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A timeline of the blackout

Of interest.

A new report from University of Texas at Austin energy experts lays much of the blame for power outages during the state’s deadly February freeze on the failure of natural gas producers to fully weatherize their facilities.”

The natural gas system could not meet demand,” the authors of the 101-page study wrote. “The production losses stemmed principally from freeze-offs, icy roads and electric outages to the equipment used in the natural gas industry.”

UT issued the study Tuesday, the same day the state’s health department revised its official death toll from the disaster, raising it to 210 from 151. However, at least one data-driven report suggests the actual number may exceed 700.

[…]

For the study, UT researchers looked at the performance of 27 natural gas facilities during the freeze and found that as temperatures dropped, the operators’ pipelines and equipment ceased to function, resulting in an 85% falloff when power companies needed the fuel.

Indeed, 18 of the natural gas facilities it studied had “zero output” on February 17, the peak of the storm.

In addition to their human cost, the failures resulted in massive charges for the state’s power generators, according to the report. CPS Energy, for example, tallied losses on natural gas fuel purchases of as much as $850 million, and losses on purchased power costs of as much as $250 million.

The 101 page report is here. Neither of us is likely to read through the whole thing, but the Findings section of the Executive Summary give you the main points:

The failure of the electricity and natural gas systems serving Texas before and during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 had no single cause. While the 2021 storm did not set records for the lowest recorded temperatures in many parts of the state, it caused generation outages and a loss of electricity service to Texas customers several times more severe than winter events leading to electric service disruptions in December 1989 and February 2011. The 2021 event exceeded prior events with respect to both the number and capacity of generation unit outages, the maximum load shed (power demand reduction) and number of customers affected, the lowest experienced grid frequency (indicating a high level of grid instability), the amount of natural gas generation experiencing fuel shortages, and the duration of electric grid operations under emergency conditions associated with load shed and blackout for customers. The financial ramifications of the 2021 event are in the billions of dollars, likely orders of magnitude larger than the financial impacts of the 1989 and 2011 blackouts.

Factors contributing to the electricity blackouts of February 15-18, 2021, include the following:

  • All types of generation technologies failed. All types of power plants were impacted by the winter storm. Certain power plants within each category of technologies (natural gas-fired power plants, coal power plants, nuclear reactors, wind generation, and solar generation facilities) failed to operate at their expected electricity generation output levels.
  • Demand forecasts for severe winter storms were too low. ERCOT’s most extreme winter scenario underestimated demand relative to what actually happened by about 9,600 MW, about 14%.
  • Weather forecasts failed to appreciate the severity of the storm. Weather models were unable to accurately forecast the timing (within one to two days) and severity of extreme cold weather, including that from a polar vortex.
  • Planned generator outages were high, but not much higher than assumed in planning scenarios. Total planned outage capacity was about 4,930 MW, or about 900 MW higher than in ERCOT’s “Forecasted Season Peak Load” scenario.
  • Grid conditions deteriorated rapidly early in February 15 leading to blackouts. So much power plant capacity was lost relative to the record electricity demand that ERCOT was forced to shed load to avoid a catastrophic failure. From noon on February 14 to noon on February 15, the amount of offline wind capacity increased from 14,600 MW to 18,300 MW (+3,700 MW).2 Offline natural gas capacity increased from 12,000 MW to 25,000 MW (+13,000 MW). Offline coal capacity increased from 1,500 MW to 4,500 MW (+3,000 MW). Offline nuclear capacity increased from 0 MW to 1,300 MW, and offline solar capacity increased from 500 MW to 1100 MW (+600 MW), for a total loss of 24,600 MW in a single 24-hour period.
  • Power plants listed a wide variety of reasons for going offline throughout the event. 3 Reasons for power plant failures include “weather-related” issues (30,000 MW, ~167 units), “equipment issues” (5,600 MW, 146 units), “fuel limitations” (6,700 MW, 131 units), “transmission and substation outages” (1,900 MW, 18 units), and “frequency issues” (1,800 MW, 8 units). 4
  • Some power generators were inadequately weatherized; they reported a level of winter preparedness that turned out to be inadequate to the actual conditions experienced. The outage, or derating, of several power plants occurred at temperatures above their stated minimum temperature ratings.
  • Failures within the natural gas system exacerbated electricity problems. Natural gas production, storage, and distribution facilities failed to provide the full amount of fuel demanded by natural gas power plants. Failures included direct freezing of natural gas equipment and failing to inform their electric utilities of critical electrically-driven components. Dry gas production dropped 85% from early February to February 16, with up to 2/3 of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage.5
  • Failures within the natural gas system began prior to electrical outages. Days before ERCOT called for blackouts, natural gas was already being curtailed to some natural gas consumers, including power plants.
  • Some critical natural gas infrastructure was enrolled in ERCOT’s emergency response program. Data from market participants indicates that 67 locations (meters) were in both the generator fuel supply chain and enrolled in ERCOT’s voluntary Emergency Response Service program (ERS), which would have cut power to them when those programs were called upon on February 15. At least five locations that later identified themselves to the electric utility as critical natural gas infrastructure were enrolled in the ERS program.
  • Natural gas in storage was limited. Underground natural gas storage facilities were operating at maximum withdrawal rates and reached unprecedently-low levels of working gas, indicating that the storage system was pushed to its maximum capability.

The ERCOT system operator managed to avoid a catastrophic failure of the electric grid despite the loss of almost half of its generation capacity, including some black start units that would have been needed to jump-start the grid had it gone into a complete collapse.

Just as a reminder, the grid was not on the first special session agenda, and as of today isn’t on the second session’s agenda. I have heard it suggested that Abbott could add grid items to the agenda, or put them on but near the bottom of the agenda for this special session, to make it harder for the Dems to be away. The main problem with that analysis is that Abbott has been busy telling everyone in sight that the grid has been totally fixed. What’s to put on the agenda if that’s really the case? His problem for now, all of ours the next time the words “rolling blackouts” get mentioned.

Abbott tells the PUC to, like, “do something” about electricity and stuff

He’s a Very Serious man making Very Serious proposals.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday gave state electricity regulators marching orders to “improve electric reliability.”

In a letter to the Public Utility Commission, Abbott directed the three-person board of directors, who he appoints, to take action that would require renewable energy companies to pay for power when wind and solar aren’t able to provide it to the state’s main power grid, echoing a move state lawmakers rejected in May.

Abbott also told the PUC to incentivize companies to build and maintain nuclear, natural gas and coal power generation for the grid — which failed spectacularly during a February winter storm, leaving millions of Texans without power or heat for days in below freezing temperatures.

Texas energy experts were skeptical that Abbott’s orders would actually improve the reliability of the state grid, which operates mostly independently of the nation’s two other major grids.

“What is here is not a serious or prudent plan for improving the grid,” Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s more of a political job favoring some [energy] sources over others. For Texans to have a more reliable power supply, we need clearer thinking that makes the best of all the sources we have.”

Abbott’s letter also called on the PUC to direct the state’s main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to better schedule when power plants are offline, an issue that caused tension between state regulators and power generators after some power plants unexpectedly went offline in June and led ERCOT to ask Texans to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees for a week during a heat wave to conserve energy.

Abbott responded to the plant outages by declaring the power grid “is better today than it’s ever been.”

Does anyone believe that? I don’t know what the odds are of another major power failure between now and, say, next November, but does anyone think such platitudes will be accepted by the public if one does happen? Even Dan Patrick thinks that power grid reform items – most of which never went anywhere during the session – should be on the special session agenda. Maybe we all get lucky and nothing bad happens any time soon, but if that’s the case it won’t be because Abbott was busy urging us all to clap louder.

There’s still a lot of investment in renewables in Texas

Good to know.

Four months after the failure of the Texas electric grid sparked a backlash against clean power, investors and developers have decided just what the state needs: more renewable energy. Much more.

Texas is on pace to have as much green-power development in coming years as the next three states combined, according to the American Clean Power Association, a Washington-based trade group. Projects totaling 15 gigawatts — equal to the total electrical capacity of Finland in 2019 — are under construction or in advanced development, more than double three years ago. That’s according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or Ercot, the state’s grid operator.

All told, the forthcoming wind, solar and battery-storage projects are worth an estimated $20 billion to $25 billion, the American Clean Power Association said.

[…]

The amount of renewable energy in the Ercot queue in May was much higher than the same month in any of the past three years. That massive growth is driven by jumps in solar farms and battery storage that outweigh a drop in the amount of wind power in the queue.

New utility-scale solar installations in Texas totaled 3.3 gigawatts last year, nearly matching the 3.5 gigawatts of new wind, according to BloombergNEF. The research group projects more than double the amount of new utility-scale solar and 4.2 gigawatts of new wind there this year.

Republicans bashed renewable energy during and after the storm, even as the state’s grid operator said that frozen instruments at gas, coal and even nuclear plants were the main reason for the blackouts. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Texas governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity on Fox News in the midst of the freeze. He went on to blame wind and solar power and said fossil fuel plants are necessary for baseline power.

Several renewable developers said new laws that targeted clean power projects would force them to rethink building in Texas. A group including big power companies, Amazon.com Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sent letters to Abbott and lawmakers in April, writing that proposed new laws would chill investment in the state.

Perhaps that letter had an effect, for as the story notes we managed to make it through this session without any explicitly anti-renewables bills passing. (Not that the Republicans didn’t try, mind you.) There are still issues with the grid’s capacity to handle more output from renewables, but maybe the investors are assuming some of those problems will work themselves out. I note in the story’s graphic that the amount being invested in battery storage is way higher than it used to be, so maybe that has an effect as well. In any event, we are still investing in renewable energy here. Let’s hope we don’t screw it up.

All juiced up with no place to go

Seems like there should be a better solution for this.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved the development of a network of electric transmission lines to send wind and solar power from West Texas to population centers in other parts of the state. The landmark project transformed the renewable energy industry and the slice of West Texas that Rep. Drew Darby calls home.

Metallic fields of photovoltaic solar panels now stretch across once bare scrub land. Lines of sky-scraping wind turbines reach to the horizon. And with those renewable energy projects came “some of our only opportunities for economic development” in rural Texas, said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo.

But those opportunities are at risk as companies cancel or postpone new wind and solar farms, and the list of planned projects keeps getting shorter. One key reason: generators can’t be sure that they can get their power to market.

The rapid growth of renewable energy, particularly wind power, has outstripped the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Even when demand soars and electricity supplies run short, the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, must limit the power West Texas wind and solar farms can sell into the grid because of transmission constraints.

“I started seeing some projects go off the boards, and companies were saying they’re not going to build,” Darby said. “I asked why, and they said ‘We’ve had curtailments. We’re going to have to curtail production at certain times.’”

That West Texas has plenty of power but no place to go carries more than a little irony as policy makers and regulators focus on increasing electricity supplies following the deadly February power crisis. ERCOT is forecasting record power demand this summer, with a reserve margin — the cushion of extra generation available when supplies get tight — that’s higher than in recent years, but still well below the margins with which other grids operate.

[…]

Even as parts of the state bake in the summer heat and homeowners crank up air-conditioning units, the transmission limits mean the excess power generated out West won’t make it to where demand will be highest.

Ross Baldick, an emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said West Texas transmission upgrades completed in 2014 can transport about 18,500 megawatts of electricity, but more than 20,000 megawatts of wind energy alone are generated in the area. Due to other technical constraints, grid officials must limit power through those lines to less than 12,000 megawatts to keep them working properly.

Think about it like water pipes, Baldick said. One main pipe feeds smaller pipes that provide water to individual homes. If you try to force more and more water into the pipes, you reach a limit where the pipes could burst. To avoid that problem, you would have two choices: build more pipes to offset the stress on the existing pipes, or limit the amount of water flowing through the pipes.

