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Episode 63: Project Z

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An SwRI project is advancing clean energy technologies by using the Institute as a test ground. The goal of Project Z is to make SwRI a zero-emissions campus. Thousands of research and development projects across 2 million square feet of offices, labs and facilities consume electricity on the megawatt (MW) scale. The campus is an ideal location to demonstrate and implement emissions-reducing solutions. What develops at SwRI can be expanded nationally and globally as government and commercial organizations strive to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the critical target year of 2050.

Listen now as SwRI Engineer and Project Manager Josh Schmitt discusses Project Z discoveries and possibilities.

Visit Decarbonization Technology Services to learn more about SwRI’s advanced research and solutions to lower carbon emissions.


Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.

Lisa Peña (LP): A new year and new topics to explore on the Technology Today podcast, we're jumping into 2024 with the creative, innovative Project Z, an initiative using the SwRI campus as a test ground for clean energy technologies. The Project Z team is bringing their a-game to examine zero emissions solutions. That's next on this episode of Technology Today.


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Happy New Year, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm Lisa Peña. We're kicking off the year with an important initiative known as Project Z. The Z stands for zero emissions. And what this project uncovers could help the United States reach critical emissions goals. SwRI researchers are evaluating the Institute's energy demand and using the campus as a test ground for clean energy technologies. Our guest today is Project Z project manager and SwRI engineer Josh Schmitt. Thanks for joining us, Josh.


Solar farm on SwRI grounds

SwRI hosts a solar farm on its grounds to assist the local utility company in studies of decarbonization technologies.

Josh Schmitt (JS): Thank you.

LP: All right, Josh, so let's start with an overview of this really innovative, creative project. What is Project Z. How do you describe it?

JS: Project z is taking a look at our campus power usage and examining what kinds of demand we have on the grid. Our current provider is CPS Energy, but we're taking a look at what it would take to generate power on site. And in the process of doing that, we want to make sure that we are reducing our footprints and reducing our emissions that come from power production. And so we're looking at all sorts of different technologies and how they would apply to us.

LP: So let's break that down a little bit further. So you're looking at the Institute's power demand. How are you doing that? How are you analyzing the trends here on campus?

JS: Yeah, so we have a substation that connects us to the grid. It's on the south side of campus. If you drive by that area, you'll see this big substation with power lines coming in. That is our primary feed. We have a few other feeds. And we were able to work with CPS Energy and get our meter data for many years past. So we have historical data on what we consume for power on a 15-minute time basis. We're able to characterize it and look at what was interesting, is we also had it pass through when there were shutdowns in the pandemic. And so also able to look at the impact there might be and where we think the power is being used, and stuff like that

LP: OK, so let's take it back to the beginning. Who came up with this idea to use the SwRI campus as a test ground? And how did it come to be?

JS: So this was the idea of Director Tim Allison, who is the director of the machinery department. And he wanted to take a look at our campus. He took the idea to Walt Downing through the R&D program to see if we could spend some time characterizing it, looking at some of the regulatory factors, looking at emerging technologies and how us as a research and development institution could come in and develop some of these technologies that need to be developed at our scales.

We think that this was a good opportunity to do it on our site because we're starting to see some requirements coming in in some commercial contracts that have emissions reductions requirements and also, in some of the larger federal programs, where, say, there was something that was coming up that was, say, an energy storage technology. We might have been required to already have a facility on campus. So since we don't have any sort of power generation on campus currently, this meant either we go try to find a commercial entity that may not be yet interested in that, or we just do it ourself. And we see an opportunity there to become a testbed for some of these larger systems.

LP: So how was that received initially? Was there some pushback?
SwRI's large-capacity liquid hydrogen tank

A large-capacity liquid hydrogen tank installed on the SwRI campus is expanding the Institute’s hydrogen energy research and development.

