Monthly Archives: April 2010

New Carbon Sequestration Critique Disputed by Scientific Community

By Tim O’Connor, Attorney / Climate Policy Analyst

A recent issue of the UK Guardian has brought to the forefront the findings of paper published in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering.[1] This paper, purporting to call into question the ability of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology to serve as a solution for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is making waves in the scientific and climate change policy communities. Titled “Sequestering carbon dioxide in a closed underground volume,” the article suggests CCS is not a viable solution to the current problem of these emissions from fossil fuel power plants, an assertion flying in the face of accepted wisdom on the subject to date.[2]

Published by perhaps the only Texas-based husband and wife team specializing in petroleum and chemical engineering, Christine Ehlig-Economides and Michael Economides, the journal article has resulted in a significant amount of consternation[3] in the scientific community and an unfortunate level of attention by news outlets looking for a reason (scientifically supportable or otherwise) to undermine CCS as a bridge technology for greenhouse gas mitigation.[4] Read More »

Posted in General / Read 92 Responses

Tenaska Coal Plant to Usher in New Era of Carbon Capture and Storage, Water Conservation

You’ve heard us say before that we are not champions of coal, but we are realists.

Realists can also be idealists. We still want the same things – cleaner air and water, and clean, sustainable energy – and yet we know that the transition away from fossil fuels as a major energy source will take some time and require interim collaborative solutions.

We seek solutions that will work until the day comes that all energy is clean and non-polluting. So it is, that today we agreed not to oppose the Tenaska power plant in Sweetwater, Texas.  Read More »

Posted in Texas / Read 11 Responses

Barnett Shale gas producers caught with their hands in the cookie jar

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Mike Norman wrote an excellent piece that shines a spotlight on industry tactics evident at the meeting of a committee advising the City of Fort Worth on a study to better characterize the emissions from natural gas production in the city. 

I happen to serve on that committee, and here is my take on this week’s events. 

The City of Fort Worth wants to conduct a study to obtain much-needed data on the actual emissions from gas drilling and production taking place in the city. Getting accurate and representative measurements of air emissions from an industry with more than 1,200 actively producing wells in the city (and 500 more already permitted) will be a challenging and costly undertaking. Read More »

Posted in Natural Gas, Texas / Read 13 Responses

Update: New Estimates and Insights into Renewable Energy’s Cost-Saving Potential

A couple of weeks ago I posted what I had intended to be a pretty innocuous quick discussion about new numbers from Austin Energy showing that renewable energy investments have saved Austinites a significant amount of money.  I was pretty surprised (and flattered) at all of the thoughtful responses.

Most flattering was a comment from Ross Baldick, even if he took issue with my post. Ross Baldick, though he didn’t mention it in his comment, is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UT and gives a class at ERCOT on the economics of locational marginal pricing. (You might think it sad that a comment from Dr. Baldick is the highlight of my blogging career, but I make no apologies for being an energy geek.)

He pushed me to consider an additional scenario about how the mix of wind, coal, and natural gas affects Austin’s energy costs.

Wind energy is starting to impact coal plants
That Dr. Baldick had taken the time to read and respond to my post was great, but I was more than a little disheartened that he felt my comparison of wind offsetting gas was misleading. I have heard him speak a number of times and taken his ERCOT class (which I highly recommend – he really knows what he’s talking about). One of the things Dr. Baldick has been talking about for some time is his research showing that wind prices have driven ERCOT clearing prices very low and will continue to do so, and why that makes new “baseload power” like coal plants a bad investment.

During our discussion, it became clear that our differences are less in the numbers than the short and (admittedly) simplified discussion around the numbers I presented. Dr. Baldick pointed out that although historically in Texas wind power has primarily offset gas, as I assumed in my original post, wind is beginning to impact coal as well.  It wasn’t until my conversations with Dr. Baldick and his colleague Dr. Webber, who heads up the Webber Energy Group, that I began to realize how just how much coal Austin Energy might be avoiding by using wind energy.

Dr. Baldick has been studying the growing amount of coal power being replaced by wind energy for some time; a presentation based on his studies finds that any investment in new coal plants is financially unsound primarily because of wind energy driving clearing prices down. Leading the way, Austin Energy has stated that they have begun to use wind energy to offset its coal plant when it makes good business sense to do so.

A more detailed analysis accounts for replacing coal power, not just natural gas

Because utilities don’t provide the kind of hourly data needed to study this stuff thoroughly, I decided that the simplest approach would be to look at a scenario where wind offsets coal 50% of the time and gas 50 % of the time. Everyone that I’ve talked to about this agrees that the amount of coal power currently replaced is much lower than that, so this provides us with a good conservative floor for how much Austin Energy is saving. Now we can look at two scenarios: one from my original blog post (in which 100% of wind energy is used to offset gas) and this new scenario, which I’ll call “high coal.”

