George Mitchell’s foundation aims to usher in a new energy era in the Permian Basin

George Mitchell, who died in 2013, pioneered the hydraulic fracturing techniques that unlocked Permian shale and its oil-producing potential. His foundation now aims to eliminate barriers slowing the development of advanced energy technologies in the region and unlock the Permian’s potential to unleash a new era in lower-carbon energy. 

The initiative, called the Permian Energy Development Laboratory, unites a group of research institutions to tackle questions such as whether hydrogen can truly be a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, where to site large-scale solar projects, and how the region’s vast amounts of natural gas, wind and solar can be deployed in an emerging clean hydrogen economy. Research institutions involved in the initiative include the University of Texas, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Houston Advanced Research Center, Midland College, Odessa College, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech.

The potential for the Permian to now be a global leader in emerging clean energy sources, including geothermal, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage is as vast as the geography itself, said Marilu Hastings, the foundation’s executive vice president, and a Midland native. 

“If we look out several decades, what does it mean for the Permian’s residents if we don’t take up this opportunity?” she said. “We look at this program as a way to study and to increase the awareness of the other types of energy resources that the Permian already has.” 

The roughly $400 million foundation has invested $6 million to soft-launch the program, Hastings said. It will need financial partners to do the type of costly research and development that the foundation envisions. 

“That will require industry investment and probably federal government investment,” she said, “and we’re working on some of that currently.”

Interest in the initiative, known as PEDL, is high, Hastings said, because of what the Permian can offer in the transition to cleaner forms of energy: plenty of land for large-scale experimentation, a skilled workforce and some of the country's best energy research minds.

The open land was one of the factors that made Odessa the perfect place for a solar panel recycling factory launched last year by SolarCycle, according to co-founder Jesse Simons. The company needs space to test aging solar panels for signs of life and for its factory, which dismantles unusable panels and mines them for minerals needed to make new ones.

Simons said SolarCycle signed onto the initiative as an early industry partner because it helps the company stay connected politically and with other companies in the region. The initiative has already helped him connect with companies developing green hydrogen projects, which need large amounts of solar energy, he said. “We’re able to sell them second-life panels at half the price” of new ones, he said. 

Moving energy forward requires testing new technologies at large scale, which is difficult to do in urban settings, said Brian Korgel, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and a core member of PEDL. Through the initiative, Korgel said he wanted to help tackle research questions such as how to develop the next generation of electrolyzers needed for clean hydrogen production and how to transport hydrogen around Texas. Does it make sense to make hydrogen in the inland Permian Basin or along the Gulf Coast? 

The answers to these questions might reshape the Permian, he said. 

"The Permian itself is going to be transitioning in terms of what the future of energy production is going to look like," Korgel said. "From a University of Texas perspective, the Permian Basin is really important for us." 

This story by Amanda Drane originally appeared in the April 4, 2023 edition of the Houston Chronicle.

< Go Back

© 2012-2024 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.