The Energy University: UH’s Ambitious Plan to Wed Industry, Education, Research

October 2014, Vol. 241, No. 10

Erin Nelsen Parekh, Associate Editor

There’s no question why the University of Houston keeps a close eye on the energy business. “Energy is 50% of the economy in the greater Houston area,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer for the school.

Energy companies provide grants, hold seats on boards, employ graduates and cooperate with researchers. Many of those companies host large research organizations in their own right.

“Entry-level positions [in energy fields] can earn twice as much as almost any other major,” Krishnamoorti said. “Manufacturing may have traveled elsewhere, but the unique expertise in this discipline is still something the U.S. has maintained.”

Yet economics isn’t the sole impetus behind UH’s innovative approach to energy in a university context. The importance of the issues attracts academic ambition. “If you think about what the 10 grand challenges for humanity are for the next 50-100 years, energy, energy sustainability and the impact of energy production on life as we know it will define where we go,” Krishnamoorti said.
Ramanan Krishnamoorti
It’s the desire to be steering that course that drives UH’s efforts. Energy issues are a big, fascinating problem in which blue-chip academic behemoths have little advantage over an urban university in the South that achieved Tier One research recognition in 2011.

David Ramm, chair of the university’s President’s Energy Advisory Board and CEO of BrightSource Energy, Inc., said an institution’s decision to specialize in a field comes down to several factors. “Universities are in an interesting game. They try to think about what they can be really good at and cater to that and carve out a space.”

With location, experience, and an industry boom propelling it, UH has its sights set on becoming the Energy University.

The moniker is reasonably accurate. Of the 40,000 students enrolled, Krishnamoorti estimates 15,000 are pursuing energy-related studies. And the students in petroleum engineering, midstream focus, energy safety and subsea engineering programs are not the only people he wants to reach. “I’d like to be able to make sure that when any student graduates from the University of Houston, they would know enough about energy to actually have a good conversation about it.”

Ramm said the recognition of Houston as an energy capital feeds expectations that UH will be dominant in energy. “It’s a bit like having an elevator conversation. Somebody says, ‘University of Houston, what are you famous for?’ You say, ‘Oh, we’re the leading energy university in the world.’ That’s great as long as the elevator doors open, but you really need to think about what that means and how you put that into effect. The energy space is so broad that if you just say ‘energy’ you’re not able to execute on anything.”
David Ramm
Defining focal points within that broad space was crucial. So UH determined its platform would rest on three pillars: energy education, upstream and midstream activities and technology development.

There was also a question of organization. When Ramm joined the board four years ago, he received a long list of current energy-related programs. “My response was that it’s like a body with no head. There’s no brain to this thing,” he said.

The board was constructed to give feedback on existing programs and possible innovations to induce progress on the specific pillars of the program. In 2013 Krishnamoorti’s position, chief energy executive, was created to bring the programs into alignment.

A university insider, Krishnamoorti had 18 years’ experience on the faculty, most recently as chair of the chemical engineering department, and had successfully restarted the petroleum engineering degree program that ended during the bust of the ’80s.

The lack of cohesion in related programs UH experienced is a common problem in educational institutions, Krishnamoorti said, but it still hurts progress. “We got siloized. Silos don’t lead to great innovations or to providing value to our end customers.”
He reasoned that if different departments interacted more often, not only would the education provided to the students be enriched, but faculty would learn outside their subjects, increase their cooperation, and spark new ideas from their colleagues.

Krishnamoorti said oil and gas companies have solved the siloization problem, getting disparate specialists to communicate and work together toward a common goal. When a company makes decisions about how to produce resources from an unconventional shale reservoir, experts in geosciences, fracking, hydrology, regulatory policy and other areas must work together. Applying their knowledge toward a joint effort and learning from one another is a matter of routine, and it has resulted in improved processes and sometimes innovations in methods.

Unfortunately, in a university, this cross-pollination of information is more unusual, he said. Students concentrate in one area of the energy sciences, defined by academic discipline instead of by the jobs and practical problems in the field. Once employed, these graduates needed significant additional training to prepare for their real-life roles.
For graduates continuing in research and companies hungry for more advances, there was no rigorous research center applying technology, science, and familiarity with hybridized methods as practiced in the field.

To bridge the gaps between academics and commerce, the university relies on industry insight. The presidential advisory board consists of CEOs and presidents from Shell, ExxonMobil, CenterPoint, BP, Weatherford International and a host of other big players in the industry. Ramm explained that while the big names were not often all collected in a room for a brainstorming session, support on that level means that the university could contact execs directly for feedback on a specific issue, get access to the company’s human resources department and cooperate to fund projects of interest to both organizations.

“The board members are very senior people, but because they’re so senior they can open resources at their respective companies, and that’s been really important.” Ramm said.

Other industry advisers assist in specific areas. Tina Faraca, vice president for engineering and construction at Houston-based Spectra Energy, gives UH guidance on what her company looks for in graduates and how the university can encourage more women to enter the field.

Industry involvement is key, she said, to helping universities adjust to changing requirements. “It provides a perspective of what a business is really looking for when an engineer graduates. What are we teaching them in the schools? We want to better prepare students for success down the road.”

Faraca said Spectra has hired many UH engineering graduates and expects that to continue. “We do a lot of recruiting here.”