Those are the choices for the power grid: build more transmission to transport increasing amounts of renewable power from the west, or limit the amount of power on the transmission lines.

As the story notes, West Texas has all of the conditions you could want for solar and wind energy generation, but none of it matters if you can’t hook it up to the grid. As a result, the projections of wind and solar energy for the year are declining. The House passed a bill by Rep. Darby to expedite the process ERCOT uses to study and plan for new transmission projects and the Public Utility Commission’s ability to approve them, but it died in the Senate. The power companies themselves aren’t going to build more transmission capacity, so here we are. Sure seems like there ought to be a better way.

ERCOT roundup

Just a few stories of interest that I didn’t feel like putting in their own posts…

ERCOT will argue it is immune from lawsuits.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will argue that it has governmental immunity that protects it from the at least 35 lawsuits that have been filed against the operator after February’s disastrous winter storm which killed dozens of people and created millions of dollars of damages.

“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a Wednesday court filing requesting to consolidate several of the lawsuits it’s battling.

Sovereign immunity grants protections for state agencies against lawsuits, with some exceptions. And this isn’t the first time ERCOT has made the argument — with some success — that it should be shielded from lawsuits due to its role acting upon the directives of state agencies and lawmakers.

In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas ruled that ERCOT, despite the fact that it is a private nonprofit, has sovereign immunity after Dallas-based utility Panda Power sued the operator over allegations of flawed energy projections.

That immunity was challenged at the Texas Supreme Court last month. However, the high court refused to rule on the issue, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because the original case that posed the question was dismissed — a hotly contested opinion with four of the nine justices dissenting.

See here for the previous update. I don’t know what practical effect this might have if ERCOT succeeds, but as a general principle I think this kind of legal immunity needs to be carefully limited. Maybe it’s appropriate here, but there needs to be a strong argument for it.

ERCOT: Blackout primarily caused by power plants freezing up:

The massive loss in power generation during the Texas blackout in February was caused primarily by power plants freezing up under historically cold conditions, according to a new report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Tuesday.

The state’s grid operator reported that on the morning of Feb. 16, the most severe moment of the blackout, 54 percent of the loss of power supply stemmed from weather-related issues at power plants, while 12 percent was due to a lack of fuel such as natural gas. Some 51,000 megawatts of generation — more than half of the system’s capacity — were offline at the height of the blackouts at 8 a.m. of Feb. 16, ERCOT reported.

The findings come as state officials are debating how to fix the state’s energy system to prevent a repeat of the power outages that left millions of Texans without power for days on end.

The report Tuesday offered a fairly limited perspective on what went wrong, failing to explain why specific types of generation were unable to operate during the winter storm or what happened. But it will add questions to how well prepared ERCOT and the state’s power plants were for cold weather, despite warnings from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to winterize following a less severe cold snap in 2011.

[…]

After weather-related problems, the second biggest loss of generation on Feb. 16 was caused by planned or unexpected outages prior to the cold snap that began sweeping Texas earlier in the week, accounting for 15 percent of lost power supply.

Another 14 percent of lost generation came from equipment failures unrelated to the weather. Only four percent of outages were due to transmission problems or a short drop in the frequency of the power grid that occurred early Monday morning.

I don’t know enough to say what this means in terms of figuring out the best path forward, but I sure hope that the Legislature has some people who know how to read a report like this available to explain it to them. We screwed this kind of response up last time. We have no excuse for screwing it up again.

Faulting ERCOT, insurer says it shouldn’t have to cover storm damages:

ERCOT’s insurance company is seeking a court ruling excusing it from defending Texas’ electric grid manager from lawsuits or covering damages stemming from the catastrophic power failure in February.

The Cincinnati Insurance Co. on Tuesday sought relief from the U.S. district court in Austin, arguing it does not have to defend the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because it does not view the power outages as an accident, defined by the insurer as a “fortuitous, unexpected, and unintended event.” As a result, the company said it has no obligation under its insurance policy to cover ERCOT, which faces a flood of lawsuits after the winter storm.

“The allegations in the Underlying Lawsuits allege ERCOT either knew, should have known, expected, and/or intended, that Winter Storm Uri would cause the same power outages which occurred as a result of previous storms in Texas, including storms in 1989 and 2011,” the insurer said in court documents. “The Underlying Lawsuits allege the power outages caused by Winter Storm Uri were a result of the exact same failures including failures of the same generators which failed in the previous winter storms, and therefore, the power outages were foreseeable, expected, and/or intended.”

[…]

ERCOT’s insurance policy with Cincinnati Insurance, effective until June 2022, states that the insurer “will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies. We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.’

The policy, however, says Cincinnati Insurance has no duty to defend ERCOT in cases in which the insurance policy does not apply, and retains the discretion to investigate any “occurance” and settle any claim or lawsuit that results from it. The insurer defines “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

In case you were wondering why ERCOT really doesn’t want to be sued. Also, when was the last time that an insurance company paid a claim without fighting it?

An open Texas power grid would boost reliability and renewables, experts say.

Since the February power outages, Texas legislators have been busy weighing a host of improvements for the state’s grid, from weatherizing equipment to shaking up oversight to partnering with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett on new emergency-use power plants.

But hardly any of them have focused on what some believe could be a more widespread fix: plugging into other U.S. power supplies.

While Texas has long opposed opening its grid to avoid federal oversight, and ostensibly to keep prices low, energy experts say the calculus is not what it once was and that the benefits of connecting to the outside world are at least worth examining, especially as renewable energy is poised for a major expansion under the Biden administration.

Not only is the state missing out on a potential lifeline in future blackouts, they warn, it also risks passing up billions of dollars in new investments for clean, marketable electricity.

“We export every form of energy you could imagine except electrons,” Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporters recently. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Let’s at least study the option.”

There are some good arguments for this, and some reasonable ones for maintaining the independence of the Texas grid. Just because our setup is dumb and expensive and unreliable doesn’t mean it has to be that way, after all. But this is all an academic point, because there’s a zero percent chance this happens. Go ahead and write a report, but don’t ever expect Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick to read it.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

It’s kind of amazing, and yet completely on brand.

With millions of Texans having lost power during the winter storms, key players in the Legislature say one of the most immediate reforms they will push for is recalibrating the state’s electricity grid to ensure more fossil fuels are in that mix and fewer renewables.

While all energy sources were disrupted during the historic freeze, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature say renewables have been given all the attention over the years, yet proved to be unhelpful during the state’s crisis.

“It’s cool to be into wind and solar these days, but the problem is it leaves us frigid in the winter,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Texas Senate.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said most of the generating plants that went offline this week were natural gas, coal or nuclear facilities. But still, Republicans have singled out wind and solar as targets over the objections of Democrats and renewable energy advocates.

Texas utilities ratepayers have funded more than $7 billion over the last eight years building transmission lines to take wind power from West Texas to the big cities. It’s made Texas the biggest wind producer in the nation.

But Bettencourt and other Republicans say advantages like federal subsidies for wind and solar have to be evened out.

“We need a baseload energy generation strategy in Texas that is reliable and not based upon renewables so strongly,” he said.

Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, this week reupped a bill he filed last session that would require ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission to write rules that would “eliminate or compensate for market distortion caused by certain federal tax credits.”

“It’s not just the frozen wind turbines; it’s the fact that they even exist that is creating the problem,” said Patterson, who works as an energy consultant. “Their existence, their heavily subsidized existence on our grid is creating a shortage of energy supply because no one else can compete against them.”

[…]

Blaming renewables is misguided and politically motivated, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“There is no energy source that doesn’t receive subsidies,” Shelley said. “There have been energy tax credits for fossil fuel sources for a hundred years, so to target the renewable tax credit … it’s pretty disingenuous.”

[…]

But while there may be reforms to ERCOT, not many Republicans are talking about the prospect of ordering the state’s nearly 700 power plants to invest in weatherization and what that would cost.

ERCOT officials said earlier this week in a statewide press conference that while it was recommended power plants weatherize after winter storms in 2011 knocked out power, those were voluntary requests and not mandatory.

Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and senior mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry, said he is working on legislation that would build in more reserve energy supply for Texas, such as by hooking up the state to the nationally interconnected system, or offering financial incentives for providers to increase back-up power.

Rosenthal would also like to see reliability standards introduced that require generators to weatherize their systems. He said he knows that adding more regulations will be an uphill battle in the Republican-majority Legislature but believes there is a “happy medium” that can be struck.

“While the common argument ‘we don’t want regulation so we can provide electricity as cheaply as possible’ does provide cheap energy a lot of the time, these disasters are horrendously expensive,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve heard insurance folks saying this could be the costliest ever natural disaster in Texas. So you make a little bit of an investment in your infrastructure to ensure that you don’t have these disastrous consequences.”

He added: “And it’s not just the cost of it. It’s the human suffering.”

How it is that they could have missed the voluminous reporting about how the same freeze we all just endured also caused problems for gas and coal plants since they both involve water and that water was frozen solid is an eternal mystery, but here we are. We’ve literally had thirty years’ of warnings about the need to weatherize our power plants and wind turbines, and this is the response we get from Paul Bettencourt and his cronies. It would cost money – I forget where I read this now, but I saw one back-of-the-envelope estimate of about $2 billion for the whole system – but that can be paid in part by the power generators and in part by the state, with cash from the Rainy Day Fund or a bond issuance if need be.

Doing that might require changing the financial incentives for the operators, and it might require shudder regulating the energy market – certainly, ERCOT or some other governing body will need enforcement power, because simply asking the operators nicely to invest in weatherizing hasn’t worked so far – and it even might require rejoining the national power grid, which has its own pros and cons but would come with federal enforcement of weatherization standards. There are many viable options. We don’t have to choose the stupid, head-in-the-frozen-tundra option that Bettencourt et al seem hellbent on doing.

One more thing, which I find equal parts amusing and puzzling: All this antagonism towards wind energy seems to overlook the fact that a large number of wind farms and turbines are in the Panhandle and West Texas, easily two of the most Republican parts of the state. Do these Republican legislators and other currently trashing wind energy – the Observer quotes a Facebook post by Sid Miller that says “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas”, for instance – not realize that they’re kicking sand on their own people? I don’t even know what to make of that, but I do know that part of the 2022 Democratic message needs to be targeted at those folks. Texas Monthly has more.

It could have been worse

Hard to imagine, but this would qualify.

Texas’ power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials with the entity that operates the grid said Thursday.

As millions of customers throughout the state begin to have power restored after days of massive blackouts, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, said Texas was dangerously close to a worst-case scenario: uncontrolled blackouts across the state.

The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what was intended to be rolling blackouts — but lasted days for millions of Texans — occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

Magness said on Wednesday that if operators had not acted in that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months,” and left Texas in an “indeterminately long” crisis.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid can take months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

“As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could’ve been in blackout,” she said. “ERCOT is getting a lot of heat, but the fact that it wasn’t worse is because of those grid operators.”

Okay, you’ve convinced me, that would have been Bad. I can’t even begin to fathom what life in that scenario would look like. But look, what this means more than ever is we didn’t do a proper job of assessing and mitigating the risks that we faced. This was not an unforeseen event, nor was it a “five hundred year flood” situation, since we had extreme weather like this in 2011 and 1989, well within our institutional memory. What’s fascinating about all this is that the folks at ERCOT did a pretty good job estimating the demand that the grid would face. Where they completely missed the boat was on the supply side. Rice professor Daniel Cohan explains:

ERCOT didn’t do too badly predicting peak demand — 67 GW in its extreme scenario. We don’t know how high the actual peak would have been without these rolling blackouts, but perhaps around 5 GW higher, with some conservation by industrial consumers.

