Selected tags: Energy Crunch

New Commissioner Should Push For More Energy Efficiency In Texas

 

This week the Texas Legislature convened for its third Special Session in a row, yet the state’s electricity market still sits at a crossroads.  The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), Texas’ governing body for electricity, has been at a stalemate since Commissioner Rolando Pablos stepped down in February.  The two remaining commissioners, Chairman Donna Nelson and Ken Anderson, seem to be waiting on a third deciding member to step up and address the looming Texas Energy Crunch.  With the PUC divided and the legislature nearly adjourned, the state looks to Governor Perry to appoint a third commissioner to the PUC—breaking the longstanding stalemate on Texas’ power supply.

When appointed, the new commissioner will be in unique position to champion innovative, common-sense solutions to solve the Texas Energy Crunch.  One of the most expedient and cost-effective ways to bolster the state’s electricity supply is to reduce the amount of energy needed to fuel our commercial buildings and homes through energy efficiency upgrades.  In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss innovative ways to weigh the benefits of energy efficiency upgrades versus new fossil-fueled power plants.  For now, though, let’s review where energy efficiency stands in Texas today.

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Switch Is Flipped In Webberville, Texas: 30 MW Of Solar Now Online

Driving through the bustle of downtown Austin, past the sleepy, revitalizing East Side, one reaches the pastures and prairie countryside of Travis County. It is on this thirteen mile trek, the smell of wood smoking BBQ wafting the air that you come to the village of Webberville.

While the settlement dates back to 1827, it is Webberville’s modern day activity that will put it on the map. Friday morning, SunEdison along with the mayor of Webberville, the City of Austin, and Austin Energy held the grand opening ceremony and ribbon cutting for the Webberville Solar Project. Webberville Mayor Hector Gonzales summed it up well, stating that today the “past shakes hands with the future.”

With its “rough reputation” dubbing it Hell’s Half Acre, Webberville now has 380 acres of solar generating power to add to its claim to fame. The 127, 728 panels will ultimately generate 30 MW of solar energy and will offset 1.6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide over the next 25 years.  The facility utilizes solar PV technology that is mounted on horizontal-axis trackers rotating in the East-West directions with the sun’s position in the sky to optimize electricity production.

All of this translates to producing enough electricity to power 5,000 average-size homes annually. The launch contributes to Austin Energy’s generation goal of 35% renewable energy by 2020 and creates green jobs for the area. “It is the largest active solar project of any public power utility in the country, the largest active project in Texas and among the largest of all operating solar projects in America.

If there are two things in Texas that we have plenty of, besides oil and gas, it’s sunshine and pride and we are proud to have this solar farm on our soil.

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ERCOT Reliability: “It’s Complicated”

This commentary was originally posted on the EDF Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.

It seems like only yesterday that ERCOT was issuing dire warnings of rolling blackouts as a direct result of regulations required by the court system to ensure cleaner, healthy air for Texans and our neighboring states.  Well, maybe not yesterday, but at least as recently as this month.  Buried deep within the report was ERCOT’s tacit acknowledgement that they have allowed companies to idle more than 1,000 MW of power plants because those plants are not economic in today’s hyper-competitive market.

Source: Texas Tribune

Of course, no announcement made as much news as Luminant’s claim that they were shutting down two of their Monticello lignite power plant units in response to EPA regulations.  Those claims have been pretty well debunked over the last few months as people began to realize that market economics and poor planning were responsible for Luminant’s decision.  As we discussed in September, it was as convenient for Luminant to blame the EPA as it was reflexive of Texas politicians and regulators to threaten rolling blackouts as a result of Luminant’s decision.  ERCOT’s decision to let other power plants shut down for economic reasons calls those claims into serious question, and their recent decision (password required) that idling the Monticello units at the heart of this debate  does not threaten system reliability will hopefully end this cycle of unfounded recrimination and backtracking.

As ERCOT has made clear, the real threats to system reliability are of our own making: market failures have lead to a lack of proper signals to encourage the building of new power capacity; and this year’s record breaking drought, made more extreme by climate change, has threatened to shut down more than 11,000 MW of power plants.  What all of this means is that ERCOT’s reliability issues are far more complicated than a political slogan, and getting rid of sensible regulations that protect our children, elderly and general population from real health risks will do nothing to solve our problems. 

Instead of focusing on the easy political score, our leaders should be looking for real solutions that don’t pose risks to human health or to our water supply.  The solutions are out there: dry-cooled power plants, energy efficiency programs like demand response, as well as wind, solar and other non-water consuming renewable energy. 

