“Sustainable Ports” in Texas – an Oxymoron?

By: Christina Wolfe, manager, air quality, port and freight facilities, and Kate Zerrenner, manager, energy-water initiatives

800px-Houston_Ship_Channel_Barbours_Cut wikipedia

An oxymoron is “a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings,” according to Merriam-Webster (a commonly given example is “jumbo shrimp”). Ports – with an immense amount of traffic and heavy cargo coming and going – have recently been equated with power plants in terms of air pollution. Some might suggest that the concept of a ‘sustainable port’ is impossible.

It’s not, actually.

Earlier this year, the first “zero-emissions terminal in the world” opened at a port in the Netherlands using equipment that releases no pollutants from a tailpipe and on-site wind energy for power demands. And closer to home, large ports in the U.S. have taken promising steps, like the Port of Seattle’s aggressive energy efficiency initiatives.

Texas ports have some work to do, both to keep up with strong economic growth (like the record year the Port of Houston is projecting) and because Texas already leads the country in climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions. But the good news is there is a way they could very quickly up their game: the use of renewable energy. And in the midst of historic climate talks in Paris, there is no better time for Texas ports to consider commonsense investments that safeguard both public health and the global climate.

How can ports incorporate renewable energy?

Renewable energy projects at ports typically focus on the installation of solar arrays, as well as wind turbines. Solar represents the simplest way of tapping into renewable potential because port and terminal facility construction can be designed to accommodate large arrays of solar panels on rooftops.  In the case of wind farms, ports often control or own large tracts of land that can be used to site wind turbines, making it easier to work with energy developers directly. Moreover, because of its industrial history, the land may already have the necessary infrastructure to get the electricity onto the grid. And in the future, we may see other forms of renewables at industrial facilities like ports, including tidal and other hydropower technologies that can harness the power of moving water, or geothermal applications that use differences in temperature for power generation.

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When thinking about the overall sustainability of their operations, ports should see renewable energy as a foundation upon which to build other green initiatives. Renewable energy generated on-site eliminates electricity-related emissions and makes true “zero-emissions” – or the idea that the facility will emit no pollution – a real possibility. To get there, ports would also need to invest in clean technologies for moving cargo, such as battery-electric terminal tractors or fuel cell drayage trucks powered by zero-emission sources (both available today!).

One easy way for ports to get started right now? Encourage port tenants to pursue projects that can take advantage of the Business Energy Investment Tax Credit before it is reduced significantly in late 2016.

Renewables bring benefits to ports

Ports significantly impact the air quality of nearby communities because port operations concentrate emissions from ships, trucks, cargo-handling equipment, and locomotives. Although renewable energy projects don’t reduce emissions from these sources, they can help improve regional air quality by offsetting pollution that would have otherwise been released from a local power plant. They can also form building blocks for future sustainability initiatives. For example, while ships are at berth, they typically run their enormous engines to generate power for auxiliary systems (e.g., the lights and heating). Vessel shorepower would allow ships to “plug in” to the electric grid instead, saving fuel and reducing harmful emissions for communities living near port facilities.

Another green option: a joint community renewable energy installation that can reduce energy costs for neighbors interested in partnering with a port on a project. These community projects allow participants to “buy” into a solar project, for example, without having to install panels of their own. They then receive credits to lower their electricity bills in exchange for the electricity produced.

Second, onsite renewables can enhance resiliency, especially in the face of more intense coastal storms and hurricanes. The Texas coast (all 367 miles of it) is vulnerable to tidal flooding and tropical storms; these events can cause significant disruption and be quite costly, as evidenced by the $67 billion price tag for named storms (such as Dolly, Rita, Allison) that have impacted Texas since 2000. But if a storm shuts down the central grid for days, distributed energy like solar panels can still provide electricity. Energy storage can take this a step further, enabling the use of renewables for standby or backup generation instead of commonly-used diesel generators. Moreover, traditional standby generators do not have to meet the strictest emissions standards when used for emergency purposes, so their use when the electric grid is offline means nearby communities are subject to even more diesel pollution.

Furthermore, renewable energy uses little to no water to produce electricity, versus coal, natural gas, and nuclear, which are all very thirsty energy resources. Freshwater availability will continue to be a challenge as climate change advances, and will particularly pose a problem for ports located in and around drought-prone areas, such as at the Port of Houston, Port of Beaumont, and the Port of Corpus Christi. The more that ships and ports can choose low-water-intensive energy resources or reduce energy use overall, the more they can alleviate the pressure on local grids, especially in periods with increasingly intense droughts and heatwaves.

The following table summarizes examples of renewable energy installations of ports and estimates of potential benefits from such projects:

Renewable Energy at Ports

Potential Benefits
NOx Reductions CO2 Reductions

Water Savings

Estimate of benefits per 1-MW of renewable energy
  • ~4 tons/MW/year
~5,000 tons/MW/year~730 gallons/MW on average (vs. coal, natural gas, and nuclear)
Solar energy at ports
Wind energy at ports
Emission reduction estimates based on EPA eGRID model (2009) using average energy generation and emissions associated with energy generation for the state of Texas. Reducing nitrogen oxides (NOx) helps reduce the formation of harmful smog (ozone), while reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) helps mitigate climate effects.

An obvious win-win for Texas ports and future generations

In Texas, the Port of Corpus Christi has undertaken an on-site renewable energy project, partnering with others to build the Harbor Wind farm that boasts enough energy to power 2,500 homes each year.  And while purchasing green energy on a utility bill is a good first step, the landscape is ripe for more Texas ports to embrace on-site renewables—Texas has by far the most potential for solar and wind generation in the United States.

All successful organizations should be forward-looking, and port authorities in Texas are no exception. Renewable energy projects offer ports a way to invest in energy sources whose costs are decreasing and will continue to drop. They also provide the opportunity to offset some of the harmful climate and air pollution emissions that occur at power plants, as well as develop on-site energy for emergency situations. Finally, renewables can reduce water demands in a state that faces drought on a regular basis, and will likely be even more water-stressed with the onward march of climate change. Of course, ports can (and should) do more to ensure their continuing operations are sustainable, but it’s clear that renewable energy projects make sense for ports to undertake immediately.

If Texas ports grab the renewable energy bull by the horns, “sustainable ports” could transcend oxymoron to become the new normal.

Photo source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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