Scheduled maintenance played a role too, as plants tune up for summer peaks. Why so much of that maintenance continued amid week-ahead forecasts of an Arctic blast deserves a closer look.

But ERCOT’s biggest miss came in preparing for outages at what it thought were “firm” resources — gas, coal, and nuclear. Those outages topped 30 GW, more than double ERCOT’s worst-case scenario. Just one of those gigawatts came from a temporary outage at a nuclear unit. Most of the rest came from gas.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of individual gas power plants broke down. Most outages came because delivery systems failed to supply gas to those plants at the consistent pressures that they need.

These failures highlight the unique vulnerabilities of relying so heavily on natural gas for power. Only gas electricity relies on a continuous supply of a fossil fuel delivered from hundreds of miles away. And that fuel is also needed for heat. So when an Arctic blast drives up demand and drives down supply of heat and electricity at the same time, power plants languish in line while homes and hospitals get the heating fuel they need.

That makes these blackouts an energy systems crisis, not just a power crisis. Every one of our power sources underperformed. Every one of them has unique vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by extreme events. None of them prepared adequately for extreme cold.

That was adapted from this Twitter thread, and you should read them both. There’s a lot that can and should be done to improve the system, and we need to think of it in systemic terms. Even Greg Abbott seems to think we need to think big:

I mean, I don’t have any faith in anything Abbott wants to do, but at least he’s not talking about something that’s completely disconnected from, or opposite to, the problem. That’s better than what we’re used to. Maybe the Lege can take it from there.

Beware the renewable energy disinformation

It’s out there, in more ways than one.

David Dunagan doesn’t want a 760-acre solar power plant to be built across his fenceline. The Old Jackson Power Plant will replace farmland in Van Zandt County with gleaming, metal panels. Though the 127-megawatt plant will provide clean, renewable energy for some of the nearly 7.5 million residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex Dunagan has been organizing local landowners to stop it for the last year.

Generations of landowners have raised cattle or grown crops like hay and sweet potatoes in this slice of rural northeast Texas, and turning those fields into an industrial power plant isn’t an easy pill to swallow. One of Dunagan’s major worries is the environmental impact that the Old Jackson plant could have. “It’s literally in the middle of East Texas tornado alley,” he says. “There is a propensity for these facilities to get torn up, and the materials are scattered everywhere. These panels, there are several heavy metals used in thin layers,” he adds. “It’s been proven that these panels tend to leach over time, into the soil and water.”

Thing is, that hasn’t been proven. That’s because it’s not true. According to Wyatt Metzger, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there’s little truth to the leaching-panel claim. Concerns about what happens if panels are discarded improperly at the end of their 30-year lifespan, are legitimate, however. But the idea that inclement weather could turn a functioning solar farm into a Superfund site littered with lead and cadmium-laced debris has caught on across the country as solar energy developments take off.

It’s a talking point that Dunagan picked up from so-called experts such as Michael Shellenberger, a staunchly pro-nuclear environmentalist who’s called climate activists “alarmists.” It’s been repeated by a national group called Citizens for Responsible Solar, which presents itself as a grassroots coalition, but was formed by a Republican consultant in Virginia. The myth has been pushed by the Foundation for Economic Education and the benign-sounding Institute for Energy Research, both libertarian think tanks that have direct ties to billionaire fossil fuel executives and climate change denialists Charles Koch and David Padden. Koch and Padden fund the Heartland Institute, one of the most infamous climate denial groups.

[…]

Disinformation about renewable energy isn’t new. For decades, fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks have painted wind turbines as a bird-killing, unreliable, and property-value damaging source of energy. “We’re starting to see the same forces shift over, focusing on solar farms,” says Dave Anderson, a researcher with the Energy and Policy Institute who tracks fossil-fuel-funded disinformation about renewable energy. At the same time, solar energy is on the cusp of a growth spurt: Texas’ solar capacity is on track to grow by 150 percent this year. A similar upward trajectory is expected next year.

Many of the state’s largest solar plants have been built in West Texas, where land is cheap and sun is plentiful. In many of these counties, landowners were already used to having pumpjacks and wind turbines on their sprawling ranches, so solar wasn’t very different. Now, as the price of solar technology has dropped drastically, it’s more feasible for solar companies to locate their plants closer to energy-consuming cities, says Josh Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. In places like Van Zandt, Bell, or Wharton County, just outside of Sugar Land, developers will save on the cost of electric transmission from far West Texas. But here, residents aren’t as welcoming of the new, industrial developments.

This is going to get worse as the Biden administration makes a big push towards renewables as part of its climate change agenda. Be aware of what the propaganda is and be prepared to push back on it when you see or hear it.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

Matt Glazer: To see boon, clean energy needs Congress

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

I’m a bit of an Austin-area expert when it comes to weird homes. So, when I bought my own home last year—going in a more traditional route—I was surprised when I was left no less transfixed. Our builder had prioritized solar panel installations and, in the weeks, after settling in, I made a routine of watching the monitor tick up as our 12 panels fed energy back into the grid. Truth is I’m not the only one mesmerized. Watching the green bar climb and doing what we can to be a net producer of clean, affordable energy is a fun little game. Luckily, clean energy has caught the attention of Texans just as easily as the panels on my roof catch rays.

For more than a century, Texas has asserted itself as a national and global energy leader. Much of this legacy is owed to our wells of oil, but more so it is owed to our ability to build an economy around those prospects. Clean energy can continue to expand them beyond the subterranean. We were the first state to codify an energy efficiency resource standard after all and already Texas is top five in the nation for solar, and first in the nation for wind capacity. If you have ever driven through Texas, you can see evidence of this across the horizon from the panhandle to the coast.

All told—from renewables to clean vehicles, energy efficiency, clean fuels, and grid and storage—nearly a quarter of a million jobs were held in Texas’ clean energy industry last year. COVID-19 has detracted from those numbers depressing the state’s clean energy workforce by 10%—at least temporarily. Despite the setback, a growing commitment to reduce carbon emissions means clean energy is no longer being considered an alternative and instead as a necessary and growing component of diversified portfolios.

This will assure its subsistence, but while consistent demand could pull the industry back bit-by-bit, a major federal investment just might sweep the Lone Star State into this millennia’s energy boon. What the country needs now is a post-pandemic economic plan that spurs energy innovation, builds out 21st century infrastructure and continues driving down carbon emissions while creating 21st century jobs.

Though we often consider clean energy at scale, like in the case of utility companies, small businesses have played a significant role in clean energy’s early trajectory. In 2019, nearly two out of every three clean energy workers—of which there were 3.3 million in 2019—were employed by a small business. But, with manufacturing advancements driving down costs, the popularity of reduced carbon emissions rising and a steady churn of state-of-the-art tech reaching the market, clean energy’s entrepreneurial scene is far from saturated. One can even still imagine the potential for a new generation of Texas energy titans eventually adding to an already storied energy tradition.

To get there, however, requires a commitment not just from dedicated contractors like my own or local officials or even from Fortune 100 corporations, but from national leadership representing us in Congress. This issue is not a partisan one but an economic one, given the country’s current straits, we cannot afford to let the clean energy wallow in its COVID depression.

To truly capitalize on the economic and environmental potential of the vast prairies, strong wind gusts and access to persistent sun that outfit Texas, not to mention an intrepid workforce, we need our representatives and senators to put into action plans that bolster clean energy development and job creation while continuing to build on America’s leadership driving down carbon emissions.

I am grateful to have low cost, high production solar cells on my home. I am grateful for the incentives that made it possible to do something good and lower my total costs. I look at the energy I am creating for my city and know that an install team, builder, designer, electrician, and manufacturing company all created jobs. Jobs with an eye towards the future of Texas. Congress has an opportunity to continue to foster this innovation so we can be leaders in this established clean energy economy.

Matt Glazer is the past Executive Director of Progress Texas and co-founder of Blue Sky Partners.

Houston’s Climate Action Plan

We have one, with goals for 2050.

Houston’s first Climate Action Plan calls on the city’s 4,600 energy companies to lead the transition to renewable sources, while residents are asked to swap car rides for mass transit and work to cut down on the estimated seven pounds of waste each person discards every day.

The plan also calls for the city to adopt a new building code and develop a long-range plan for its waste collection system as part of a broad-based effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The 97-page plan, in the works for more than a year and published online Wednesday, is a strategy, not an ordinance, so it does not enforce any new rules. Instead, it identifies four areas to target emission reductions: transportation, energy transition, building optimization and materials management. It also identifies goals, strategies and targets for residents, businesses and the city to follow in each of those areas.

For example, the section on transportation, which accounts for nearly half of emissions here, includes a goal to shift the regional fleet to electric and low-emission vehicles. It lays out targets to get there, such as converting all non-emergency municipal vehicles by 2030, and increasing incentives and infrastructure for the private sector to do the same.

The section on energy transition includes the production of 5 million megawatt hours of solar power by 2050. It calls for the city to power municipal operations entirely with renewable sources by 2025, and it proposes training private businesses and property owners on how to adopt solar power on their rooftops.

Nearly all of the 34 million metric tons of carbon that Houston emitted in 2014, the baseline year for such calculations, came from transportation and energy that powers homes, businesses and institutions, the plan says.

Those strategies are tailored to Houston, said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer and lead author of the plan. The city, she said, does not have the same tools as the state or federal governments or even other cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, to combat climate change. It has very little authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, and it does not have a city-owned electric utility.

That means the plan requires buy-in from businesses and residents to take initiative themselves, Cottingham said.

“The Climate Action Plan is a good combination of ambitious goals and common-sense solutions,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We do know that science is behind us and technology is on our side. What is important is that every single one of us does our part.”

You can see the plan here. The story notes that there’s a broad range of support behind the plan, but also a lot of emphasis from supporters that this is just a first step. I agree with the Air Alliance Houston statement on the plan, which urges the city to collaborate with Harris County to expand this into more of a regional initiative. In the short term, I’d really like to see some action on solar power, with options to make financing for home solar panels widely available. This is very much a collective action problem, and I’m glad to see the city commit to doing its part. It’s on the rest of us to make sure they follow through.

We can make the end of coal in Texas happen

It’s already happening. It just needs a bit of a boost.

Texas might have the perfect environment to quit coal for good.

Texas is one of the only places—potentially in the world—where the natural patterns of wind and sun could produce power around the clock, according to new research from Rice University.

Scientists found that between wind energy from West Texas and the Gulf Coast, and solar energy across the state, Texas could meet a significant portion of its electricity demand from renewable power without extensive battery storage. The reason: These sources generate power at different times of day, meaning that coordinating them could replace production from coal-fired plants.

“There is no where else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is,” said Dan Cohan an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who co-authored the report with a student, Joanna Slusarewicz. “Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”

[…]

Coal still generates about 25 percent of the state’s power, but its share is shrinking. Since 2007, coal used in generating electricity has decreased 36 percent. Last year, Vistra Energy of Dallas shut down three coal-fired plants in Texas, citing changing economics in the power industry that make it difficult for coal to compete.

Texas has more than 20,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, which could rise to 38,000 megawatts by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar energy, however, has developed much more slowly in Texas, despite the abundance of sunshine. Texas installed about 2,500 megawatts of solar capacity in 2018.

The research article is here. Texas has done well generating wind energy, but needs to step it up with solar. The Lege could provide some incentives for this, so maybe mention to your State Rep the next time you call their office that this would be a productive thing to do.

Getting the (wind and solar) power to the people

It’s all about the transmission lines.

