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Archive for August, 2011

 The Day When $$$$ Equals Speech

The American public has become increasingly frustrated and angry about the corporate corruption of Congress. With the influence over politics wielded by wealthy corporate interests through their political spending, even modest efforts to curb pollution, ensure clean water and safe food, secure our financial system and more are stymied.

The deluge of more than $30 million spent by outsiders in this week’s Wisconsin recall elections and the sudden appearance and subsequent dissolution of a corporation that gave $1 million to a political action committee backing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney are only the latest examples of the stunning sums of money flooding our current campaign finance landscape. The growing influence of corporate interests comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which gave corporations the “free speech” right to spend unlimited money to influence elections.

In response, a diverse group of more than a dozen organizations are participating today in “The Day When $$$$ Equals Speech.” Instead of words, participants are posting  a string of dollar signs on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social media networks in a vow to reclaim democracy, as seen in this sample tweet:

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ http://bit.ly/DollarsOrDemocracy #WeThePeople will #reclaim

Participating groups include the Center for Biological Diversity, Campus Progress, the Center for Media and Democracy, Coffee Party USA, Common Cause, Demos, Greenpeace, the Hip Hop Caucus, Move to Amend, North Carolina Center for Voter Education, People for the American Way, Public Campaign, Public Citizen, The Story of Stuff Project, USAction, the We the People Campaign and The Young Turks.

“As corporations increasingly exert their influence over the political process, those of us without millions of dollars to spend on political campaigns are effectively silenced,” said Rick Claypool, online organizer for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “It is as if we have to speak through a kazoo while corporate CEOs speak through megaphones.”

The Website,  www.DollarsOrDemocracy.org,  encourages others to join the online protest and explains the impact of the Citizens United decision.

Corporations flooded the November 2010 midterm elections with a record amount of money. It is predicted that the 2012 presidential elections will see even more corporate money and will cost $7 billion.  We need to stand up now against this ‘$ as speech’ trend that is taking over our government.

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At the height of the energy crisis last week, Public Citizen’s Texas director, Tom “Smitty” Smith, told the Austin Chronicle, “Austin Energy was one of the first cities in the United States to really aggressively try to do this kind of load management, and days like this show how effective it is in preventing blackouts,” Smith continued. “It’s working, and it’s demonstrably cheaper than burning coal or gas to make electricity.”

To read the story discussing weather crisis and energy in the Texas deregulated market, click here to go to the Austin Chronicle’s story.

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Pearl Brewery San Antonio

Pearl Brewery, San Antonio - home of one of the largest solar roofs in the region

We’re in the midst of a heat wave and drought that are on record to be Texas’ worst in recorded history. (and now imagine if global warming actually kicked in, the way all those scientists say! *wink*)

But we have a few options. Cope, adapt, or conquer. I much prefer the last solution to the first.

First, we can cope. Rep. Joe Barton from here in Texas once famously said in a Congressional hearing that his constituents don’t have to worry about global warming- they’ll just find some shade. Well, we can do that. We can also do what is more likely which is just go sit in our homes and offices and blast the air conditioning as much as we can to make these ever-warming, record-breaking hot, dry summers as tolerable as possible.

The only problem is, all that electricity comes from somewhere. And with record-breaking demand on the ERCOT grid, they have been warning Texans to conserve or risk rolling blackouts. And while blasting the a/c may seem like an affordable luxury for the people who live in the McMansions of West Austin, I don’t know about the rest of you, but most Texas families can’t afford the huge energy bills that would be associated with just setting the thermostat at 70 and letting it go.

We can already see what coping is getting us.

(more…)

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According to a new report by Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), a record 1,302 active Texas political action committees (PACs) spent $133 million in the two-year 2010 election cycle, a 12 percent increase from the 2008 cycle.  Over the past decade Texas PACs increased their spending nearly three-fold and the number of active PACs grew by 50%.

Check out TPJ’s latest in-depth analysis of PAC activity – Texas PACs: 2010 Cycle Spending – available at TPJ.ORG.

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Texas is suffering from an historic drought and one question that looms large is – how much rain will we need to actually end the drought?  And the answer is –  A LOT!

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates 12 to 15+ inches of rain (shades of purple and dark blue) is necessary for most of Texas to end the drought, as shown in the graphic below.

Even those small parts of the state not needing those massive amounts of rainfall to end this drought will require six to twelve inches of rain to recover.  With the Climate Prediction Center now saying there is a 50/50 chance of a return to La Nina conditions this fall which almost always results in drier than normal conditions for Texas and most of the South, the potential for recovery any time soon is pretty slim.