These two scenarios give a kind of “sensitivity analysis” or an idea of the range of impacts that Austin Energy’s investment in wind energy has had over the past two years. I originally estimated that wind energy has saved Austinites almost $50 million over the last 2 years.  The “high coal” scenario shows smaller but still substantial savings of almost $10 million dollars for Austinites over two years. Still, this is making the best of a very limited dataset, and it would be very interesting to see ERCOT follow up on its wind studies to see how wind is impacting different generation resources.

It’s important to note that these two years represent a sort of “sensitivity” on gas prices as well, since the highest gas prices in history were in 2008 and lowest gas prices in the past 8 years were seen in 2009, and are likely the lowest prices in the foreseeable future.  That fact also highlights an important benefit of renewable energy to a utility: providing a hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices. As natural gas prices and market purchases recover to more sustainable levels, Austin Energy will be saving money through their long term contracts with wind generators.

In any case, investment in renewable energy is a key cost-saving measure

To the extent that Austin Energy uses wind to offset coal generation those savings will be somewhat less for the time being, as the tables from my last post demonstrate.  Dr. Baldick was quick to point out in our discussion that this is in large part due to the fact that CO2 emissions from power plants have not been properly priced yet.  Not for long, though: at the beginning of this month the EPA took the first step by regulating greenhouse gasses from light duty vehicles as required by the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision.  This sets the stage for the EPA to begin regulating power plants, which they plan to start in 2011.

Whether greenhouse gas regulations from the EPA or Congress, we now know that they are coming within the next year.  This fact makes past and future Austin Energy’s investments in renewable energy an important cost-saving measure for Austinites as fossil fuel generation costs continue to increase for a number of reasons.

I admit I was happy to let out my inner wonk with these figures, but the real questions are still out there waiting for serious study by the organizations with the rich data, such as ERCOT or Austin Energy.

Texas is the national leader in wind, and that’s something I love bragging about, but we need to be able to say why that is and what it really means in terms of environmental and economic impact. Based on what I’ve learned from the work Dr. Baldick and Dr. Webber are doing I think we’ll have a lot to say about that, and the sooner the better.

Posted in General, Texas / Read 4 Responses

Texas Solar Plant Sets New Trend with Water Saving Technology

The blog was co-authored by Amy Hardberger, an attorney in the EDF Texas office who specializes in the energy-water nexus.

The hard truth is this: Texas will need more electricity as it continues to grow. This means we’ll have to make some tough choices in the future to balance the needs of our economy with the environment. 

Renewable energy, particularly solar, is an important piece of the solution.  As more large solar projects are proposed, regulators, local citizens and developers will need to weigh economic development opportunities with wildlife and land preservation.  In Texas, EDF has been involved in many of these issues, especially the use of water as it relates to power plants.

Renewable energy can be water efficient

Conventional power plants, such as nuclear and coal plants, are well known as high consumers of water, but renewable power is a different story.  Photovoltaic solar projects in Texas require little to no water. 

A lesser known, but very promising solar technology is Concentrating Solar Power (CSP).  CSP uses conventional power plant technology coupled with highly concentrated sunlight to avoid the use of fossil fuels. 

Texas can lead the renewables industry in water efficiency

In terms of water use, CSP developers have traditionally relied on more conventional water-based cooling systems. However, there is a  shift to dry-cooled systems, a more water efficient system – reducing water usage by as much as 90%. This is good news since most CSP projects are proposed in places with a lot of sun and not a lot of water.

Texas may be at the forefront of a utilizing CSP in an even more water efficient way. Texas’ first CSP project is being developed by Tessera Solar. Their design features a technology that uses no water in the electric generation process. The only water needed is to clean the system.

In other locations, Solar Millennium announced its decision to change a planned project in Nevada to dry cooling in November of last year, and BrightSource Energy has chosen to use dry-cooling for all of its projects. 

Texas and a solar boom

This couldn’t come at a better time for Texas. The Public Utilities Commission is finally considering a rule to implement renewable energy goals for non-wind resources from a bill passed in the 2005 Texas Legislative Session that will help kick start solar in Texas.  Meanwhile, conventional power plants that are being proposed have some cities proposing the equivalent of taking out a second mortgage on their water supply

Texas is well positioned for a solar boom to rival the last decade’s wind boom, and we’re glad to see that solar companies are reading the writing on the wall. Trying to find water in the desert is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  Why waste your time, when you can avoid the haystack all together?

Posted in Renewable Energy, Texas / Read 16 Responses

Texas making energy efficiency progress, despite Energy Star ratings

 Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released their 2009 annual report ranking the top 25 cities with the most Energy Star buildings. Only three Texas cities made the list, but the rankings don’t illustrate the energy efficiency strides some Texas cities have made, nor what opportunities still remain for improvement.

What it means to be an Energy Star building
Energy Star buildings must score in the top 25 percent of EPA’s National Energy Performance Rating System. Nearly 4,000 commercial buildings earned an Energy Star rating in 2009, resulting in savings of nearly $1 billion in utility bills and more than 4.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  Read More »

Posted in Energy Efficiency, Texas / Read 15 Responses