R&D to further drive down the costs.

VA: There has been much focus on hydrogen and its decarbonization abilities. You chaired the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee. What do you believe is crucial in growing a hydrogen market in the U.S. and abroad?

JP: That’s an excellent question. Always look at electrification first because that is low cost, instantaneous; wind and solar, that’s available. Then, look at where do you need to go beyond electricity. That’s where hydrogen comes into play. It is those situations where you need 24/7 access to energy and you need higher energy density applications. One of the most exciting opportunities is in heavy-duty transport. If you look at one of those larger Class 8 trucks that's bringing all those gifts that you ordered online over the holidays, you really need the higher energy and power density that hydrogen can provide above battery electrification in order to get the duty cycles and the range for that mode of transport that works most effectively. If you combine that with the fact that the vehicles are actually lighter weight and have simpler drive trains, the potential for lower maintenance costs, then you have a nice value proposition for hydrogen as a replacement for diesel. It also delivers clean air because no longer do you have to worry about particulate matter and ozone. You’re running off of fuel cells that are clean. So, that’s a really exciting value proposition when you look at that overall equation.

Similarly, then, for heavy industry like petrochemicals, there are many places where hydrogen can provide clean process heating and fuel to replace some of the imported natural gas in that application. Again, you have that higher energy density and power density needs. So, the DOE calls that Hydrogen at Scale. Houston is the perfect location for that because we have hydrogen production already. We have the heavy industry which knows how to manufacture, store and use it. We have the Port of Houston with all the transport modes that come into play. So, it's really an ideal location for a hydrogen hub to get to the economies of scale and make it affordable for all.

VA: A fair share of the oil and gas industry is either skeptical or openly hostile about the energy transition. How do you overcome that, particularly when the industry’s livelihood is tied to the commodities they produce?

JP: This is your livelihood. Many call this the energy addition era, and I say that’s part of the energy transition. The energy transition includes that need to globally supply 50% more energy. We need all of the above in order to be able to supply the increasing global demand for energy. We also need to do that in a cleaner and more sustainable manner. So, we’re looking at how do you make the fossil economy more sustainable and provide that growth in energy. Where is it appropriate to bring in the renewables with storage? How do you manage both of them cleanly?

Then, think about the value of exports, especially the chemical industry in the U.S. That’s one of the largest industries with a positive export market. It’s growing faster than GDP globally, and it’s hugely important to the U.S. and especially the Houston area economy. So, if you want to be exporting to Europe, you need to be paying attention to carbon footprints or you’re not going to be allowed into those markets. Another factor is the technology. We’ve developed a lot of the clean energy technologies here in the U.S., and we want to be exporting that knowhow and technology to be deployed elsewhere in the world. So, basically, you’re looking at economic activity and opportunities…to be a future player in those export markets and developing technologies. There’s tremendous economic opportunity there to leverage that knowhow.

VA: What opportunities, economic or from a social license perspective, do you think the oil and gas sector is missing out on if it rejects the energy transition?

JP: There’s a lot of ESG investing and a lot of incentives and regulation coming in globally and [to] markets to be accessed in that transition. It would be a huge mistake to not look at supplying all of those stakeholder needs. Some of them may be willing to pay a green premium. Others will be requiring it in their supply chains, either by market influence or by policies coming from outside of the U.S. and in some cases within the U.S., from California and elsewhere. Being able to serve all of those markets is extremely important.

I would point out things like responsibly sourced gas, looking at emissions/methane in the natural gas supply chain. Doubling down on being able to certify the carbon footprints of those products is just extremely important for this area in terms of being able to play into those global markets. And then also leading the way on carbon capture and storage. We have the most amenable environment and the best geology to lead the path to deployment of carbon capture and storage that can underpin these products and reduce carbon footprints. There are tremendous opportunities for the Houston area.

VA: Last year natural gas was added to the EU’s taxonomy for renewables. EQT Corp. CEO Toby Rice, among others, are proponents of natural gas as a low-carbon fuel for decades to come. Do you agree and how do you see natural gas fitting into the transition in general? Will it eventually need to be phased out?

JP: I agree, and I think the issue is how clean can you make it. We’ve talked about the responsibly sourced gas and doubling down on the methane leakage coming through those supply chains. But using the best technologies, those leakage rates can be managed and the greenhouse gas footprint can be quite low for natural gas. The opportunity is wide open to prove how clean natural gas can be. And then, have the transparency, so that it’s accepted globally in terms of how it is utilized and managed.

Also know that it is a great source of hydrogen. So, you can switch from natural gas to hydrogen. That gives natural gas, namely blue hydrogen, a long and sustainable future. It’s going to have to compete in cost and footprint with the green hydrogen opportunities. But there’s about a 50:50 investment in each if you look globally at this time. The opportunity is certainly there. So, I see great opportunity to be progressing in that space.

VA: How important are partnerships, such as those between industry, universities and governments, in the energy transition?

JP: They’re extremely important. Industry needs to look externally for those sources of new innovations. When you look at how we economically develop and deploy these technologies, industry can really be the voice and help with orchestrating those stakeholder engagements.

A university can be that honest broker and a trusted resource of the information and evaluations needed to make the credible sustainability arguments on future energy. That’s what we’re looking to do at the University of Houston, and get communities, the NGOs and industry involved. Let’s get the facts on the table, and find the most equitable and valuable solutions for all. That’s really where the Houston Energy Transition Institute will play the most significant role in bringing these stakeholders together.