It has taken months for the drought to get to the level it is at now and it will take months or even years to return to normal.  But all indications are that there is no major relief coming soon and if you haven’t already done so, consider taking measures to reduce your water and electricity use for the long haul.  For ideas on how consumers can do this, check out the Texas Is Hot website for tips on how to reduce your energy use, and TCEQ’s Take Care of Texas website for tips on conserving water.

 

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The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is expecting to keep rolling blackouts at bay this week.  While we came perilously close to having statewide rolling blackouts last week, it turns out, coastal wind power proved helpful in averting an electric crisis then, according to ERCOT’s president.

Unlike wind farms in West Texas, which tend to generate more power at night, coastal wind generation has been better tracking peak daytime demands.

As demand ramps up in the late afternoon hours, coastal wind is also ramping up.  ERCOT President H.B. Trip Doggett, who briefly occupied the hot seat following rolling blackouts that occurred in February due to an unusual cold weather event which took out several coal and gas plants (albeit, once again wind was in there helping to keep the lights on) has a renewed interest in what renewables can do to help stabilize the Texas electric grid during peak power demand under hot weather circumstances.  In fact, he told reporters, “We would love to have more development of coastal wind. The diversity of coastal wind versus West Texas wind is an advantage to us in operating the grid.”

Last week, when the ERCOT grid came extremely close to initiating involuntary rolling blackouts across the state, wind generation kicked into higher production. While wind produced around 1,300 megawatts on Monday, it rose to about 2,000 megawatts on Wednesday with 70 percent of that coming from coastal rather than West Texas wind.  During the February cold weather event, it was West Texas wind that helped keep the lights on, so let’s hear it for wind.

And consider that if we had solar deployed across the state, we could better handle these huge peak demand times without having to increase air pollution.  When the demand rises this high, conventional coal-fired plants are allowed to turn their scrubbers off to increase the efficiency of the plants so they can generate more energy.  Also, old higher polluting plants are sometimes fired up to put more electricity on the grid and you can imagine what they do to the air quality.

If ERCOT is beginning to see the value of wind and solar under these circumstances, perhaps it is time to remind our elected officials that renewables could make Texas’ energy future so bright, we gotta wear shades.

ERCOT officials forecast that triple-digit temperatures will continue at least 14 more days. While they believe this week looks good for meeting electric demands, we are not out of the woods yet, and ERCOT is saying next week remains to be seen.

Public Citizen applauds everyone who is doing their part to reduce electric usage and encourages everyone to continue their efforts.

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According to the Fox news station in Salt Lake City, UT, controversy has arisen about EnergySolutions’ plans to dispose of what they call blended radioactive waste at its Clive Facility in the west desert of Utah.

There are three classifications of waste: A, B and C, all radioactive. Only the lowest level, type A, is allowed in Utah, but Energy Solutions says it’s found a way to blend and store the waste safely by mixing higher-level class C waste with low-level waste and labeling it class A – are you buying this, cause I’m pretty skeptical and it just sounds like fiction to me.  This magic would take place at a facility in Tennessee according to EnergySolutions.

EnergySolutions may have found a legal loophole that would allow them to store higher level radioactive waste at the Clive facility, but ultimately, the Utah Division of Radiation Control will decide whether the blended waste can be disposed in Utah.

In the meantime, William Dornsife, executive vice president of WCS, the Texas company building a radioactive waste disposal facility in Andrews County, Texas is telling Utah to bring it on. He wants the waste to go to Texas, not Utah.

Texas is licensed to take class A, B and C waste without the blending alchemy that EnergySolutions is proposing, and there is a lot of money at stake — potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.  WCS and billionaire Harold Simmons are salivating at the opportunity to spend what they probably see as the political capital with which they walked away from the 82nd Texas legislative session earlier this year to rake in the profits at the expense and liability of the Texas taxpayer.

Face it Texas, we are now the radioactive waste capital of the country.

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During the Legislative Session, the Texas League of Conservation Voters was at the capitol advancing an environmental  conservation agenda on behalf of Texas Voters.   They have now released their 2011 TLCV scorecard which covers a range of votes and issues, including: renewable energy, green technologies, recycling and waste disposal.  Each vote scored presented a clear choice for Texas elected officials to uphold the conservation values that millions of Texans share.  Click here to see TLCV’s scorecard.

Don’t know who your elected officials are? Find out who represents you here.

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The Climate Prediction Center says there is now a 50/50 chance of a return to La Nina conditions this fall.