UH’s attention to industry needs has also resulted in options aside from traditional undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The school now offers 11 certificate programs that can be completed in a year, continuing education feasible for people who are working full time. “It’s the technical equivalent of the MBA,” Krishnamoorti explained. “Shorter-term programs provide a rapid turnaround.”

Right now, certificates are offered in construction management; piping technology; environment, energy and natural resource studies; petroleum technology; subsea engineering; and energy risk management, among others.

Pedagogically, the university is attempting to include more multi-disciplinary information within the same programs, rounding out students’ knowledge with the same kind of cooperation that allows industry experts to tackle complex problems. In some concentrations, faculty from several departments co-teach classes designed to present a holistic look at a real-world task instead of the intricacies of the related specialties.

The risk management certificate program, for instance, aims to train students to become inspectors and experts in health, safety and environmental work. Risk analysis experts from the business school, regulatory policy experts from the law school and psych department staff with expertise on personal protection equipment join with civil, chemical and petroleum engineering faculty to create a single curriculum. One class might have six instructors, all working from the same case studies.

For students, the results of this approach can be dramatic, especially when they produce credentials the labor-hungry industry hasn’t found elsewhere. Krishnamoorti cited the postgraduate subsea engineering program in particular.

“People take the first course in subsea engineering and when they finish that course, if they’re already working in the offshore energy world, they get a $20,000-25,000 increase in their salary. If they’ve not been working, they start to get jobs in the industry. Just one course, not a program, not a certificate or anything, they’ve done one course on flow assurance and the doors start to open. It’s remarkable how much the industry needs well-trained people. When we’re able to turn around and respond to what they need, the jobs come in.”

Nebolisa Egbunike, a student in the master’s subsea engineering program, praised its practical orientation. “Most of the professors who teach in the program are actually working, for FMC Technologies, KBR, NOV or Wood Group Kenny. It prepares you well for industry.”

Software programs used in class are the same ones engineers use in the field; the projects and numbers used for study are taken from real experiences.
“You come into class, get the tools, get the skills you need and then you’re pretty much ready for work, which is the ultimate goal for every student,” he said.

Living in Houston has also given Egbunike a leg up as he’s been able to meet people in the field at conferences and events while still studying. He credited a professor at UH who mentored him as he was getting his undergraduate degree with pointing him toward the subsea industry and helping him make connections. The density of oil and gas professionals in the area has meant that it has not been difficult to come across possible future colleagues.

He has found industry eager to build relationships, too. After attending conferences and seeing the demand for engineers educated in the subsea technology, Egbunike started the Subsea Engineering Society, a professional organization to promote networking, continuing education and raise the profile of the discipline. Thirteen companies are already involved and membership is up to 130 people.

Egbunike and other well-trained young engineers see plenty of opportunity in the near future. But even as the industry’s educational and recruiting efforts spin up into maximum production, it’s likely the cycle of boom and bust that led to this situation will repeat, Krishnamoorti said. Without the response to $10/barrel oil 20 and 30 years ago, there would no such ravenous demand for new workers today.

“During the ’80s and ’90s, many programs died an unnatural death in terms of enrollment because there was a public perception that oil was bad and energy was going to go into renewables, and that was going to be the way things were going to change,” Krishnamoorti explained.
The Texas Center for Clean Engines, Emissions and Fuels, at the University of Houston’s Energy Research Park, offers professional testing for industry; faculty members also conduct research there. Much of their work in recent years has centered on natural gas. Credit Cullen College of Engineering.
The crash took its toll on payrolls and suppressed recruiting and interest over a sustained period. Now that the tables have turned, the rush to catch up likely will most only end with the return of lean times.

The good news is that the next down cycle might not create the same chaos as the last one due to a different economic pattern emerging. “Oil prices have not gone down as much in the last 15 years or so,” Krishnamoorti noted. As supply and demand shift, commodity prices will fluctuate, but the relative changes aren’t as important as absolutes. “Perhaps there is a new paradigm in the energy industry with its cyclical nature. Maybe the cycle will go from $80 a barrel to $200 rather than $80 to $10.”

UH’s programs provide another benefit to students entering such an unpredictable industry, Krishnamoorti said: an academic education trains them for a lifetime of learning. That offers them flexibility to grow with the business.

And if the next down cycle is brought on by a backlash against oil and gas or carbon emissions? Ramm said, “The university is probably biased toward oil and gas, and because of the relevance of Houston to that industry, it probably makes good sense. But they’re also very determined to make sure that other interests are represented and there’s a very strong interest on campus for clean technology and renewable technology.” Ramm himself leads a solar energy company, with past experience in wind and fuel cell technology.

Although proponents of alternative energy and the oil and gas industry often see one another as enemies, Ramm said he sees “a healthy combination” of traditional and renewable research on campus. Students are also less divided on the issue.

“In our energy and sustainability minor program, many of our students are petroleum engineering majors,” Krishnamoorti said. “They are looking at [the state of the industry] and saying, we need to know about the sustainability aspect and be ready for it.” They expect standards and needs to change over the duration of their careers, and they expect to adapt.

“This is a vibrant environment,” Krishnamoorti said. “We’re changing the way people look at energy.”