JS: It's been largely received well. I think a lot of people are interested in it. Renewable energy is cheap. It's just not always available. And so the lowering price tag is an incentive, for sure, because renewable energy does reduce your power. But since you can't always match up when the sun is shining to when you need the power, that starts become an interesting R&D issue around, how do you ensure reliability of the system so that power demand is met when you've got intermittent things like renewables? And what's cool about that is this is a problem that isn't just going to affect SwRI when we try to do it on our campus. This is a global problem that is always at the forefront of everybody's discussion around renewables, is how do you take something that you can't really control when it's happening and provide power when people need it? So even the research on our little test example is very useful to the broader community, the academic community, the industry. And I think we can have a lot of good publications from this because people are curious to see what happened when we analyze it.

LP: All right, so we're going to get into what strategies you're testing in a bit. And you did touch on this a little bit, but what is the motivation for exploring net zero emissions strategies? You said this is not just about SwRI. This is global. So what are you aiming to accomplish?

JS: Yeah, so traditional forms of generation do have emissions. There are externalities that come from those emissions. Since we're currently not a generator, all of those are the responsibility of our utility currently. But in our discussions with CPS Energy, they've got their eye on these technologies. They want to also reduce their emissions. And they have had tours and visits with us where we've shown off some of our current work. And they would like to see some of these emerging technologies become mainstream and become useful enough for a utility to rely on them and provide power reliably to others. 2035 comes up a lot in different target dates for people's emissions reductions. 2050 is a big one as well. And it just depends on how aggressive these companies are wanting to be with it. We've gotten inquiries of companies looking to do this not just for power, but also, industrial heat and other things. And these aggressive targets, currently it just doesn't seem like there's enough push for R&D to meet that demand. And so there's this big swelling of energy around trying to find the thing, the technology, whether it's a battery or electrified heat or hydrogen, that can actually even achieve this. Because it's just such a massive shift in the way things have been done for a while

LP: OK, so let's talk about this goal, to have a net zero emissions economy by 2050. What does that mean, and how do we get there?

JS: [CHUCKLES] It's kind of the big questions. I think how we get there is starting, for us specifically, putting renewables in the ground. There is a certain point where with how much power you use, you've put in enough renewables to cover a good chunk of that power. And just without having to worry about shifting power produced by renewables to the night, if it's the sun or something like that, you can do that at small enough amounts. But that'll only get you so far. And our research has shown that somewhere around 40% to 45% of your power that you need for the whole year could be provided by renewables before you start running into that mismatch issue. So I think just, if you're trying to hit 45% as quickly as possible, build out your renewables. And for us, the best thing is solar.

Now, solar, I mean, I don't have a good timeline on how long this is going to take. But these projects can't be too much more than a few years. So this year, we're planning to do our studies into what new power connections, what land and things like, that we're going to actually try to start building a solar farm on square campus. We already have solar that is it's not ours, though. But there is a solar farm that people know about that's south of Commerce, that's actually a CPS-owned facility. We own the land. CPS owns and operates the solar. We have some agreements with them to use some of that power and parts of it to do battery energy storage. So we've already got this history of studying things like lithium ion battery for power. I believe there's a Division III facility over there. But we're talking about going bigger than that and starting, I think, at the 5 megawatt scale of solar. And then, like I said, as we push that up and up and up, we will be getting to the need for things like storage, which battery is a commonly known one. But there are others. So pushing beyond that 45% deep into the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we'll definitely be needing batteries to do that or some other form of energy storage.
Josh Schmitt

SwRI Assistant Program Manager Josh Schmitt is leading Project Z, an initiative using the SwRI campus as a test ground for clean-energy technologies. Schmitt specializes in designing energy systems, turbomachinery, heat exchangers and energy storage technology.

LP: So OK, so let's recap this idea of net zero emissions. We've talked about it on the podcast before. Maybe some of our regular listeners might recall those episodes. But it's been a while, and everyone might still be a little bit in the holiday haze. So let's talk about what net zero emissions means and why it's so important.

