Letters to the Houston Community

Creating the Energy University

June 1, 2008

When the prospect of becoming the President of the University of Houston arose, I wondered what the city of Houston would be like, particularly regarding its status as a major energy center.  Houston is much more than I ever expected, and I’m quite impressed with this city.  However, many of Houston’s outstanding attributes are not particularly well known around the country.  I was therefore delighted to see the 2008 Kiplinger report rank Houston as the number one city in which to live, work and play.

 I have found the University of Houston to be similar.

It has many great attributes that are not well known.  We all recognize that every great city needs a great university.  My objective has been very clear with our students, faculty and community.  It is to take the University of Houston to the highest level of excellence so that its strengths shine and its contributions enhance this wonderful city.  That is the benefit of having a top-tier, national, public, research university in this community.

Almost half of Houston’s economic base is driven by energy, with more than 3,600 energy-related companies. All of the major oil and gas companies have operations here. The Houston region has almost 40,000 jobs just in oil and gas extraction representing approximately a third of these positions nationwide. The University of Houston is uniquely positioned to serve as the energy university.

I was pleased to see that efforts were already under way when I arrived to bring together the relevant colleges in pursuit of becoming a global energy university.  In my 100 days initiative earlier this spring, it became clear that we needed to elevate energy to a strategic priority for my leadership team.  I am forming UH Energy with a dedicated organization and structure that will drive UH to become a premier energy university during the next five years. Capitalizing on our location, I am asking the energy leaders of this city to join my energy advisory board to help guide us toward this vision.  These are leaders who recognize that this is a critical time for Houston to provide national leadership tackling the incredible energy challenges we face as a nation and as a world.  They recognize the integral role that the University of Houston must play for Houston to perpetuate itself as the Energy Capital in this 21st century.

But the 21st century faces a new world of energy scarcity as demand expectations exceed supply projections into the future as far as we can see. There are global concerns that burning fossil fuels is impacting our climate with potentially catastrophic results. We need to visualize how we want this energy world to look and then set about making that world a reality.

  • Imagine the day when consumers will not be looking at the price of gas daily!
  • Imagine the day when businesses will not have to close doors because of escalating energy prices!
  • Imagine the day when headlines no longer warn of global warming!
  • Imagine the day when millions of homes will not be dark because of power grid failure! 
  • Imagine the day when America will not have to depend on foreign oil!
That day will come only when Americans can count on energy being delivered from multiple sources (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, fossil fuels, and bio-fuels) and yet delivered in a manner that is seamless to the consumer.  The energy delivery system of the future will be sophisticated enough to extract power from the sun during the day then switch to wind at night, to efficiently store energy at remote locations and transmit it with low loss via superconductors.  Reaching such a dream not only requires new discoveries but also undertaking those discoveries in multiple areas and tying them together in a process that advances ideas from bench to the market in the shortest time and most cost-effective way possible.  It is with this dream and vision that the University of Houston is launching the UH Energy initiative.

Today, we know that energy can be derived from multiple sources: fossil fuels, water, wind, solar, nuclear, and bio-fuels to name a few.  While some sources are near peak production (oil), others are still somewhat cost-prohibitive (wind, solar) and/or regional, some have production processes that need to be optimized (oil shales, synthetics), and some (nuclear and bio) create social and environmental challenges (but may ultimately be more environmentally friendly). We need to undertake and understand various sources and various phases in their development in order to create the energy future of tomorrow.  

Any solution to our nation’s energy concerns must involve fossil fuels with a deep understanding of the environmental concerns related to climate change.  One of our major strategic themes involves Advancing Fossil Fuels.  The university recognizes the significant workforce need for petroleum engineers and is launching our new undergraduate petroleum engineering program this fall. One of the advantages of the UH program is that the curriculum is tailored to fit today’s world.  This curriculum is strengthened by access to talent and support from the energy industry right here in our city.   Our Cullen College of Engineering is also launching an on-line Masters in the Petroleum Engineering Program with energy partners around the globe.

It is inspiring to see faculty leaders in geology and geophysics from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics working together with the College of Engineering.  This partnership builds new capabilities in the exploration and development of hydrocarbons through the hiring of faculty into strategically focused clusters that address the educational and research needs of our energy community, our nation and our students.

We understand that a clean environment must be part of advancing fossil fuels.  Our air and water quality centers, diesel testing, and clean burning engine research all play a role in providing real world solutions.

The recent report by the National Petroleum Council brought home the clear message that conventional energy sources will not meet the world’s demand requirements generated by developing countries. Therefore, we are pursuing a second strategic theme of Driving Renewables and Alternatives. This led to the formation of the Lone Star Wind Alliance which involves more than 13 companies and 10 universities working together to assist the transformation of this historically important industry into a leading 21st century power source.  In addition to being the general manager of the Lone Star Wind Alliance, UH is increasing its own innovative research, economic development and commercialization in other areas of renewables such as solar power and fuel cells.

The solution to our energy challenges will not come from just increasing the supply side; we must find ways to be more energy efficient.  This has led to our third strategic theme of Promoting Energy Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. Our College of Architecture is a leader in the development of next-generation building materials, and the Center for Public Policy has undertaken studies to help understand how we can reduce residential demand for electricity right here in our Houston community.

Finally, we were a key partner in the genesis of the Greater Houston Partnership’s Energy Collaborative and continue to be deeply involved in leading this effort.  One of the industry’s most significant challenges is the development of its next generation skilled workforce.  We have more than 1,500 students involved in energy-related programs at all levels throughout the University.  Our collaboration will help yield the knowledge, training, and innovation needed to address the nation’s future energy needs.

The University of Houston is leading the way in energy research, education and collaboration aimed at solving the challenges we face very day.  Our commitment to you and to this city is to help perpetuate Houston as the Energy Capital of the World.

Renu Khator
President, University of Houston