La Nina is an expansive area of cooler-than-normal water in the Pacific Ocean. This cooling alters weather patterns across the U.S., and almost always results in drier than normal conditions for Texas and most of the South. And, when we’re drier than normal, we tend to be hotter than normal.

This is very bad news for Texas, as the 2010-11 La Nina is the reason for our existing drought and heat wave. Think the drought and summer heat is bad now (the Mid-West and East had a heat wave, what we are having is a heat tsunami), if we have a 2011-12 La Nina, this drought could reach epic proportions by next summer.

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The PUC wants to have a meeting at the end of August to try to figure out how to fix Texas’s experiment of a deregulated generation market, as we look like we are going to run out of energy during what could be ever increasing hot summers.
It seems the current market based behavior doesn’t send proper signals to companies to build new generation.
In addition our grid was designed to be almost completely isolated from the rest of the country so we cannot get help if its needed and available.
Generators use old, outdated generation to reduce costs and even turn off environmental controls to further lower costs at the expense of citizens health and to maximize profits.
The “new” market is based on scarcity pricing but if generation is truly scarce we have rolling blackouts, which are devastating to the economy and kill people.
Before deregulation the Utility commission would request new generation be built in a certain time frame and capacity and pay a preset profit margin to the companies that participated. They did the same thing with transmission lines and retail costs.
These are critical infrastructure needs and were protected from the swings of the financial and other markets. The process was covered under the term Total Resource Planning.
Now with the current heat wave and over a decade of deregulated markets we face the possibility that there will not be enough generation to meet the needs of Texas. We have many old and highly polluting plants that resemble the old steam locomotives of the 1800’s carting around a bin of coal to burn rocks and boil water. A larger amount of our critical infrastructure also consists of ancient natural gas “steamer” plants that are only run around 400 hours a year and are also highly polluting and have proven not to be very reliable but highly profitable.
Compare that to the newer generation of combined cycle gas turbines that resemble a jet engine and have several additional generators attached to it to recover the excess heat to generate even more energy with low stack emissions.
We have harvested significant amounts of non-polluting wind energy (coastal wind is over-performing expectations during the current crises) but the majority is located in just one region (West Texas) leading to problems of transmission congestion and generation variability. Some progress has been made on building wind projects in the areas along the Texas coast that provide energy much closer to the time that its needed, but more needs to be done.
Texas has made very little progress on adding an solar generation (that would provide energy when its needed most) because of a lack of policy leadership at the legislature and the PUC.

Now the PUC wants to tinker with the market to see if it can artificially raise the price of energy by using a “proxy” price as in “we will pay you more because our market system isn’t working, so pretty please build some new generators”.

This is a hell of a way to provide the resources that Texans need. Its time to get rid of the old smoking wreaks of generation plants that are carrying the load, sucking up our ever shrinking water supplies and fouling our air, and go to a controlled “regulated” modernized generation plan that uses all our resources with the least impact to our health, environment and wallets.
We used to pay a fair price for services delivered, now we just pay and hope the lights stay on.

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas

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As temperatures soared yesterday, ERCOT estimates that electricity usage reached an all-time peak high (breaking Wednesday’s record) with Texans using 60,157 MW of power – flying past the official record set on August 31, 2000 when 57,606 MW of power was consumed by Texans in the ERCOT service region.

“Texas is experiencing a very serious energy emergency,” said David Power, Deputy Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, “and we are urging everyone to shut off any unnecessary appliances to conserve energy.”

For tips on how to conserve energy, go to http://www.texasishot.org/.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen applauds the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)’s heroic efforts in keeping the lights on under enormous stress. “They are doing a great job, however without the assistance of all Texans in conserving energy during this unusual heat event they may not be able to do so for long.”

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This is a reprint of a post by Jake Dyer from the RechargeTexas.com blog

The rolling blackouts that swept through Texas last February have been blamed on the unexpected failure of generation plants. The temperature dropped during a cold snap, the plants froze up, and then — before anybody really knew what hit them — the lights went out.

And now we’re in the middle of another weather event – this time a heat wave – and just as before a large number of generation plants have failed. The loss of capacity during the February event sent wholesale electricity prices soaring to $3,000 per megawatt/hour, or more than 50 times higher than typical. The same occurred this week as well.

Clearly somebody is making money off the bad weather.  One expert, Oregon-based economist Robert McCullough, raised the possibility that there was  “artificially-created scarcity” last February. That’s regulatory lingo for market manipulation. Although not leveling any specific accusations, McCullough concluded that the cold weather alone could not explain the failure of the state’s power grid to operate reliably.