JS: Yeah, Net Zero means that, for the power you use, the amount of emissions that were emitted into the actual gets into the atmosphere is neutral. There is some true zero initiatives out there for people who don't want to produce any carbon at all from their power use. This is not going for that, because we do want to leave carbon capture as an option. So carbon capture is a good example for Net Zero. Net zero, if you produce power from the sun with solar, that's easy. There's no emissions from solar. But if you are burning fuels, and that carbon is coming out of the back end of your engine, in order to make sure that your net zero, you need to capture as much carbon that's coming out the back end as went in the front end to inject the fuel. So net zero in that case means the carbon that came in is balanced with the carbon that goes into storage, disposal, and is prevented from going into the atmosphere.

LP: What makes Southwest Research Institute an ideal test bed for zero emissions technology?

JS: Because that's what SwRI likes to do, is take these ideas and concepts that are proven maybe in a lab or a university or at a small scale and bring them into a much larger scale that can be useful to industry and utilities, and things like that. So we see ourselves especially for me being a power generation as this area I work in, we've always seen ourselves as the bridge between the small scale and the big scale at SwRI. One of the reasons we think this is a good fit for us is we've seen these opportunities come in that are federally-funded grants. They call them demonstrations. So usually, they have a cost-share requirement in them. But if we work with a company that has this idea, is willing to help pay for the demonstration of it at a scale that affects that is about what we want to be, which but we're able to say about how much power we use. It's between 10 and 20 megawatts of power. So a utility is often 100 megawatts or more, so a scale of 10 to 5 more than what we use. However, 10 to 20 megawatts is not easy to do on its own. And so since we have more experience at that scale, we can help them show off the technology, prove that it works, get hours running that technology, and then it will be ready to go to the utility and say, hey, for our first utility scale thing, we've got all this data from SwRI that can help us run it for you. And that's where we see our role there.

LP: So I wanted to pull up so I wanted to mention that there was a Project Z article in the Summer 2023 Technology Today magazine, which is the sister magazine to this podcast. So we did get into how much research we as an Institute conduct. So Southwest Research Institute conducts more than 4,000 research and development projects every year in more than 2 million square feet of offices, laboratories, and special facilities here at the San Antonio campus. So you mentioned this research is consuming 10 to 20 megawatts.

JS: We're more like 120,000 megawatt hours per year.

LP: 120,000 megawatt hours per year.
Technology Today Summer 2023 magazine cover

Read more about Project Z and other SwRI sustainability and decarbonization initiatives in the Summer 2023 Technology Today magazine, the Green Issue.

JS: Megawatt hours per year. How that profile goes is in the summer, we get as high as we need 20 megawatts all at once. That's our max power requirement. And then in the winter, it comes down, and it gets closer to 10. And that's the boundaries we play between.

LP: All right, so that's a significant amount of power to use as your research, your test ground. Can you put megawatt into perspective for us? How much electricity is a megawatt?

JS: Yeah, it is a little hard to wrap your head around. Homes use a decent amount of power that's in the kilowatt scale. I think what we said was 1 megawatt is about 750 homes, running their AC at once. Because AC is the biggest thing a home does. I also thought of a few others. Because we like our fast cars. I think at Tesla Model 3 and this goes to the testament of how much power is running through those things, is you would have those accelerating at max speed, max power output of their car, you would have about four of those or maybe three F-150 Lightnings, the electric truck. Just pedal to the metal, full power, that's what they're putting out.

LP: That's a megawatt.

JS: It's a megawatt, yeah.

LP: OK, that's a great picture for us to understand the amount of power we're talking about. So this is beyond a family home.

JS: That's one. And then we do 10 on a winter. And that's low for us. And then 20 is our max in the summer of those.

LP: All right, OK, so we're using a lot of power here at Southwest Research Institute to conduct our research and development work. And why not use this Institute as a testbed to find better ways to power our work? So I think that is a really smart way to conduct research, especially in this area. So tell us about developing what you're calling a flexible, configurable analysis tool for Project Z. What is that tool? And how does it work?

JS: Yeah, so we used Python code to develop this tool. The idea was, is since we have all this data, and there's a profile of data, that power we need, and then there's the profile of potential solar energy coming in. And then maybe that solar energy doesn't match. We need to take all these different profiles, mash them together, and try to figure out how to meet our demand perfectly. Because that's the goal. Our goal here is to create a system that we don't even think about. I mean, the people who will operate it will because we will need people to operate some of these systems. But in general, all the people running it won't really notice a big you're doing your day to day at Southwest Research Institute. You won't notice the fact that we're different from the utility. Because we expect the utility to always provide us power when we ask for it.