The Lone Star state is by far the largest state for wind power, with nearly 18,000 megawatts of wind generation capacity already built and another 5,500 megawatts—nearly equal to California’s total installed capacity—planned. The biggest driver of that wind boom was an $8 billion transmission system that was built to bring electricity from the desolate western and northern parts of the state to the big cities of the south and east: Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston.

Completed in 2014, the new wires—known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ—have the capacity to carry some 18,500 megawatts of wind power across the state. That’s not enough to handle the 21,000 megawatts of capacity Texas expects to reach this year, and it’s creating a situation that’s straining the transmission system and potentially resulting in periods where the turbines go idle.

Now the state’s utilities and transmission companies are faced with spending hundreds of millions more to upgrade the system, demonstrating just how costly and complicated it is to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, even where those sources are abundant.

EDF Renewable Energy, which owns five wind farms in northern Texas, and other operators have proposed adding second lines to existing transmission lines from the panhandle, where much of the new wind-farm construction is happening. Doing so, EDF says, will accommodate nearly 4,000 megawatts of new generation expected in the panhandle over the next several years.

“If some of these projects get developed in the panhandle and they haven’t done the upgrades to the grid, for sure those farms will be curtailed,” says Frank Horak, the CEO of Austin-based energy consultancy Astek Energy.

[…]

Another looming challenge is an expected surge in solar projects in Texas. The state ranks third in terms of total solar capacity, and another 6,000 megawatts of solar projects are planned. That will further strain the grid.

“Last time I looked there were 42 solar projects in far West Texas that were in the interconnection queue waiting for new transmission because there’s a bottleneck there now,” says Horak. Most of those projects will remain on hold until new wires are in place; some may never be built.

Seems to me to be a supply and demand problem, with the supply of transmission not keeping up with the demand of energy production. Texas’ population continues to grow, and the grid is increasingly dependent on wind and solar power to meet usage peaks, so it would be very shortsighted not to keep investing in more transmission capacity. This ought to be a no-brainer.

Pity the poor utilities

Sorry, but low electricity prices, especially when they are aided by record amounts of wind power generation, are good news.

ERCOT

Texas’ national lead in cheap wind power, combined with near historically low natural gas prices, mild weather, an abundant power supply and slower growth in electricity demand, can work to the detriment of power companies.

The combination weighed down wholesale power prices last year to their lowest averages since 2002. And the effects are only becoming more dramatic in 2016, even creating bizarre instances when, in the abstract at least, providers are paying to put electricity on the market.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Michael Ferguson, associate director at Standard & Poor’s covering utilities and infrastructure. “It’s a bad situation for gas generators, but for coal generation, it’s even worse.”

Texas’ wholesale power prices averaged $26.77 per megawatt-hour last year, down nearly 35 percent from $40.64 per megawatt-hour in 2014. The cost was more than $70 as recently as 2008.

While now is a good time for consumers to lock in cheaper electricity prices, well more than 25 percent of the state’s power plants are operating at a cash loss, especially the older coal-fired plants, power executives and analysts estimated. That’s before more stringent federal emissions regulations go into effect in coming years

Until coal plants start shutting down or the state tweaks regulations to artificially inflate prices, power companies will struggle, executives said. A new Moody’s Investors Service report concluded that Texas “power prices are unlikely to climb out of their doldrums.”

Already, less than a quarter of Texas’ coal fleet is operating early this spring, as more generators simply take their coal plants offline until the summer heat brings more demand, analysts from Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. noted.

In March, wind added to the grid more than coal power for the first time ever for a full month. Wind contributed 21.4 percent of the grid’s overall power, compared with 12.9 percent from coal, which used to be the dominant source of the state’s electricity generation, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electricity load.

“Ultimately, something is going to have to give here,” said Thad Hill, president and CEO of Calpine Corp., the largest power generator in the Houston region and owner of the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired power plants.

[…]

Texas is home to nearly 20 coal-fired power plants and the near future of at least six of them are considered at risk.

They will require expensive upgrades to meet federal standards, according to a recent ERCOT analysis, and the costs could outweigh the benefits of keeping them open. That’s not even counting the effects of the federal Clean Power Plan, which is pending in court.

“Ultimately, we think the market could be a lot tighter than people think, particularly if people start mothballing or retiring units,” said Hill, whose Calpine would stand to benefit because it doesn’t own any coal plants.

At-risk plants include Luminant’s Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake coal plants in East Texas, half of Luminant’s Sandow plant east of Austin, NRG Energy’s Limestone plant east of Waco, and Engie’s Coleto Creek plant near Victoria that’s being bought by Dynegy.

It’s fine by me if those coal plants go the way of the dodo. It’s long overdue, and their demise will make meeting the Clean Power Plan benchmarks even easier. More investment in solar energy will help mitigate the low-wind periods and ensure demand can be met in the summertime. What’s not to like?

Dan Wallach: 2016 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

We’ve now had a solar system on our house, and an electric car charging from the house, for just over a year. Also of note, in my post last May, I suggested that what we need is a retail electric plan that sells to you at a competitive rate (versus the inflated prices at Green Mountain) and buys from you at the wholesale price (which can climb impressively high on hot summer afternoons, when your solar system is cranking out the juice). Well, plans like this are starting to appear on the market. MP2 Energy has such a plan and others are looking into it.

Today, I want to discuss a few related questions:

  • How much electricity did our solar system generate, and our electric car consume, in the past year?
  • Based on our year of data, would we do any better to stick with Green Mountain or go to one of the newer plans?

Of course, I’m only writing about our own usage, with our house and our car. Your house and your car and your, umm, mileage will vary, but you might be able to extrapolate from our numbers to reach your own conclusions about whether you want to go solar.

How much electricity did our solar system generate?

Below is a graph of the energy-per-day produced by our solar array. You can see the system generating more energy in the summer months, with the correspondingly longer days. You can also see the occasional days with bad weather. No sun = no power.

Dan Wallach 2016 chart

In total, over this twelve month period, our solar array (36 panels, 250W peak production per panel) produced 10.3 MWh of electricity. At the $0.12/kWh buyback rate we’re getting with Green Mountain Energy, that means that our solar array saved us roughly $1240 this year. (Our panels are facing east and west, as a result of the way our roof is built. If your house has a large southern-facing roof, you could get this much power from fewer panels.)

How much juice did our Tesla consume?

According to the Tesla’s dashboard measurements, after a year of owning it, we’ve driven a total of 7033 miles, and used 2476 kWh to do it. That’s 352 Wh/mile. Assuming you were paying $0.10/kWh for your electricity, then we’re talking about 3.5 cents/mile. Contrast that with a comparably large sedan with comparable performance (e.g., an Audi A7), doing the same sort of city driving and thus getting something crappy like 15 miles/gallon, then with current $2/gallon prices, you’re looking at 13.3 cents/mile. You’d have to have some kind of amazing 57mpg  hybrid to achieve the same cost per mile. (A Prius is almost there. Big luxury cars, not so much.)

Another way to think about it: the “long tailpipe” problem. Some critics of electric cars note that they still burn fossil fuels, just somewhere far away from home. Our solar array produced enough energy to run our Tesla for nearly 30,000 miles. So if you want to have a “solar powered electric car”, you can do it with even a modest-sized solar system.

What if you drive a longer commute? The prior owner of our Tesla lived up in the Woodlands and commuted back and forth to Houston. He was averaging an even more amazing 300 Wh/mile, driving twice as many miles per year in the same exact car. He upgraded to a Tesla P85D (the four-wheel-drive version that goes insanely faster) and his mileage stayed roughly the same. Supercar performance, tiny hybrid efficiency.

All that said, I don’t have a really good handle on the overhead of the Tesla. Sure, it consumed 2476 kWh in the past year, but that’s going from the car’s battery to the tires. There’s some fractional overhead beyond that, going from the wall outlet to the car’s battery. Charging a battery creates heat, which represents wasted electricity, and also requires additional energy to remove. The Tesla will thus use extra power to run the A/C compressor while it’s charging. For now, let’s just say that measuring the charging overhead is future work. (Hey OffTheKuff readers: if you’ve got measurement infrastructure that I could borrow for this, let me know!)

Lastly, I’ll note that we did several road trips in the Tesla, using their Supercharger infrastructure. I’d estimate that somewhere around 500 kWh of that energy was “free” from the Supercharger network (i.e., included in the cost of buying the car).

Should we stick with Green Mountain or switch elsewhere?

Green Mountain has the best net metering plan on the market, but there are only two competitors. In a nutshell, Green Mountain buys and sells power from you at the exact same price: $0.12/kWh, inclusive of all fees and taxes. But there are plenty of standard retail plans that will sell you electricity at $0.08 or $0.09/kWh. Can we do better than Green Mountain’s net metering plan? The real issue, once you strip away all the dumb politics, is that the underlying pricing model isn’t at all a flat rate for electricity.

Roughly speaking, there’s a wholesale price for the electricity coming from a commercial generator and then there’s a distribution price to get it to you. Wholesale prices vary all day long, with overnight lows below a penny and mid-afternoon highs as much as 3 cents/kWh, with occasional peaks that are much, much higher. CenterPoint charges 3.8 cents/kWh for delivery of that power, no matter what, alongside a flat monthly charge of $5.47 per residential customer. All those charges are often rolled into the pricing plans you see from other retail electricity providers, who are essentially gambling that they can buy power at variable wholesale rates and sell it to you at a flat retail price while still somehow making a profit.

When a retail electricity provider wants to get into the solar buyback game, their actual costs to get power downstream to your house (so far as I can tell) are the wholesale price plus the distribution price. Your excess solar power production is worth the same to them as the spot wholesale price when it flows back upstream. CenterPoint doesn’t give any sort of rebate for upstream electricity flows. CenterPoint’s argument: Somebody else is receiving the power you’re sending upstream, and they’re paying to get it delivered. CenterPoint charges for that delivery.

Can a retail electricity provider offer a competitive pricing plan that’s closer to the wholesale market structure while still buffering consumers from the sometimes insane spikes of the raw wholesale market? One such provider, who prefers not to be named yet in public, approached me privately and offered me the chance to test drive a new plan they’re working on. Their proposal is to pass through all the CenterPoint charges, as is, and then have a flat 3 cents/kWh for buying and selling power, downstream or upstream. I ran these numbers through my spreadsheet for the same 12 months of data I’ve already captured. Here’s what came out: Green Mountain’s $0.12/kWh net metering plan cost us $692.84 for the year. If we had this new plan instead, it would come out to $712.07 for the same usage in the same year.

Evaluating MP2’s spot-price “solar buyback” plan is a bit more complicated, because the upstream price they pay you varies all day long. Conveniently, MP2 did this analysis for me. I emailed them all our data and their conclusion was that our annual bill would be $904.32, so not especially competitive with Green Mountain’s net metering. MP2 also offers a net metering plan, similar to Green Mountain’s plan, but it’s presently offered as part of getting your solar system installed through SolarCity. Thus, not an option for us.

Call me modestly bullish on this. Even though MP2’s solar buyback plan isn’t a good deal for our house, other firms are looking to offer variants on the same business model that are competitive. As an added bonus, I’d now be incentivized to put a big battery on our house to capture the excess daily production and reuse it at night. With standard net-metering, there was no incentive, but now I’d save those distribution charges. I’ll still wait for the cost of battery packs to drop, but it’s fun to think about.

Some Thoughts About the Future

There are always going to be a few days in the summer where the demand on the grid peaks out. In those cases, all the market-rate adjustments in the world won’t cause a new industrial generator to be constructed and placed online. That means high prices and brownouts. (If anything, there’s a reasonable fear that generators might deliberately go off-line to force price spikes. That’s beyond the scope of today’s post.)

