For the past 25 years, I have had the opportunity to work on clean energy and clean air issues for Texas. Throughout this time, I have come to believe the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages about 90 percent of Texas’ grid, is the best grid operator in the country. In my opinion, ERCOT has implemented the most competitive electric marketplace in the country, while stabilizing utility costs and maintaining reliability.
And now, Texas is being presented with an opportunity to continue leading on electricity. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just released its historic final standards on carbon pollution from power plants, the Clean Power Plan, and Texas is well-positioned to comply. Not only that, the plan could actually be one of our state’s most effective tools for economic development and water planning.
I’m hopeful ERCOT and other involved Texas decision makers will recognize the clean energy trends already underway and seize the potential benefits within our reach through the Clean Power Plan – making the best decisions for our citizens and economy.
History shows environmental standards can catalyze innovation
When EPA introduced the federal, health-based standard for ozone, the vast refining and petrochemical sectors along the Houston Ship Channel faced a steep climb. Large industrial facilities had to significantly reduce their nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds emissions – an extraordinary challenge – in order to continue operating. Additionally, the standard required petrochemical and refining expansions and new facilities to completely offset increases in these emissions by a 10-20 percent margin.
Not surprisingly, a few business leaders boldly proclaimed that compliance with the ozone standard would cause petrochemical and refining facilities to shut down and relocate to foreign countries, resulting in the loss of thousands of Texas jobs. They were wrong.
Through research and development, and resulting technological innovation, these industries were not only able to meet the required reductions for existing operations, they achieved enough reductions to make room for substantial growth, including new plants and major expansions. And, of course, this growth created increased revenues. Today, the Gulf Coast remains one of the largest hubs for refining and petrochemicals in the world. New multi-billion dollar energy processing facilities continue to be built. Why? Because of ingenuity and technological innovation.
The Clean Power Plan presents a similar opportunity to lead
Now, we are again at a place where a national framework will push us to think about new and better ways to manage our energy system. Except when it comes to the Clean Power Plan, Texas is at a significant advantage: our state already has the tools and resources to cost-effectively reduce our carbon emissions from the electric power sector. We have an abundance of wind, sun, and natural gas – plus the transmission infrastructure to get them on the grid. We’ve barely begun to tap into the potential of resources that help households and businesses reduce their utility bills, like energy efficiency and demand response (a tool that rewards people for conserving energy during times of peak energy demand). Furthermore, Texas is in the midst of transitioning to a clean energy economy, meaning the market is already moving us in the right direction.
And there are many benefits to be realized through relatively minor improvements on current state policies. The Clean Power Plan will encourage the state to stimulate trends that are already underway, resulting in new jobs and improvements in public health. Plus, since renewable energy uses little to no water to operate, increasing clean energy will lead to incredible water savings in the power sector. This is especially important in Texas, where we have a history of drought and flood cycles, and some of our largest economic engines, like agriculture and cities, require huge amounts of water. Moreover, increasing clean energy will offset the need for coal imported from other states – making Texas more energy independent.
EPA has finalized the Clean Power Plan and it’s time to hit the ground running. Now we just need Texas leaders to embrace the same tools utilities and regulatory agencies are already using to improve the efficiency of our grid and reduce carbon emissions. By recognizing the opportunity at hand and tackling it head on through Texas-sized research, development, and innovation, the Lone Star state can meet and even exceed the targets of the plan. The ozone standard reminds us that we’ve used federal policy to spur innovation before, and we can do it again.
Embracing the new clean energy economy would allow ERCOT to remain the best grid operator in the country. Texas is already the national leader in producing oil and gas, and the Clean Power Plan can propel the state to becoming a world leader in all things clean energy as well – if our leaders do not delay or forfeit the opportunity.
Photo source: Flickr/Trey Ratcliffe