So we use this flexible tool to make sure that the systems that we're designing around can meet those power demands. And then that's when you start getting that point where you start building more solar than you need. Because like I said, you only get about 45% with just solar. So you start building more solar that, well, there's too much sun during the middle of the day. But we need that power at a different time of the day, and we start charging our batteries. So this flexible tool can plug in these different system types and start telling you, OK, we turned on the battery to soak up some solar, so that we could have the battery provide us power later in the day.

So it does all those flexible calculations, including, like I said, mixing in fossil generation with carbon capture. So that's also one of the pieces that can be plugged in. And you can plug in as many of those pieces as you want to this tool, and it will tell you, OK, this is how much that one operated. This is how much the other one operated. And you can start to build what was really an important, ultimate goal, and it's built into the tool, is a cost estimate. What does it take to build? What does it take to operate? If you spread out or do the proper accounting on how much you spend to build this thing, at the beginning, did you make your money back over the 30-year life of it, doing stuff that accounting departments are typically used to seeing, to help make decisions as, is it worth investing in this particular piece of technology? And that really helps the executives and other people decide, do we move forward with this one? Or do we move forward with that one?

LP: OK, and I'm interested to find out, what technology is getting ahead here with the help of that tool? But first, let's talk about the strategies that are being tested. You have touched on solar and some others. But let's really dive into them. What net zero emissions technologies are being tested here?

JS: So we did look briefly into wind and things like that. We have some height limitations for our campus, so those didn't really work out. So in terms of making power on campus from a renewable source, the sun with photovoltaic, is the name of the particular type of solar. This is the type of solar you see on people's houses, usually. That field south of Commerce that CPS owns is photovoltaic as well. There's other flavors of that. But again, they wouldn't work too well. So best option for us, it's affordable. It's reliable. And like I said, it'll get you to a certain point. I mean, getting to close to half of your emissions taken out by just installing a bunch of those is great. And we should do that.

So then after that point, you can do lithium ion battery. And there's a few other technologies I'm actually project manager on. I'm working with some commercial entities that are developing these that are thermal-based storage, where you get something really hot, and you store that heat. And then you can use that heat to run a heat engine, which is just an engineer way of saying anything that uses heat to produce power, like a gas turbine or piston genset or some of these other varieties of engine. But basically, the storage happens by making the heat. And then the production of power comes by using that heat when you need it. And then carbon capture is an interesting one because we already can get fuels. There's plenty of fuels out there.

So the trick is, once the fuel burns and the carbon is produced, how do we get that out of the air? So there's various different technologies to get that out of the exhaust coming off the engine. And we do think we will need those to be part of our mix. Because the nice thing about carbon capture technologies is it's not charging like a battery does. It is on demand whenever you need it, and it really is the best solution for the winter, when the sun hasn't been shining as much. You may have noticed the days are pretty short in the winter, so that resource is shrinking. You're trying to charge your batteries, but maybe you're just not getting enough energy out of it.

Burn a fuel. Make sure the carbon is not emitted from that fuel. It's a bit of a cost, but that's usually offset. The government now is offering carbon capture credits for making sure that the carbon that comes out of your fuel you're burning does not go into the air. So that is also a system that we think could be part of this mix. And that system being in there could be the ultimate path to true net zero. Because just trying to get solar to be big enough, with a big enough battery and doing all those things, it gets you so close to 100. I mean, you're in the 90% to 95% of your carbon emissions to zero. But that last 5%, it's tough. It's because the winters, you don't you just don't get enough sun, that you're trying to get that sun to do the work for you. And if you can just run a system, but make sure that system is decarbonized and not emitting its carbon, that's the way to get to zero.