Solar has a big role to play in stabilizing our grid, because those hottest hours of the day are exactly when solar panels will be generating the most power. Solar also happens to do the job without pollution, and without incurring large infrastructure costs for long-distance power distribution. On top of that, solar’s one-time purchase and installation costs are rapidly shrinking.

Consequently, it’s sensible and desirable for the Federal government to continue its solar subsidy, and it would make a lot of sense for the Texas state government to get in on the game as well. The solar on our roof helps our neighbors, not just us. I’m not suggesting that we’ll stop burning fossil fuels, but rather that a diversified set of sources is a desirable way to meet the needs for a stable and scalable power grid.

The biggest objection to solar, so far as I can tell, comes from shills who misrepresent the financial structure of the electricity markets and claim that residential solar production leads to “mooching” off the grid. What I like about MP2 and some of the other buyback plans coming online is that they address this concern head-on. By passing through the monthly CenterPoint connection charge and pricing power consumption somewhere only marginally higher than wholesale rates, these new plans make it clear that solar systems aren’t mooching at all. They’re paying their fair share, and they’re improving the reliability of the grid while they’re at it.

Georgetown goes all in on renewable energy

From ThinkProgress.

Located about 30 miles north of the Texas capital in a deeply conservative county, the city of Georgetown will be powered 100 percent by renewable energy within the next couple years. Georgetown’s residents and elected officials made the decision to invest in two large renewable energy projects, one solar and one wind, not because they reduced greenhouse gas emissions or sent a message about the viability of renewable energy — but because it just made sense, according to Mayor Dale Ross.

“This was a business decision and it was a no-brainer,” Ross told ThinkProgress from his office along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. “This is a long-term source of power that creates cost certainty, brings economic development, uses less water, and helps the environment.”

[…]

Ross said that a lot of “folks don’t really care what kind of electrons are flowing down the transmission lines,” they just don’t want to pay more for power. Once he explains the new setup to residents, even the most skeptical and politically conservative, they tend to come around.

“The main criticism I’ve heard about green energy is the worry that the tax credits might go away,” said Ross. “Well that doesn’t impact us because they are contractually obligated to deliver energy at that price for 25 years.”

Ross, who is a Certified Public Accountant by trade, took this idea one step further.

“And if you are really looking into that — in the tax code which industry gets the most deductions and credits of any industry out there? That would be fossil fuels. Renewable energy credits are minuscule compared to fossil fuels,” said Ross, who was elected as a Republican mayor earlier this year.

While the cost of both wind and solar power are trending downwards quickly, Georgetown was able to get such a good deal in part due to timing. According to Chris Foster, Georgetown’s Resource Planning & Integration manager and the one responsible for working through all the logistics of the city’s energy needs, wind prices were particularly low at the time the city locked in the 144-megawatt, 20-year deal with EDF Renewables in early 2014. Foster said that in late 2013 wind energy bidders were worried that tax breaks wouldn’t be renewed, and because of this they offered extremely cheap rates in exchange for a long-term contract. Foster was not allowed to disclose the exact rate.

The wind power Georgetown is getting from EDF’s farm is just a small push in the much larger rush of wind power taking place across Texas. Around 2,200 megawatts, enough to bring power to some 400,000 homes, are expected to come online in the state before 2017. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas leads the country in both under-construction wind capacity and installed wind capacity, of which it has over 14,000 megawatts.

Even though wind power has brought some 17,000 jobs and $26 billion in capital investment to the state, lawmakers came remarkably close to repealing key renewable energy policies in this year’s legislative session, which ended in early June. The Senate passed legislation that would have done away with the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which has already been surpassed anyways, and — more harmfully — frozen the CREZ program that is responsible for the bulk of the new transmission lines. The bill never made it out of the House. Advocates of both programs argue that they have worked, and Georgetown appears to be the model example.

“We asked everybody in the state to show us the cheapest power at the longest terms,” Foster told ThinkProgress. “We looked at nuclear, coal, gas, some solar, and wind — and wind was by far and away the cheapest form of power.”

Foster, who came to Ross’s office for the interview, said that natural gas prices were competitive but that the providers were only willing to offer five- or six-year contracts.

A year or so after signing the wind contract Georgetown went looking for additional long-term power. During this time Foster realized that solar would nicely complement the profile of wind energy, which blows most overnight. While solar power is less developed in Texas, as costs drop the potential is sky high. Texas is ranked first in solar energy potential according to the State Energy Conversation Office but only tenth in installed solar capacity. In 2014, Texas installed 129 megawatts of solar, ranking it 8th for the year nationally.

“Between 2012 and 2014 the solar market came down almost 80 percent in cost,” said Foster. “So once again we had great timing, as the solar providers wanted long-term contracts in order to help break into the Texas market.”

Great to see, and it really does make a lot of sense. They were able to get their rates locked in for a much longer time than they could have with any fossil fuel provider. I suppose they could miss out on some future savings this way, but they will definitely avoid any future price increases, which the traditional providers couldn’t promise they wouldn’t face. I hope other cities explore this kind of option as well. Link via EoW.

Dan Wallach: 2015 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

I’ve been blogging about our electricity situation for the past few years here at OffTheKuff. In 2014, I mentioned that we were pondering going with a solar system. Well, we did it — a 9 kW (peak) solar system via Texas Solar Outfitters — and we also picked up a Tesla Model S. This is less about being green hippie freaks and more about disconnecting from what I’ve viewed as a deeply dysfunctional electricity market. (And also having a car that kicks ass, but that’s for another day and a different blog.)

We’ve only had the solar system since November, so it’s too soon to have full-year statistics. Once the system reaches its first full year anniversary, I’ll run the “profitability” numbers and do another guest post here. Stay tuned for more exciting charts and financial math (present value, IRR, and more)! Instead, I wanted to give some perspective on the economics of solar power.

Notably, Tesla just announced a new “PowerWall” contraption that puts a 10kWh battery pack on your garage wall for $3500 (plus hiring an electrician, plus permitting, plus ancillary equipment like inverters, so let’s call it $6000 minimum). Elon Musk envisions that we can truly replace our entirely fossil fuel-based economy with solar power: homes, cars, everything. (For more technical details on the PowerWall products, Teslarati has a good writeup.) Let’s do the numbers, shall we?

To begin, here’s our March electrical bill from Green Mountain — the best of the three available plans if you have solar.

WallachElectricBill

This is what “net metering” looks like. We drew 862kWh from the grid and fed back 573kWh. Meanwhile, over the same time period, our solar system reports that it produced 853kWh. Of this, the house consumed 280kWh and we sold back the remaining 573kWh. So, our actual power consumption for March was 1142kWh (solar generation plus grid consumption, minus excesses solar generation sold back).

I rolled back to last year’s stats, when we had neither solar nor a Tesla, and the monthly usage for the same time period was 864kWh, which says that the Tesla used around 280kWh for the month, or maybe it’s just hotter this year. Last year’s awful summer peaks were well north of 1500kWh, so presumably this summer, with the Tesla, we’re looking at 1800-2000kWh / month of peak usage.

(With our Tesla, we’re on target to hit about 7500 miles/year, so these numbers may represent a “low” usage point relative to others, but you can easily scale our numbers up if you want to predict your own hypothetical costs. Your mileage and the weather may vary, etc.)

Here’s where solar gets fun. The graph below shows the energy generated by our solar system on a beautiful, sunny April day. Positive numbers represent power we’re drawing from the grid. Negative numbers represent excess power we’re selling back to the grid. You can see our Tesla charging itself up after we got home from eating dinner out. You can also nicely see when the sun came up and when it went down again. On this particular day, midnight to midnight, we drew 20kWh from the grid while the sun was down. The solar system generated 52kWh, and we had an excess of 44kWh that we sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed a total of 28kWh on this particular day and were a net seller of electricity). Sounds great right?

WallachSunnyDayApril

The new Tesla PowerWall contraption leads you to ask the question of whether you could store all that extra energy in a battery during the day and release it at night. If you could do that, you could then cut yourself free from the grid. Today’s question: what would it take to go completely “off grid”?

To pull this off, you need to generate everything you might ever need, even in the worst case. So how bad is bad? Here’s a chart of our power usage over a two day period in early April when it was rainy and awful.

WallachRainyApril

Over these two days, our total power drawn from the grid was 46kWh. The solar system generated 25.2kWh, of which 9kWh was sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed an average of 31kWh/day on these two days). To make this work “off grid”, we’d need to double the size of our solar system. To make this work on a bad weather winter day, with correspondingly less daylight, the solar system would need to grow yet again. Also, this included a typical day of driving with our Tesla. What if we did a long drive and got home with a near-empty battery? You’d have a whole new form of range anxiety to deal with. Conversely, on days when you generate more than you use you’re just throwing it away.

Our current solar system cost us roughly $30k to purchase and install (before the 30% tax credit, which might go down in future years). No matter how you slice it, the profitability of the system is dubious, given how much cheaper electricity became after the Saudis decided to crank up their production. Doubling the solar system, installing expensive batteries, going off-grid, and discarding excess production? Sorry, that’s not financially rational.

Incidentally, if you want to know how to size up a Tesla PowerWall system for an off-grid solar application, you pretty much just add up your grid consumption during the night; you need to ensure you have enough solar capacity and battery capacity during the day to cover it. For our house, two PowerWall batteries ($3500/ea, for 20kWh total storage capacity) wouldn’t quite do the job. We’d need three of them to have a decent margin. If you had a bigger house or you drove many more miles on your electric car, then you’d have to ratchet everything up appropriately.

Conclusion 1: building a solar system to deal with worst-case power generation, operating your house “off grid”, will require your solar system to be much larger than you’d specify for a net-metering application, where you can rely on the grid for bad-weather days. As solar panels get more powerful and cheaper, the economics of this will change. Today, no. Ten years, maybe.

Next question for today: is there any point in buying a PowerWall if not to go off-grid? If what you want is “emergency” service in a power-outage situation, you can buy all sorts of natural gas generators. They’re loud when running and they require regular service, but after Hurricane Ike knocked our power out for ten days, we could feel the soulful allure. Unfortunately, a smaller PowerWall system wouldn’t help here, since for a ten day blackout, you’re really in a situation equivalent to the fully off-grid scenario.

Sadly, with only flat-rate grid electricity pricing available here, I conclude that a PowerWall has no real use at our home.

Caveat 1: so long as TXU is willing to give you “free nights”, then a PowerWall means free electricity for your home! You can expect TXU to kill that program off quickly once Tesla’s battery packs start shipping. Sorry about that.

Caveat 2: electric utilities are cranking up the scare machine that it’s “unfair” for solar consumers to pay less for the grid. First off, this is totally bogus, as we pay the same fixed fee as everybody else pays for CenterPoint to maintain the grid. (Many retail electric plans hide this fee, so long as you use more than 1000kWh, but they’re still paying it on your behalf. ) And if you’re a net provider rather than net consumer of power at peak times, you’re helping the grid. But let’s say the utilities win the argument and kill off or weaken solar net metering. At that point, we’re forced to buy a battery storage system to recapture our excess daytime usage. The grid then loses the benefit of our excess generation, and every new solar system just got more expensive for no good reason.

All of this would change if consumers were more exposed to the variable pricing of the commercial power market. Rice University, for example, buys its electricity a full year ahead of time, hour by hour, offset by in-house solar production. If it turns out that Rice pre-bought more than they need, they sell it back on the spot market. If they need more than they pre-bought, they have to go buy power on that same spot market. And, of course, when do they really need it? The same time as everybody else does, on the hottest days, so spot prices can be brutal. With this in mind, typical commercial flat rooftop solar installations point their panels southwest, maximizing their power generation in the afternoon when electricity is most expensive.