However, another expert,  the state’s independent monitor of the wholesale energy market, concluded the punishingly high price spikes in February were understandable, given the circumstances. He found no evidence of hanky-panky by electric companies.  Likewise, a federal report largely blamed the inclement weather, although it said plant operators could have done a better job.

This week’s event has not drawn such scrutiny. What’s clear, however, is that more than 20 generating plants unexpectedly failed during the middle of a heat wave. In February, 80 plants went down during a cold snap. Although the ERCOT grid operator hasn’t again ordered blackouts, the organization has taken other emergency steps this week. And if the situation gets worse, some businesses could have their power cut or there could even be more forced outages.

The fact that the lights went out in February prompted a statewide demand for answers.  If ERCOT is able to stave off rolling blackouts during this heat wave, it is unlikely that there will be a widespread outcry for a market manipulation investigation but Texans should be aware, that in a deregulated, market driven energy market, the potential for market manipulation is always there.

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August 10 LCRA Board meeting canceled after White Stallion water contract pulled from agenda

Discussion and possible action by the LCRA Board of Directors on a contract to provide water to a proposed new coal plant in Matagorda County has been postponed indefinitely. This decision comes after the company proposing the plant substantially changed the terms of the contract on Monday, Aug 1st which prompted the cancellation of the special-called Aug. 10 meeting of the LCRA Board.

The new proposal by White Stallion asks for more time to pay the $55 million ($250,000 a year instead of $55 million upfront) and significantly reduces the amount of water reservation fees White Stallion would have to initially pay. The new proposal included other changes, some unprecedented for an LCRA water contract.

We say, good for the LCRA Board and thank you Senator Fraser for stepping in and asking the LCRA to call a moritorium on water contracts in light of this exceptional drought that blankets three quarters of the state.

Finally, thank you to the 2,200 Texas citizens who sent in cards and letters to the LCRA opposing this contract.  You made a difference.

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Despite the fact that NRG/Toshiba (formally know together as NINA) has been unsuccessful in their multi-year efforts to expand by two units, the South Texas “Nuclear” Project (STP) – the process for their Combined License (COL) is proceeding. 

An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel will hear oral argument and conduct an evidentiary hearing, beginning Aug. 17 in Austin, Texas which will begin at 9:30 a.m. CDT, in Room 2210, Building F of the Campus of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 12100 Park 35 Circle in Austin. The session is open for public observation, but participation will be limited to the parties admitted to the proceeding (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, Public Citizen, the applicant – Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA) – and NRC staff).

The ASLB is the independent body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that presides over proceedings involving the licensing of civilian nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants.

The South Texas Project COL application was submitted Sept. 20, 2007, the first such application in the United States in nearly 30 years.  STP was seeking permission to construct and operate two new nuclear reactors at the site near Bay City, Texas.  The ASLB granted intervenor status and an opportunity for a hearing to the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, and Public Citizen. The groups have submitted objections, or contentions, challenging the COL application, most recently regarding the question of whether NINA meets NRC requirements prohibiting foreign ownership, control or domination of a nuclear facility in the U.S.

Over the past four years, this project has experienced:

  • An increase in their estimate to build the new units from 5.6 billion dollars to over 18 billion dollars
  • A major pull back by their local partner, San Antonio’s CPS from a 50% ownership to 7%
  • A struggle to find new partners with the only interest from TEPCO – the operators of the doomed Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and the Bank of Japan,
  • The melt through of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s eastern coast and subsequently caused the meltdown of the nuclear industry throughout the world.

We would encourage any interested to attend.  Early arrival each day is suggested to allow for security screening for members of the public attending. NRC policy prohibits signs, banners, posters or displays in the hearing room at any time during the proceeding.

Individuals or groups not admitted to the proceeding can submit “written limited appearance statements” to the ASLB. Anyone wishing to submit a written statement may do so by email to [email protected], by fax to (301) 415-1101, or by mail to: Office of the Secretary, Attn. Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. In addition, copies of written statements should be sent to the Chairman of the Licensing Board by e-mail to [email protected] and [email protected]; by fax to (301-415-5599), or by mail to: Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop: T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001.

Documents related to the South Texas Project COL application are available on the NRC website. Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket. More information about the ASLB can be found at the NRC website.

NOTE: Anyone wishing to take photos or use a camera to record any portion of a NRC meeting should contact the Office of Public Affairs beforehand.

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ERCOT announced a yellow alert at 3:15 today when they smashed through the state electric use record by over 2,000 MW.  With only 1800 MW of reserve available around 4:30, we are periously close to triggering rolling blackouts. 

With no end in sight for this excessive heat wave, it is imperative that Texans severely curtail their electric use.

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