LP: OK, are we're also looking at hydrogen solutions?v JS: Correct. Hydrogen is an interesting one because it can be a fuel. So all these things I was saying about fuels, it has that advantage. So if we really wanted to, we could buy it from someone else. The problem is it's much more expensive than natural gas and carbonized fuels, partly because these fuels with carbon in them have been the standard for so long. So it's possible. It's a bit more of a risky play because it's possible that hydrogen will become the new standard, and it'll go down in price as more people start to use it. We can also make it on site if we want to, and that's usually done with electrolysis. We would take the solar energy and run it through an electrolyzer that splits water.

So water has hydrogen and oxygen in it. And with enough power, you can pull those two molecules apart and make hydrogen gas and oxygen gas and then store that hydrogen gas and use it in your power-generating engine. And it's clean. It burns clean. There's no CO2 in it because there's no carbon. So you just get water out the back end. You could also do it with fuel cells. We have fuel cell research on campus. I think it's a little more automotive, fuel cell car focused. But it can be done at a large enough scale, where you're producing campus power through a fuel cell, which, again, very similar result as burning the hydrogen. But it's a little bit more like a reverse battery, where the hydrogen and oxygen are come back together, and you get electric out and water out. And that's it. There's no carbon emissions from hydrogen.

LP: OK, a lot of tools here being studied. So you mentioned solar, battery, thermal-based, carbon capture, hydrogen, so many things to look at. What phase is the research in now? Am I going to be recording this podcast with zero emissions soon? Will this be a 0 emissions podcast at some point?

JS: Yeah, I wish.


JS: The road to zero emissions is going to be kind of a long one. I mean, people have got these goals for 2035 and 2050. The current work right now, like I said, is to do our first engineering study of solar being installed for campus. And so if you wanted, say, not that you're a zero emission podcast, but a 50% emission podcast, we may actually be there fairly soon...

LP: Oh, I like that.

JS: the next few years. The full zero part of our strategy is to be an R&D house. So some of these technologies that aren't ready yet, we're going to be proving out. And so getting to full zero is a little dependent on our own skill, right? How good are we at bringing these technologies into a reality? So it's kind of an open question. I mean, we'd hope to try to meet some of these timelines that the big organizations and governments are putting out, like 2050. I think that would be great. But hopefully, hopefully we can keep things rolling.

LP: So I record here on campus. So however the campus is powered is how the podcast is powered. So that'll be neat to see where we're at in a few years or down the road. But do you know yet what's working, what's not working? With all these strategies, juggling all these strategies and looking at all the data coming in, do you know yet who I know you mentioned solar. That's the big standout. But are there others?

JS: Yeah. I do think wind is a good option. It just depends where the wind is, and that's not great for San Antonio. I mean, there's a few windy days, but you hope for more than a few. There's one that's out there that I haven't mentioned yet, called geothermal. And what that is you send something down into the ground to get it warmed up, brings back the heat out of the ground. It's usually steam. Usually, you send water down there. It makes steam, and then you use that steam to run your engines.

LP: And what are the standouts for SwRI, in particular? What are the best ways to power the campus?

JS: I think solar is a great one. I think in all of the above approach is actually great. We talked about carbon capture. Geothermal would be a good one that would slot in, the way carbon capture does. And energy storage, we have a lot of research already on grid scale batteries. So working with those teams that have already been studying what it means to have a battery as an actual way to suck up some extra solar power to provide it at a different time of the day would be great. And there's other options. There's a lot of new market-type options, like thermal energy storage, as I mentioned before, that are promising to be cheaper as well. So what we're hoping is, part of this R&D, we get a system that we can use ourselves. Because a lot of the time, we build a system for someone and hand it over, and they take it off somewhere else. So we're also making sure we're building partnerships where they might be interested in us being that permanent home for that system.

LP: OK, so the last phase of Project Z wrapped up in early December 2023. But Project Z is ongoing. So you're still tracking the power usage of the Institute through 2024. And then you're wanting to install more solar. What do you want to accomplish long term, maybe a Project Z pilot plant of some sort or beyond that?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. I think the long term is, once you've got the space set aside for the solar and things like that, leave some room there for a facility. You start building in things like storage, things like carbon capture, that will ultimately, do our planning right, get us to zero.