The real genius of power storage systems is that you can buy and store the power when it’s cheap and uses it when it’s expensive. Energy arbitrage! That means that the mammoth version of Tesla’s PowerWall might be very attractive for industrial and commercial users. Even utilities might deploy them into neighborhoods. And if home users were more exposed to the “real” pricing in the commercial market, they too would be incentivized to get personal battery storage systems, with or without solar, for the same reasons. So far as I can tell, none of the available-in-Houston 325 plans from the 52 different retail electric providers offer hour-by-hour variable pricing like this, but in Austin or San Antonio, your traditional electric utility might be able to do it. Here’s a nice NPR article with useful details.

Conclusion 2: so long as consumers have net metering available and are not exposed to variable time-of-day electricity pricing, they won’t be incentivized to buy a battery storage system, with or without a solar system on the roof. There’s really no benefit for Houston consumers today to buy a storage system.

Teslarati runs a similar analysis in a state with variable pricing. In Southern California, the PowerWall becomes profitable in 3-5 years, and is unattractive for off-grid. Also, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, not to be confused with our NRG-owned Green Mountain Energy, is ramping up some kind of joint program with Tesla. Who knows, maybe we’ll see something like it here some day.

One parting thought: in the insane, fragmented universe of the deregulated Texas electricity market, where generation, distribution, and retail sales are performed by unrelated players, we’ll probably be stuck with pricing policies that incentivize consumers to waste energy for make benefit most glorious State of Texas. Of course, exposing consumers to the raw industrial electricity market would likely be disastrous. Consumers can’t easily manage their load or trade contracts against future use. The best we seem to get are “smart” thermostats that can throttle back at peak times. Yawn. What seems missing, then, is better regulations for how consumer pricing is structured to incentivize lower peak usage. My proposed solution? Net metering and predictable time-variable pricing should be a standard part of any retail electricity offering. Let me sell high and buy low! Similarly, every plan should be structured to eliminate perverse rate structures where marginal rates go down as usage goes up. That’s common sense. Deregulation!

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has written four of these analyses before.

Get out of solar’s way

Keep an eye on this.

“Hawaii is a postcard from the future,” said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a policy and advocacy group based in California.

Other states and countries, including California, Arizona, Japan and Germany, are struggling to adapt to the growing popularity of making electricity at home, which puts new pressures on old infrastructure like circuits and power lines and cuts into electric company revenue.

As a result, many utilities are trying desperately to stem the rise of solar, either by reducing incentives, adding steep fees or effectively pushing home solar companies out of the market. In response, those solar companies are fighting back through regulators, lawmakers and the courts.

The shift in the electric business is no less profound than those that upended the telecommunications and cable industries in recent decades. It is already remaking the relationship between power companies and the public while raising questions about how to pay for maintaining and operating the nation’s grid.

The issue is not merely academic, electrical engineers say.

In solar-rich areas of California and Arizona, as well as in Hawaii, all that solar-generated electricity flowing out of houses and into a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction has caused unanticipated voltage fluctuations that can overload circuits, burn lines and lead to brownouts or blackouts.

“Hawaii’s case is not isolated,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the smart grid program at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical association. “When we push year-on-year 30 to 40 percent growth in this market, with the number of installations doubling, quickly — every two years or so — there’s going to be problems.”

The economic threat also has electric companies on edge. Over all, demand for electricity is softening while home solar is rapidly spreading across the country. There are now about 600,000 installed systems, and the number is expected to reach 3.3 million by 2020, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Edison Electric Institute, the main utility trade group, has been warning its members of the economic perils of high levels of rooftop solar since at least 2012, and the companies are responding. In February, the Salt River Project, a large utility in Arizona, approved charges that could add about $50 to a typical monthly bill for new solar customers, while last year in Wisconsin, where rooftop solar is still relatively rare, regulators approved fees that would add $182 a year for the average solar customer.

This story doesn’t have a direct connection to Texas, but our state has a tremendous potential for solar, high electric bills in many cities, and a Legislature that isn’t all that friendly to renewable energy, but very much is friendly to the entrenched status quo. That’s a combination that makes this all worth keeping an eye on.

ERCOT acknowledges that meeting EPA clean air requirements won’t be that big a deal

From Texas Clean Air Matters:

ERCOT

Well, it didn’t take long before the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released, at the request of Texas’ very political Public Utilities Commission, another report about the impacts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rules designed to protect public health.

This time ERCOT, which manages 90 percent of Texas’ electric grid, looked at the impact of seven EPA clean air safeguards on the electric grid, including the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), the Regional Haze program (all of which go back before the Obama administration), the proposed Clean Power Plan, which would set the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and others. What was surprising to learn, though, is that after power companies in the state start complying with EPA’s other clean air protections, the proposed Clean Power Plan poses a minimal incremental impact to the power grid. We would only have to cut 200 megawatts of coal-fired generation, which equates to less than one coal-fired power plant.

For as much doom-and-gloom we heard last month in ERCOT’s report about the Clean Power Plan, they certainly seem to be singing a different tune this go-around. The new report shows that Texas can go a long way toward complying with the Clean Power Plan by meeting other clean air safeguards, for which Texas power companies have had years to prepare.

Very soon power companies in Texas will install control technologies to reduce multiple – not just one – pollutants, thereby making compliance with EPA’s subsequent regulations easier and more cost-effective. In the end, Texas will only need to take a minimal amount of additional aging coal plants offline by 2029.

Plus, other energy resources, like energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and demand response (which pays people to conserve energy when the electric grid is stressed) are gaining ground every day in Texas. They have proven to be vital resources on the power grid that help reduce electricity costs for Texas homes and businesses.

Energy efficiency, in particular, provides significant reductions in power plant emissions, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone-forming pollutants, and has a four-to-one payback on investment. This is the type of performance worth investing in.

See here for the background, and click over to read the rest. In addition to what the EDF says above, complying with the new regulations would also save a ton of water, which is a pretty big deal in and of itself. So let’s have less whining – and fewer lawsuits – and get on with the compliance. It’s a win all around.

It’s OK if energy costs go up for now

That’s my reaction to this.

ERCOT

As Texas regulators weigh a response to President Obama’s proposal to combat climate change, the operator of the state’s main electric grid says the plan would raise energy costs and threaten reliability – particularly in the next few years.

In an analysis released Monday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said the plan — which requires states to shift from coal-power to cut carbon emissions — would significantly increase power prices in the next few years. But those extra costs would fall in the next decades as Texans reaped long-term savings from investments in solar power and energy efficiency. 

Under the federal proposal, Texas would need to slash carbon emissions from its power plants by as much as 195 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next 18 years, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. That 43 percent reduction is among the larger percentage of cuts required among states.

The EPA suggests that Texas could meet its goal though a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Texas would have until 2016 to submit a plan to meet its carbon target.

The ERCOT analysis comes as Texas regulators prepare to file formal comments to the EPA ahead of the Dec. 1 public comment deadline.

[…]

“Given what we see today, the risk of rotating outages increases,” Warren Lasher, director of system planning at ERCOT, said Monday in a media call.

The changes would hit coal-dependent communities around Dallas and Houston particularly hard, Lasher said. Those areas would quickly need new power lines to connect with new power sources. That could prove costly. For instance, officials project a major transmission project for the Houston area to total $590 million.

“All of those costs could ultimately be born by consumers in the power bills,” Lasher said.

And I’m okay with that. The costs would be borne in the short run and would likely lead to lower costs as more renewable sources came online and became part of the statewide grid. As the Rivard Report reminds us, there’s a lot of that happening already. The pollution reduction benefit from the EPA’s directive would be substantial as well. If ERCOT is trying to scare me, it’s not working. I’m sure the EPA would be willing to be flexible with Texas on the schedule if Texas negotiates in good faith and demonstrates a real commitment to meeting the stated goals. Or Texas can sue and lose and get no help in getting this implemented as smoothly as possible. Seems like a pretty easy choice to me. Texas Clean Air Matters has more.

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to SmartMeterTexas.com). For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from PowerToChoose.org, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.

WallachPowerAnalysisChart2014

While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Google energy

Fascinating.

Google may not seem like an energy company, but it sure is acting like one.

Through more than $1 billion in investments and through large contracts for renewable power, Google has become the most significant player in the energy business outside of actual energy companies and financial institutions.

The Internet search giant’s efforts to transform the world’s use of power and fossil fuels have included a $200 million investment in a Texas wind farm and the purchase of a company that makes innovative flying wind turbines. It has invested $168 million in a solar project in California and is funding the development of an offshore grid to support wind turbines off the Atlantic coast.

In total, it has an ownership stake in more than 2 gigawatts of power generation capacity, the equivalent of Hoover Dam, said Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability.

Google even has a subsidiary, Google Energy, that’s authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sell wholesale electricity that it generates from its power assets.

Analysts say it is the only company other than energy businesses and financial institutions that has taken large ownership stakes in major stand-alone power projects.

Read the whole thing – try this FuelFix link if the houstonchronicle.com one is not available to you – it’s quite a story. It’s great to see an innovator and big investor like Google pushing renewable energy for business reasons as well as altruistic ones. I hope a lot of other companies follow their lead.

Dan Wallach: Energy pricing 2012

This is a guest post that follows up on an earlier guest post.

Dan Wallach

Last year, I wrote a guest article for Off The Kuff where I discussed the complexity of trying to get a good price on your electric bill. In Houston, we have seemingly hundreds of companies who will gladly take our money in return for electricity. Which should you choose? The place to begin remains PowerToChoose.com, but the market has changed a bunch from when I last took a look.

If you really dig around PowerToChoose, you’ll see all these companies you’ve never heard of, each of which has a piece of clip-art on its web page of a beautiful meadow with a shining sun, or maybe a happy family with perfect teeth. (Exercise for the reader running the Chrome browser: you can right-click on those pictures, and select “Search Google with this image”, and see how widespread those stock images are used. In one case, the smiling family I saw also appeared in web sites for a car dealership, a dentist, a youth ministry, a nutrition supplements company, and an alarm system company.)

Last year, it was common for these companies to offer low teaser rates for the first month that bubbled them up to the top of the list. You’d then pay the regular higher rate thereafter. This made it very difficult to do comparison shopping, since you had to dig deeper into the “electricity facts label” sheets to find out what the real prices were. It also created a huge incentive for you to switch companies every month.

At the time, I decided to switch to Pennywise Power, who was advertising a relatively low variable rate. I was entirely happy with them until this July, when their prices exploded. My bill for June was $197.99 for 1873 kWh ($0.105 per kWh, after taxes, fees, and such). My bill for July was $289.78 for 1662 kWh ($0.174 per kWh). It’s come back down again, but at least for two months, they were charging far above other companies’ advertised rates. (Note: the wholesale market for electricity went bonkers at the end of June, and some of that was clearly passed on to me.)

My conclusion last year was that Pennywise’s rates were low enough to be attractive, but I apparently failed to notice my own warning:

“Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

After seeing the shocking July bill, I figured it was time to jump into a fixed rate product, so back I went to PowerToChoose.com and slogged through the various options. These days, the low teaser rates from last year are all gone. Now, the advertised price seems to be the price you actually pay, but things are still a bit wonky. One of the tricks I observed with Pennywise is that their pricing, which included a $9.95 “base charge” if you use less than 1000 kWh, creates some perverse incentives if your electrical usage is just below that number per month. Wasting energy to get over the top might save you real money! This year, I resolved to find the best fixed price with zero “base” charge. That led me to Summer Energy, where I inked a one year lock-in at $0.093 per kWh. (If you sign up today, with the proper promotion code, it’s $0.085 per kWh.) My first bill showed up for the back half of July, and it included a $4.89 base charge! I had to threaten to abandon them if they didn’t fix it, and they eventually came around.

