This commentary originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog.
As we thaw out this week from our most recent arctic blast, Texas’ inexperience with ice and snow has been met with Internet memes and jokes. But dealing with extreme temperatures causes serious strain on our current energy system and exacerbates our “energy crunch,” signifying that the available supply of electricity barely meets the demand for that power.
However, as is typical of Texas, last week our weather was quite pleasant – in the 70s – and strains on the system due to weather events weren’t too much of a concern. Yet the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state agency charged with managing the flow of electricity for most of Texas, alerted an emergency situation despite mild temperatures. To avert disaster, ERCOT initiated demand response, “ask[ing] customers to raise thermostat settings to 78 degrees, typically a summer response intended to reduce demand from air conditioners.” A single malfunctioning power plant caused the problem. ERCOT declined to identify the plant involved.
Much of this uncertainty and drama can be alleviated with demand response (DR), a novel approach to managing the grid system. Using smart power technology like smart thermostats, utilities can moderately adjust their customers’ energy use in real-time for a brief amount of time to meet the energy needs of all Texans. When energy demand is high, electric utilities can ask customers to voluntarily conserve energy in exchange for cost-savings and even payments. During the polar vortex earlier this month, CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal utility, saved about 77 megawatts (MW) of power through demand response programs – enough to power 32,725 homes. Texas isn’t the only place where demand response is taking hold. Read More
This commentary originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.
The Texas Comptroller, Susan Combs, recently released the Texas Water Report: Going Deeper for the Solution, which proposes a sort of revolution to solve Texas’ water woes. As Combs notes, Texas is a global energy leader, but the state should be a global water leader too. And her initiative couldn’t come fast enough. Texas, already prone to cycles of drought, is facing new water pressures, including population growth and a changing economy, which only make it harder to preserve our diminishing water supply. To rouse the state’s water recovery plan, the report prioritizes water-saving technological innovations (while stressing the need for conservation) and lauds various Texas cities for water management practices. But the report misses some key elements that are essential to keeping our water flowing. In the same way that new energy technologies have brought us closer to a cleaner, more reliable electric grid, innovations in the water arena can seamlessly reduce our water use and set the state on a sustainable path.
The report says conservation is not enough, and it’s right. However, efficiency is the most significant first step and conservation achieved through technology is a welcome counter to the infrastructure-heavy plans typically heard at the Capitol and in the State Water Plan. (What good is a new reservoir, if there’s no water to put in it?) Some of the technologies evaluated in the report include aquifer storage and recovery, inter-basin transfers, low-water fracking technologies and desalinization – what some call “game changers.” These technologies could potentially relieve our future water woes, but these projects are expensive and don’t alleviate our immediate or even mid-term water stresses. Read More
In an effort to gauge where America’s power grid stands, Washington D.C.-based group GridWise Alliance evaluated grid modernization in 41 states and the District of Columbia. Texas and California tied for first place—standing far above the next runner up.
So what makes Texas’ grid so special?
Texas restructured its electricity market in 1999, introducing competition into the retail electric market. The new competitive retail market gave most Texans a choice of electricity providers from dozens of companies, so these energy providers compete to offer the most advanced services. For example, Texans can opt for 100% renewable electricity from Green Mountain Energy.
Additionally, in an effort to update Texas’ electric grid, the Public Utility Commission, Texas’ governing body for electricity, passed a resolution prompting “wires companies”(the firms that deliver energy from power plants to homes and businesses) to invest in millions of smart meters. Smart meters can help eliminate huge waste in the energy system, reduce peak energy demand (rush hour on the electrical wires) and spur the adoption of clean, low-carbon energy resources, such as wind and solar power, by managing energy demand and generation more efficiently.
Over the past several weeks, I've written a lot about the intimate and inextricable connection between energy and water. The energy-water nexus involves a number of technologies, environmental factors and stakeholders. Thus, it’s no surprise that water and energy’s fundamental connection has eluded policymakers for so long. With this post, I review the lessons discussed so far, so that policymakers can understand the key issues surrounding the energy-water nexus and what’s at stake if we fail to act now.
The Bottom Line
Conventional electricity sources, like coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, require an abundance of water — about 190 billion gallons per day. Because the majority of our electricity comes from these sources, high energy use strains the water system and contributes to Texas’ prolonged drought. Coincidentally, extreme drought could force power plants to shut down.
Climate change is having a profound effect on our weather patterns, making extreme heat and drought more common in Texas and throughout the Southwest. If we don’t set the energy-water system on a sustainable course, we risk a compounded problem.
If you have been following our Texas Energy Crunch campaign over the last year, you know that demand response (DR) can play a pivotal role in meeting Texas’ energy needs without relying on dirty, inefficient fossil fuels that pollute our air and consume much-needed water. Simply put, demand response rewards those who reduce electricity use during peak (high energy demand) times, resulting in more money in peoples’ pockets, a more stable and reliable electric grid and less harmful pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
That said, fully harnessing DR in Texas homes has been a bit of a challenge, despite the high electricity prices that result from the scorching summer temperatures. To understand the issue, it’s important to look at the obstacles emerging technologies often face. I highlight some of these obstacles in a recent EDF Voices blog and will be diving deeper in future posts. Namely, the infrastructure to fully enable residential DR adoption isn’t in place, yet.
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.