LP: I mean, that would just be really amazing, to see the campus as this model for net zero emissions. So I know you're not sure of the timeline, but what's your goal for something like that to happen?

JS: Well, I do think 2050 is a good goal. I mean, that seems a bit far out at this point because it's 25 years from now. But especially some of these things, to get that like I mentioned, 45 may happen quick. 80% to 90% may come fairly quickly after that and the 20/40 range. But getting that last zero, getting all those little bits dotted and making sure you're true net zero may end up taking that long.

LP: It takes a little bit more time.

JS: We could be. We could be. But we're happy to share every milestone and make sure everybody knows how far we've gotten.

LP: All right, we'll be watching. So on a personal note, what do you enjoy about this project and your work, of working towards zero emissions?

JS: For me, the challenge and the thing that makes me so interested in it is just the cutting edge. I mean, we're figuring out stuff that everybody's asking questions about. So I appreciate being on this podcast. But I'll go to a conference. I'll present some of the stuff we've worked on, and it really does make a good conversation starter and a way to open up new business opportunities. Because we're seeing all sorts of companies focused on transitioning into this way of thinking, of how do we make ourselves net zero? And they're just very eager and curious to see what we found. So I think it's great the attention it's getting and the conversations it starts.

LP: So I imagine this isn't the kind of work you can just leave at the office, I would think you can recognize opportunities to cut emissions often. So are you identifying and implementing greener ways to live day to day?

JS: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Because when I was commuting into the office, I actually had already done my own path to zero type thing. I have an electric bike, and I was commuting with that. So I would come into campus through my electric bike. And I think I put over 3,000 miles on it. And I think about that now. I don't use it quite as much as I used to, but I still do use it. But especially for commuting, like man, that's 3,000 that would have been on my car, and I did it with my bike.

LP: So is that like a motorcycle? Or is that like a car you just charge in your garage?

JS: I don't like it being compared to these, because people probably have a bad but you know the rental bikes they have downtown with the battery on it?

LP: Ah, yeah.

JS: It's like my own version of that.

LP: Oh, OK.

JS: I don't leave it lying around on everybody's yard.

LP: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Yeah, like you see them downtown everywhere.

JS: My personal battery-powered electricity power.

LP: It's like a scooter, or you actually sit on it and pedal?

JS: Mine's more like a bike. So it has a bike seat and stuff like that.

LP: That's so cool. OK, so an electric bike. That's neat. So it sounds like you really care about this, that you're passionate about it. Would you say that?

JS: Yes, definitely.

LP: Yeah. Do you have any tips for our listeners? I always like to ask about becoming greener or living greener.

JS: Sure. I mean, yeah, that's a big question. And I think very broadly, just paying attention to your habits. I know it's hard, especially in the summer, and everybody's cranked their AC up because there's no other choice. But maybe look at some of those other times of the year, and it's like, did I really need to run that? Or could I have left the windows open? Or the hot water heaters are a big source of electricity. So either buying a more efficient one or just paying attention to your hot water usage at your home, there's a few small things like that. I mean, not everybody's going to want to jump into an electric car. But if you can, I do recommend electric cars as a big way to offset.

LP: All right, well, thank you so much for your insight today, Josh. So this project is such a strong example of what SwRI is known for, the innovation, collaboration, and solutions that benefit humanity. And I'm looking forward to more Project Z discoveries. And I want to let our listeners know, you can read more about Project Z and other SwRI sustainability and decarbonization initiatives in the Summer 2023 Technology Today magazine, the Green Issue. We'll leave a link on the episode 63 web page. So thank you for being here today, Josh.

JS: Thank you.

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Ian McKinney and Bryan Ortiz are the podcast audio engineers and editors. And sometimes, co-host. I am producer and host, Lisa Peña.

Thanks for listening.


Decarbonization refers to the widespread adoption of solutions that contribute to a carbon-neutral society. Southwest Research Institute offers advanced science and applied technology that aid in lowering carbon emissions through development of decarbonization technology, including energy storage, carbon capture, and hydrogen combustion and compression.