The most recent decision by ERCOT that idling Luminant’s power plants poses no threat to grid reliability should end the cycle of unfounded accusations for political gain.  It should focus our state leadership on solutions that will work instead of distractions that only delay solving the problem.  It should also serve as a signal to those who are all too ready to accept unfounded claims for the sake of a good story or a convenient target. When it comes to ERCOT and reliability, the issues are complicated, but the solutions are out there and it will take real focus and effort to prevent Texas from experiencing the same rolling blackouts we had last winter.  It’s winter again (even if it’s just barely starting to feel like it), and next summer looks to be another scorcher. We don’t have a lot of time, so let’s get to work.

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A Response To Attacks On Renewable Energy

Grover Norquist asks us to “rethink” renewable energy, and I think he may be right.  But we differ on the best way to do that.

He seems to think that Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and similar policies that level the playing field and create markets for renewable energy are “unfeasible,” as opposed to the current subsidies and rules that heavily favor fossil fuels.  In his op-ed, Norquist manages to wax poetic about free markets while dodging the billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuels and numerous impartial analyses that illustrate how renewable energy saves money for customers and adds much needed revenue to state budgets.

Obscuring the Facts
A recent analysis found that the five states with the highest amount of renewable energy (states that are encouraged by the policies Norquist asks us to rethink) have lower electric rates than the states with the least amounts of renewable energy.  In 2009 the Texas PUC declared that the state’s national leadership in wind energy, driven by their RPS, “has had the impact of lowering wholesale and retail prices of electricity."  The Texas State Comptroller said, “After the RPS was implemented, Texas wind corporations and utilities invested $1 billion in wind power, creating jobs, adding to the Texas Permanent School Fund and increasing the rural tax base.”

The story is similar in Colorado where, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the state’s RPS supported a total of 5,000-6,000 direct and indirect jobs, generating $7 million in state revenue and $4 million in leasing revenue for landowners who benefit from the policy.  Still, Norquist chooses to focus on a report – not yet released at the time of this writing – by the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative group founded by Republican politician Ray Shamie, to support some rather speculative claims.  

“Choose Your Own Free Market”
Much like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books, the fossil fuel industry would very much like to choose their own free market, one that gives fossil fuels an unfair advantage over all other resources.  Leaving the discussion there would simply perpetuate the junk science cycle that benefits the fossil fuel industry and their attempts to distract from the massive amounts of federal subsidies that these companies claim they need to continue operations.  A discussion on their terms would ignore the very real health impacts fossil fuel use has on infants, pregnant women, the elderly and the general population.   

Fossil fuel use directly impacts human health and we subsidize fossil fuels heavily through increasing health care costs and other expenses. A recent report from Harvard Medical School found that these unwitting subsidies cost us $345 billion annually in emergency room visits, health impacts, loss of life and loss of tourism income among other impacts.  A true free market is one in which industry takes responsibility for the costs it imposes on society.  In this sense, the fossil fuels industry has failed miserably.

Growing Faster Than the Rest of the Economy
While fossil fuels have increasingly clear health costs, the ways in which clean energy production helps the U.S. economy are becoming clearer as well.  According to a study from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, renewable energy jobs – and clean tech jobs in general – have grown at a much faster pace than the rest of the U.S. economy, driven largely by state policies like the RPS (the only exception being hydropower).  Solar jobs alone have doubled in the U.S. to 100,000 since 2009; many of these local installation and service jobs cannot be exported.  Last year alone, U.S. solar energy installations created a combined $6 billion in direct value, $4 billion of which was accrued to the U.S.  Furthermore, Jackie Roberts, Director of Sustainable Technologies at EDF, recently wrote that the U.S. was a significant net exporter of solar energy products when the entire value chain is accounted for, with total net exports of $2 billion in 2010.

A Non-Partisan Issue
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on Norquist’s part, but he certainly knows about renewable energy’s long history as a non-partisan issue – one where nationally recognized conservative Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback have publicly supported the same policies that Norquist decries.  Polls across the country show strong voter support for renewable energy, reaching across political ideology and party lines.  In fact, the most recent Republican President and the previous Governor of Texas created the most successful Renewable Portfolio Standard in the country and reportedly consider it one of their proudest achievements in Texas.  Speaking in Dallas last year at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual conference, former President Bush noted that “when we diversify our energy supply, we create jobs.”

Mr. Norquist asks us to rethink renewable energy, and I think he may be right. Recently, fossil fuel industry-funded attacks on renewable energy have grown, which makes me think they are beginning to feel the pressure from cleaner renewable energy with no fuel cost.  Pseudo scientific claims like those found in Norquist’s op-ed make front page news while the incredible growth rates of renewable energy projects and jobs in the U.S. barely make the back page, which leads me to believe that the media is more focused on reporting controversy than facts.  The public remains committed to clean energy, while public officials waver, seeking to catch the political wind.  All of this makes me think that we need to recommit to a cleaner energy future with less pollution, healthier children and more local jobs.

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