So, what have we learned here? First, when you’re doing business with faceless companies who advertise low rates, you might expect to have unexpected charges and unusual behaviors. (Summer Energy still hasn’t sorted out my request to set up automatic credit card payment.)

Second, this “deregulated” market could stand to have more regulation. If you read the electricity fact sheets that our vendors are required to publish, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity among them, and lots of fine print they leave out. If I were king for a day, all of these fixed “base rate” fees would be standardized, simplifying vendor competition to price per kilowatt-hour within equivalence classes of different percentages of “renewable” energy.

Finally, a word about the future. A buddy of mine in California got himself a fancy solar panel system on his house. He sells excess capacity back to the grid, but it’s much better than that. His electric utility company (for which he has no choice) has tiered rates. The more electricity he burns, the more he pays. But by selling power back, he stays out of the higher rate tiers. He also gets tax credits and other incentives that aren’t available in Houston; some other Texas utilities offer rebates, but Centerpoint has nothing in our area. In theory, with our shiny new smart meters, we could have some all kinds of sophisticated billing policies like variable day/night rates or solar systems that let you sell power back to the grid, but these aren’t happening yet. I suspect this is an unfortunate side effect of our multi-vendor deregulated market. (Reliant does have a plan that lets you sell power back, but the base electrical rate is uncompetitive.)

If you dig deeper into your electrical bill, you’re paying a big chunk of your bill to Centerpoint for “delivering” your electricity, no matter who you’re paying for your juice. That’s the place where we might eventually see some innovation. Centerpoint could charge variable time-of-day or tiered rates, they could buy back your electricity if you have solar, and so forth. One of these days, I might buy myself an electric car, and I’d be keen to have more sophisticated electrical pricing in place before then.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice University.

Laura Spanjian – From Industrial to Green Revolution: The New Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Laura Spanjian

Bike Share kiosks in downtown. Electric vehicle charging stations at the grocery store. Over 15 miles of new rail lines being constructed. Wind turbines and solar on rooftops. Solar-powered mini-offices at schools and parks. E-cycling and polystyrene foam recycling. Urban gardens surrounding office buildings. LEED-certified historic buildings. Complete Streets in urban neighborhoods. Accessible and recreation-oriented bayous.

What City is this you ask?

The New Houston.

Innovation, creativity and a black gold rush spirit dominated industrial Houston at the turn of the last century – putting Houston on the map as an economic leader.

Today, Houston is at an historic juncture. Decision-drivers for the city and the region are no longer only economic. There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution.

What are these building blocks? Recently, Forbes Magazine placed Houston as the number one city for young professionals. And young professionals drive innovation and use new thinking to solve old issues. Houston has a business-friendly environment and a plethora of large companies conducting business in new ways. Houston has high average incomes and a concentration of graduates from elite colleges from across the country. Also, for the first time in thirty years, the Kinder Houston Area Study revealed a significant increase in the number of residents who support mass transit and prefer a less automobile-dependent, more urbanized lifestyle. And Mayor Annise Parker’s forward-thinking and innovative approaches and initiatives are putting Houston on the map as a national green leader.

What’s most exciting about Houston is that few people think it will lead the green revolution. But this sleeping giant is starting to awaken. Houstonians love a good challenge and love to save money.

At the turn of the last century, rich resources made Houston a national economic leader. At the turn of this century, rich resources will do the same. Texas has, by far, the largest installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. The City of Houston capitalized on this and has been recognized by the EPA as the number one municipal purchaser of green power and the seventh largest overall purchaser in the nation.

The City has a robust partnership with the University of Houston’s College of Architecture’s Green Building Components Program. Their innovative faculty has designed the first movable solar powered office/generator, and the City, through a grant, has purchased 17 of these units for emergency preparedness and other uses. Houston also recently received two large grants to reduce the cost of solar for residents and test out new types of rooftop solar technology.

Houston Green Office Challenge

Houston does not only create cleaner ways to use energy, Houston actually uses less energy. The City knows about energy efficiency: over 80 City facilities are expected to achieve guaranteed energy use reductions of 30% with paybacks of, on average, less than ten years.

The City also wants energy efficiency to be part of the urban fabric of Houston. Through our Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), led by the General Services Department, the City has helped 13k Houston residents weatherize their homes, resulting in 12-20% kWh reduction and $60-125 savings each month. On the commercial side, the award-winning Houston Green Office Challenge and the City’s partnership in the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge are encouraging building owners and property managers to find innovative measures to reduce their energy and water consumption and decrease waste.

We also know that equally important to encouraging high performing buildings is looking at our codes. In January 2012, the City, with leadership from the Public Works and Engineering Department, set the bar high by adopting the Houston Residential Energy Code. This code makes Houston’s standards 5% above the state code for residential energy efficiency standards, and also requires all new residential buildings to be solar ready. And Houston is poised to adopt another 5% increase above state code this year.

It’s not just about energy efficiency. Houston also embraces green buildings. Currently Houston is number four in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings with 186 certified projects. That’s up from #7 just a year ago.

One of the most impressive pieces of the green revolution is the emphasis on public transportation and new transportation technologies. Under the leadership of METRO, Houston will soon have three new rail lines, adding over 15 miles to the system.

Houston is at the forefront of the electric car movement. Houston was one of the first cities to receive EV cars for a City fleet, which now includes 40 Nissan Leafs and plug-in hybrids. And with partners such as NRG launching the first private investment in public EV charging infrastructure, Houston is leading in electric vehicle readiness.

In addition to electric, CNG is offering cleaner, cheaper fuel for additional options: In a partnership with Apache, the Airport’s new parking shuttles at IAH are being powered by natural gas.

With the launch of Houston B-cycle, the City’s bike share program is now a reality with 3 stations and 18 bikes in downtown, with $1 million in committed funding to grow to 20 stations and 225 bikes by the fall of 2012. This grant-funded program offers a transportation alternative for citizens and will help address pollution issues, traffic congestion, and rising oil costs.

And the City, under the leadership of the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, recently won a $15 million highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 TIGER grant. This project will assist in eliminating gaps in Houston’s bike grid: the project includes building 7.5 miles of off-street shared-use paths, 2.8 miles of sidewalks, and 7.9 miles of on-street bikeways.

And the dream and vision behind the Bayou Greenway project is becoming more of a reality. This proposed linear park system is unrivaled in its breadth and scope.

Finally, sustainability must encompass urban agriculture. The City Gardens and Farmers Market Initiative supports urban gardens and markets: the City has planted numerous new vegetable gardens (some of which are highlighted in First Lady Michele Obama’s new book, American Grown) and, with its partner Urban Harvest, has encouraged the sale and purchase of local food by starting a weekly farmers market at City Hall, with over 40 vendors.

In addition, the Mayor’s Council on Health and the Environment created an obesity task force to look at the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The Healthy Houston initiative will review and implement sustainable food policies for Houston to create work, school, and neighborhood environments conducive to healthier eating and increased physical activity. And under the leadership of Councilmember Stephen Costello, Houston is working to minimize food deserts and increase food access.

These initiatives are helping to make Houston a growing, thriving, modern, green city of the future, a destination for visitors, a magnet for new residents and a city well positioned in the global market.

The New Houston is here, and it’s on a roll.

Laura Spanjian is the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston. Learn more at http://www.greenhoustontx.gov, http://www.facebook.com/greenhoustontx and http://www.twitter.com/greenhoustontx.

Desalinization and power plants

The Trib has another story about desalinization in Texas, and reading it brings up a point that I don’t think gets enough attention.

KBH Desalinization Facility

Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water. The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)

Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said.

But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso. (Odessa’s deadline for proposals is next week.)

Separately, a planned power plant near Odessa is studying prices for the technology. John Ragan, the head of Texas operations for NRG Energy, envisions natural gas power plants along the coast that desalinate water overnight when they are not needed for electricity. Residents near the half-full Highland Lakes in Central Texas say that desalination could reduce the water-supply burden on the lakes. Texas Tech University aims to begin wind-powered desalination research later this year, in the West Texas town of Seminole.

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water. Natural gas plants use a lot less than coal plants, though they still use a lot. Renewable energy – wind and solar – pretty much don’t need water at all. See this Texas Water Development Board report about power generation and water usage through the year 2060 for more. Desalinization needs to be part of the mix in Texas – we have more than enough brackish water to supply the entire state – but desalinization requires a lot of power, and power generation, at least as we do it today, requires a lot of water. Everybody understands that greenhouse gas and climate change implications of renewable energy versus coal and gas, but the water use implications are as important. The more we invest in renewable energy the better off we’ll be in more ways than we might think.

Solar’s bright future

Here’s a long story in the Observer about the state of solar energy in Texas. The piece covers a lot of ground, including this bit about what’s going on in San Antonio.

They will be building a lot of these

San Antonio has emerged as a city willing to turn talk into action and its abundant sunlight into energy to spark what Mayor Julian Castro—the one who the New York Times Magazine suggested could be America’s first Latino president—calls the “New Energy Economy.” In the era of Solyndra, San Antonio is making a bold, maybe risky bid at deploying solar energy on a scale that could edge the city away from fossil fuels, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gasses, water consumption and air pollution. Castro and the city’s massive utility, CPS Energy, are betting that climate change, depleting fossil fuels and increased drought stress will make early investments in renewable energy and clean technologies a huge payoff in the future.

In San Antonio, things have unfolded rapidly. In 2010, CPS Energy pledged to have 20 percent of its generating capacity, about 1,500 megawatts, come from renewables and 65 percent of its portfolio be low-carbon. The utility set a goal of 100 megawatts for solar. That same year, the 14-megawatt Blue Wing, San Antonio’s first utility-scale solar farm, went online. At the time, it was the largest photovoltaic array—a system that converts sunlight directly into electricity—in Texas and the third-largest in the nation. Then in October 2010, CPS contracted with SunEdison, a Maryland-based solar developer, to build and run three more 10-megawatt solar farms around the city. Almost as soon as that deal was in place, the utility rolled out a solicitation for another 50 megawatts, nearly bringing CPS to its 100 megawatt solar goal. But there was a big twist this time: The bidders would have to bring a manufacturing proposal to the table and put down roots in San Antonio. Clean energy alone wasn’t enough; San Antonio wanted to build a clean energy economy.

In June 2011, amid a record heat wave and drought, Castro and CPS head Doyle Beneby called together the business, environmental and political community for some big news. Five clean technology companies were opening offices or relocating to San Antonio, bringing about 230 jobs to the city as well as agreements to pump money and research into the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Sustainable Energy Research Institute.

“San Antonio has the opportunity to seize a mantle that no city in the U.S. holds today: to be the recognized leader in clean energy technology,” Castro said in announcing the relocations.

But what electrified the solar industry was when CPS Energy, in July, abruptly increased its solicitation for a 50-megawatt solar plant to 400 megawatts, enough to power 80,000 homes. The response to the 50-megawatt proposal was so positive and the offers so low that CPS simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do something really big. “The price was just rock-bottom on the delivered power,” said Lanny Sinkin.

By the time the bidding closed in July, the utility had received over 30 proposals. But after the deadline, with solar costs dropping practically overnight, new intriguing offers kept rolling in. Tantalized, the CPS board voted unanimously in October to reopen the bidding, this time with stricter requirements. Bidders had to provide a plan not just for building 400 megawatts of photovoltaic solar but also for bringing a manufacturing facility to San Antonio, along with at least 800 jobs and a capital investment of $100 million.

