U.S. markets open in 8 hours 47 minutes
  • S&P Futures

    4,215.50
    +5.75 (+0.14%)
     
  • Dow Futures

    33,340.00
    +36.00 (+0.11%)
     
  • Nasdaq Futures

    13,339.00
    +27.75 (+0.21%)
     
  • Russell 2000 Futures

    1,980.10
    +3.80 (+0.19%)
     
  • Crude Oil

    93.87
    -0.47 (-0.50%)
     
  • Gold

    1,807.30
    +0.10 (+0.01%)
     
  • Silver

    20.34
    -0.01 (-0.04%)
     
  • EUR/USD

    1.0319
    -0.0006 (-0.06%)
     
  • 10-Yr Bond

    2.8880
    -2.8880 (-100.00%)
     
  • Vix

    20.20
    -19.74 (-100.00%)
     
  • GBP/USD

    1.2190
    -0.0012 (-0.10%)
     
  • USD/JPY

    133.1850
    +0.1860 (+0.14%)
     
  • BTC-USD

    23,978.77
    -349.54 (-1.44%)
     
  • CMC Crypto 200

    570.05
    -4.69 (-0.82%)
     
  • FTSE 100

    7,465.91
    -41.20 (-0.55%)
     
  • Nikkei 225

    28,477.83
    +658.50 (+2.37%)
     

Will Louisiana lead energy transition or be left behind? Universities pivot programs to lead

·7 min read

As the world transitions away from burning planet-warming fossil fuels, two futures exist for Louisiana.

The state could use its experience in the oil and gas industry to get involved in the economic opportunities decarbonization presents, create more jobs and become a significant part of America's transition.

Or it could consider itself a fossil fuel sanctuary, fail to diversify its economy and see some of the heaviest job losses in the country by 2050, according to a 2021 Princeton study that outlines how America’s transition will impact different states.

Professors at some of the state’s largest universities – including those at schools that have been training fossil fuel workers for decades – are keen on making sure the former becomes a reality and the state doesn’t suffer from the world’s path to net zero.

“Louisiana needs to stop thinking of itself as an oil and gas state,” said Terrence Chambers, director of the University of Louisiana’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Center. “It needs to be an all-of-the-above energy state.”

Push for clean energy: Activists push against LNG plants, want renewable energy in southwest Louisiana

Many professors consider the Princeton report’s projections to be a warning of what could happen if the state tries to insulate itself from the transition.

There is reason to be optimistic about the state’s future: Louisiana is the only southern state to have a plan to be carbon neutral by mid-century.

Still, the transition will provide significant economic and technical challenges for Louisiana's workforce and infrastructure.

“You're going to see, at least from energy production, a slow transition out of fossil fuels, but it won't be immediate,” said Mark Zappi, executive director of UL's Energy Institute. “We have technical hurdles. We have infrastructure hurdles as we go through this electrification process. Our grid needs a lot of modernization.”

University programs at UL, LSU and Tulane are adjusting and adding curriculum in engineering, business and energy programs to reflect the challenges.

‘What happens? We’re a fossil-based university’

UL and LSU have been training Louisiana and other states’ fossil fuel workforce for decades through large, popular STEM programs. U.S. News and World Report lists LSU’s petroleum engineering program as the eighth best in the country.

“There were two talks on campus to the local professional societies, where the students and faculty asked, ‘What happens? We're a fossil-based university,’” said Alan Cohen, UL’s director of the office of innovation management. “How can we get into cleaner energy, renewable energy and how can we do that in a smooth transition?”

UL’s petroleum engineering and geoscience programs are working on new courses focused on subsurface storage that will be ready next year, and the university offers a unique systems engineering P.h.D program that Cohen said will prepare students for the transition.

Oil and gas will still be around for decades in Louisiana, meaning these programs won’t disappear anytime soon.