See here and here for more, and be sure to read the whole story in the Observer as well. The story briefly mentions rooftop solar panels and some of the ways that they can be financed, but there’s still one option on the table that no one seems to be using yet. Be that as it may, this story came out at the same time as an announcement from Houston about a federal grant to help make solar panel installs more affordable. Not a huge grant – less than $100K – but every little bit helps. More big thinking like they’re doing in San Antonio would help even more.

West Texas wind

The wind energy business in Texas is going strong.

BP and other energy companies are funneling millions of dollars into building and operating wind farms in West Texas, helping to transform the oil country into one of the nation’s leading hubs for green energy production.

Skylines dominated by nodding pump jacks increasingly are spotted with spinning turbines. Economies tied to the ebb and flow of commodity prices are finding stability in supplying the power grid.

“We’ve been through lots of booms and busts with the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas areas deplete over time,” said Doug May, economic development director for Pecos County.

“The wind resource here is sustainable. We look at these wind farms as a long-term investment in the future of Pecos County.”

Recent energy analyses predict renewable fuels — including wind, solar and biofuels — will be the world’s fastest-growing energy source in coming decades. BP’s own outlook predicts the country’s renewable energy production will surge 252 percent over the next 20 years.

Wind and solar energy are potentially huge boons to West Texas, which is the perfect location in many ways for harvesting both kinds. There’s already a lot of investment out there, and more is to come. There are some obstacles, however.

West Texas wind farms are at the end of the state’s main electrical grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. The Public Utility Commission of Texas has been working on plans to build a more robust network of power lines to bring more wind-generated power to major cities.

But those lines are still two years and nearly $7 billion away.

Meanwhile, the federal tax credit that gives wind power generators 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy produced is slated to expire at year’s end unless lawmakers approve a renewal.

“If Congress chooses not to renew, there is no hope for the wind industry next year,” [John] Graham, the BP executive, said of the tax credit. “Without it, U.S. wind projects aren’t viable.”

BP has joined the pack of wind executives fighting to keep the production tax credit for renewable energy. Graham said he has traveled to Washington five times since October.

You’d think giving an energy company a tax break would come as naturally to Congress as breathing, but that renewable energy credit was a casualty of the payroll tax cut deal. It could be revived, and again, it’s hard to imagine a world in which energy executives have to go begging for bones from Congress. The ERCOT issue has been in the works for four years already. That will be a big deal when it’s done.

San Antonio chooses its solar provider

Nice.

They will be building a lot of these

Under a bright winter sun Wednesday, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby introduced the companies selected to build one of the country’s largest solar projects and a solar manufacturing plant in San Antonio, an investment of more than $100 million.

OCI Solar Power, whose parent is a South Korean chemical company, will build the solar farms, using panels from a factory to be built here by Nexolon, another South Korean firm with close ties to OCI and a builder of solar cell components.

Both companies will open headquarters in San Antonio, part of their larger commitment to bring at least 800 jobs to town with a $38-$40 million payroll. Mayor Julián Castro said at a news conference that the average pay would be $47,000.

That does not include the temporary construction jobs that will be created to build the multiple solar farms, most of which will be in CPS Energy’s service territory. Together, they will generate 400 megawatts of zero-emission electricity — enough to power 80,000 homes.

See here for some background, and CPS’ homepage for more. As an earlier story notes, this is for a 25-year deal, and the price CPS will be charged for the energy generated will reportedly be on the order of 11 or 12 cents per megawatt. Not too shabby.

Apparently, this deal has some folks in Austin a little envious.

But as Austin Energy is set to begin public hearings tonight on its proposed rate increase, solar advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith said solar energy proponents will urge the Austin City Council to copy the San Antonio model.

“The race is on” to become a manufacturing hub, Smith said. “They are going to beat us, unless Austin takes action quickly.”

If the two cities get into a race like that, I daresay the residents of both will win. Too bad we can’t do that here in Houston, since we don’t own our utility like they do. But at least we’re free of the yoke of burdensome government regulations. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have solar panels on your roof right now?

Some people do. More people should.

Despite Houston’s sweltering heat, Grady Hill hasn’t paid an electric bill since 2009.

He keeps his thermostat set at a comfortable 78 degrees when he’s home, but a combination of solar panels and an energy-efficient home have helped him make more power than he uses for most of the year.

That excess power goes to his electric company, Green Mountain Energy, which gives him credits that he taps during the summer months, when he tends to use more than he generates. He earns credits at the same rate he pays, 12.915 cents per kilowatt hour, for the first 500 kwh he generates. Green Mountain buys the rest for half that rate.

At the end of June, when his 3,200-square-foot home used 522 kwh, he had a credit balance of $288.82.

Yes, he wanted to be green, he says, but the savings are the real incentive.

[…]

When Hill and his wife bought their house for $300,000, it had double-pane windows, three feet of insulation in the attic and energy-efficient appliances. The Hills added a tankless water heater, ceiling fans, solar panels and a few other items for $60,000.

The five-kilowatt solar system cost about $22,000 after federal tax rebates, and the Hills also saved because the home was pre-wired for a solar system.

The couple moved in during the summer of 2009. The electric bill that July? $40.

But because of the high up-front costs, the solar industry has struggled to break into the local homeowner market even though many residents spend hundreds of dollars a month keeping homes cool in the scorching summer.

Craig Lobel, president of EcoEdge Consulting, an energy efficiency firm working with Discovery at Spring Trails, said it only makes financial sense to add solar after making less expensive investments. These include efficient appliances and light bulbs and radiant barriers to keep heat out of the attic.

New homes in Discovery at Spring Trails come equipped with those energy-efficient features and an electronic monitor that shows residents how much energy they consume and how much they generate if their houses are solar-equipped.

“You have to build the home efficient from the ground up,” Lobel said. “You can’t just put a Band-Aid on an inefficient home. After homeowners monitor their energy use for several months, many choose to add more solar panels to work toward being grid neutral,” Lobel said.

Doing other energy-efficiency things makes sense on its own, and can get you a lot of bang for your buck. The thing about solar panels is that there are creative ways for local governments to help amortize the cost for homeowners. With our summers getting hotter and the demands on our power grid setting records, there’s a lot to be said for adding to our solar capacity in any way we can. Wouldn’t you like to have that guy’s electricity bills?

Why not put solar panels on school rooftops?

EoW asks a good question:

As the debate over the Texas GOP’s cuts to public education funding raged, and the summer sun started to heat up, it became apparent that at least one opportunity was being missed. That’s when a question arose, Why don’t we have solar panels on every school building in Texas?

With all the sunshine we get in Texas, especially in the summer, it would stand to reason that all of that sunshine could be harnessed and used to heat, cool, and light the many school buildings across Texas. Likely saving large school districts like Austin and Round Rock millions each year. An opportunity that wasn’t even discussed by the legislature.

He lays out the case for doing this, which you should read. I agree that would make an excellent long-term investment, the sort of thing where spending some money now would save a lot more over time. The capital costs are high enough, and the returns gradual enough, that you’d want to do something else in the short term while getting this done. Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple solution there, one that would get you a decent bang for your buck, and that’s painting the roofs white. Each district could hire a bunch of its high schoolers to do this for a fairly moderate cost. Of course, either of these ideas would require a Legislature that cared about solving problems and not simply slashing expenditures willy-nilly. Sadly, that’s not the kind of Legislature we had.

Solar bills advance

Bills relating to solar energy are moving forward through the Lege.

Texas is the top-producing state for wind-generated electricity just 12 years after a legislative deal jump-started the industry.

The Legislature is now debating whether Texas should provide a similar subsidy for other renewable energy sources that, according to proponents, would kick-start solar, geothermal and biomass as job-producing industries. The goals also would be to diversify the state’s renewable energy base and help the environment.

Austin lawmakers Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama , both Democrats, are carrying legislation to do just that. But some manufacturers and electric companies oppose the efforts as either too costly or anti-market.

One bill would encourage utilities statewide to purchase up to 1,500 megawatts of power from non-wind, renewable sources between now and 2021, about 2 percent of the state’s electricity usage.

A second bill would make it clear that state law already mandates 500 megawatts be purchased from renewable sources other than wind.

“We’ve proved we can do it with wind,” Watson said of the legislation. “Now we ought to be doing it in the area of solar.”

[…]

Bill Peacock with the Texas Public Policy Foundation , a conservative think tank, agreed that wind lowered electricity prices but he said that was only because wind receives federal tax credits.

It’s not like more traditional forms of energy don’t get tax breaks of their own. One could easily argue that giving a break to solar is just leveling the playing field a bit.

Anyway, Here’s SB330 HB774. In addition to those bills, measures to make it easier to put solar panels on your own home moved along as well.

The [Senate] Intergovernmental Relations committee voted on an amended bill that would allow HOAs to prohibit a panel if it sticks off the roof, looms above a fence or turns into an eyesore.

Chairman Royce West, D-Dallas, who sponsored the bill, said HOAs could still ban solar panels if they “caused unreasonable discomfort to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”

[…]

The bill was placed on the fast track to passage. It follows a handful of others, including ones that give homeowners greater voting rights in their associations and help ensure military families don’t lose their homes to HOA foreclosure.

The bill in question is SB 238 and its House companion is HB 362. A lot of similarly solar-themed legislation progressed through the Lege last session but died in the chubfest at the end. I don’t know what will happen with these bills, but I’m pretty sure that fate will not be repeated. The Texas Green Report has more.

Another story about solar energy in Texas

They keep writing them, I’ll keep blogging about them.

Dallas renewable energy investor Panda Power Funds is developing one of the country’s largest solar power plants in sunny New Jersey. Not Texas.

And Texas’ second-largest power generator, NRG Energy, is investing in the world’s largest solar thermal power plant in California. Not Texas.

Texas is No. 9 among states when it comes to the amount of sunlight that could be used to make electricity. But the state ranks 16th in the amount of solar electric generating capacity actually installed. New Jersey is No. 2; California is No. 1.

“It’s really a shame in Texas. We’ve got good sunlight. It’s really a shame that we don’t have a more aggressive solar program,” said Panda’s managing director of development, Ralph Killian.

Solar producers say Texas will fall behind economically without an aggressive push into solar energy. They blame state leaders for not providing the financial backing to attract the industry to Texas. And they hope a new legislative session beginning in January will create those incentives.

Critics say incentives are unnecessary and wasteful. They say Texans benefit from lower prices for electricity generated with other fuels.

Most of what’s in here is familiar stuff. I too hope that this Lege will do something to create incentives for more solar (and wind and other forms of renewable) energy, but I don’t actually believe it will happen. One thing in the story I did not know:

NRG negotiated with the city of Houston to build a solar plant and sell the power to the city. Talks unraveled over a law banning the city from committing to a multiple-year contract.

“That’s how the city has to do business,” said Houston spokeswoman Janice Evans. “There’s no way within the city’s annual funding that you can do a 25-year contract.”

But NRG couldn’t risk having the contract dropped one year, without enough revenue to pay for the equipment.

I’d blogged about this before, but the last word I had was that the talks had hit a snag, not that they’d completely fallen apart. Bummer. I totally understand the city’s position on this, but it sure seems like there ought to be a way around that. Maybe one way the Lege could act would be to provide some kind of insurance for clean energy developers that want to engage in this kind of long term deal with cities. I’m just thinking out loud here, I don’t know what that might look like, and besides it’s surely a non-starter in this slash and burn session to come. I’m just saying that there ought to be a way for cities to do this sort of thing, and that if there is it will need to come from a higher level of government, such as the state.