Fossil fuel job losses: 'Another blow': 7,500 Louisiana oil and gas jobs lost in pandemic, furthering industry's decline

Even if the country moves as quickly as possible to implement net-zero pathways by 2050, there will still be demand for oil and gas products through at least 2050, Chambers said.

Job demand for petroleum engineers is set to grow by 8% from now to 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think that as demand for oil and gas is reduced through 2050, the oil and gas companies will transition to focus increasingly on other related clean energy technologies, such as [carbon capture], hydrogen, offshore wind platforms and geothermal,” Chambers said. “As they make that shift, university petroleum engineering Departments will shift their emphasis as well.”

UL is also home to a 6-acre solar testing facility, and soon a 4,500-square-foot research lab that will be located next to the solar field, currently under construction.

Chambers believes solar has the potential to supply a third of Louisiana’s energy in the next five to 10 years. The sustainable form of energy, without considering storage, is cheaper than coal and cost-competitive with natural gas, Chambers said.

In 2019, just 1.8% of Louisiana’s power generation came from renewable energy.

While the state transitions to cleaner forms of energy, there's also the option to capture carbon dioxide at the source and store it deep underground before it can enter the atmosphere.

Louisiana has become the carbon capture hub of the South, with major project proposals across the state.

Carbon cap: How Louisiana became the carbon capture capital of the South with $6 billion in projects

The process, however, is expensive and needs more technological advancement to be deployed on a wide scale. In Louisiana, LSU is at the forefront of those efforts. The school's petroleum engineering program recently implemented a new concentration for students focused on carbon capture.

"Our first students will be graduating with that concentration this year. And that's the first one of its kind in the nation," said Samuel Bentley, LSU's vice president for research and economic development.

LSU received a $27 million donation from Shell in June to create a new "Institute for Energy Innovation" at the university.

An important step in making carbon capture viable for more companies instead of just a short-term solution for decarbonization is to use the captured carbon for other industrial processes instead of storing it underground.

“It's essential for both the state and the nation that the companies that have massive investments between here in New Orleans and between here and Lake Charles, that those companies succeed in making the energy transition,” Bentley said. “It's not about tree hugging. It's about basic economics and the future of the industry.”

And it isn’t just STEM programs shifting their curriculum. Tulane’s energy program, which falls under the university’s school of business, is adjusting courses to reflect the coming transition.

The university’s business school offers a master’s degree in management and energy.

Pierre Conner, director of Tulane’s Energy Institute, said that the program has added courses for students to learn how to finance and develop renewable energy and sustainable energy projects.

Conner said the program will continue to evolve as the market changes, like adding classes on the electrification of the transportation sector, for example.

The school’s energy program is also interested in getting the state involved in wind energy. Although the potential for wind energy generation off Louisiana’s coast is relatively low, building and maintaining offshore structures is within the state’s area of expertise.

“We were involved in development of the power structures for Block Island offshore Rhode Island and we want to make sure that local companies and our expertise can be involved in future expansion of offshore wind, whether it's on our doorstep or elsewhere,” Conner said.

The Princeton Study

Released in October 2021, a Princeton report outlined different pathways for the U.S. on its way to net-zero carbon emissions, including how each state would be impacted.

The study projects that decarbonization could result in Louisiana’s annual employment rate falling 40 percentage points by mid-century, a dire economic future for the state.

But many professors see the study as a warning of what would happen if the state doesn’t embrace decarbonization and get involved in the job opportunities it presents.

“If we try to insulate ourselves from the transition, we will suffer,” Conner said.

Professors also pointed out that the study was a broad economic projection that left out certain factors that will help the state weather the transition. Across universities, experts agree that Louisiana is in a unique position to get involved in every aspect of renewable energy, despite negative economic projections.

“Louisiana is deemed as one of the states that by 2050 is going to lose some economic edge, and I don't think that's true,” Zappi said. “I see a very bright future for Louisiana, I think Louisiana is going to lead this charge.”

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Louisiana universities set stage for state's energy transition