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Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

As global temperatures continue to rise along with CO2 emissions, leaders in need of solutions should be cautious when considering the potential of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).  While the wholesale success of these technologies was assumed in many of the climate models used in developing the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

In the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the world agreed on implementing greenhouse gas mitigation plans which focus on producing negative carbon dioxide emissions to help curb climate change.

Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project. Capture CO2 from ADM’s Decatur corn processing facility and store it underground.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) facilities generate electricity by burning trees and crops that have taken CO2 from the atmosphere throughout their lifetime. When the biomass is burned, BECCS facilities capture the CO2 emissions and store them or, more often, use CO2 in order to enhance oil recovery (EOR). BECCS is one of the technologies the potential to achieve negative emissions if easy-to-grow feedstocks, such as switchgrass, are grown with sustainable practices and the captured CO2 is sequestered. However, these conditions don’t currently exist at commercial facilities.

BECCS Case Study: Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project

In April 2017, the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) announced that the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage (ICCS) project at Archer Daniels Midland Company’s (ADM) Decatur corn ethanol facility had begun operations by injecting carbon dioxide into a large saline reservoir. The ICCS project stores more than 1 million tons of CO2 a year. The project captures CO2 from ADM’s Decatur corn processing facility, and stores it almost a mile and a half underground. The total project cost is $207.9 million and it has received a cost-share agreement of $141 million investment from the Department Of Energy. The project team members include ADM, Schlumberger Carbon Services, Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), University of Illinois, and Richland Community College (RCC). The technology demonstrated for this project aimed to help the development of the regional CCS industry (i.e., enhanced oil recovery in the depleted oilfields in the Illinois Basin).

Although the main purpose of BECCS technology is to reduce greenhouse gases and help combat with climate change, practically, CO2 has been captured in order to enhance oil recovery, which will result in more CO2 in the atmosphere. As the world’s focus is on keeping global temperature below 2 degree Celsius, using carbon capture storage (CCS) and BECCS in this way will perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. Also, emissions from the transportation of feedstock and the use of nitrogen fertilizer for growing crops could be a big challenge and accelerate the trend of global warming especially associated with ozone destruction.

The Illinois Basin Decatur facility and the EBCCS plant as a whole emit more CO2 than the BECCS plant has been designed to capture. The graphics info provided by Carbon Brief shows that the total CO2 emissions have been emitted by Decatur facility over 2.5 years of the operation was 12,693,283 tons of CO2. However, the EBCCS plant only absorbed 2,095,400 tons of CO2 which means that Decatur facility as a whole has emitted 10,597,883 tons of CO2 even with BECCS capacity. Thus, this project failed to fulfill the purpose of reducing carbon and curbing climate change.

The Illinois Basin Decatur Project. By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

Caption: The Illinois Basin Decatur Project.  By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

Challenges and Concerns of BECCS Projects:

  • High Cost of Capturing and Storing Carbon: It costs $100 to capture a ton of CO2 for a biomass plant. Whereas, fossil fuel plants are capturing carbon for about $60 a ton. This difference is based on varying bioenergy feedstock prices; energy production process; and capture technology. Also, transporting large amounts of biomass long distances to the storage site would significantly add to the cost of BECCS, since biomass tends to have a lot of weight relative to its energy.
  • Transporting CO2 to the reservoirs via pipelines or trucks: The transportation networks are costly and also turn more CO2 back into the atmosphere. More infrastructure – such as pipelines – would need to be built, which increases the cost of BECCS and indirectly results in more emissions through the construction process. Also, CO2 leakage from pipelines or storage sites could endanger people, harm marine ecosystems, and threaten freshwater ecosystem. Navigating the property rights of local communities can also be a challenge.
  • Effects of increased fertilizer use, such as nitrogen: Nitrogen fertilizers can be leached into the groundwater and washed into waterways, resulting in serious health, environmental, and economic damage. Nitrogen fertilizers applied in agriculture can add more nitrous oxide to the atmosphere than any other human activity. Nitrous oxide also moves into the stratosphere and destroys ozone which could result in increasing global heat. Nitrogen pollution is identified as a cause of decline in native species and is a threat to biodiversity for vertebrate, invertebrate and plant species. A study found 78 federally listed species identified as affected by nitrogen pollution. Use of fertilizer nitrogen for crop production also influences soil health, by reducing organic matter content and microbial life, and increasing acidity of the soil.
  • Water concerns: Agriculture and power generation are highly water intensive. In order to produce 1 ton of ethanol, 3.5 t of CO2 and 5 t of H2O is needed, which means that more than 21,000 t of CO2 and 300,000 t of water vapor are consumed each year. However, more than 3 billion people are already affected by water scarcity so it is a critical challenge in utilizing BECCS technology.
  • Food Scarcity: food prices would increase as a result of changes in land use. Also, since climate change has already threatened the crop yields harvest, sudden changes in the weather could result in food shortage or even famine in some regions. Altering lands to a specific crop yield would affect the land quality and may result in regional resource shortages.
  • Geological storage sites for CO2: In the fertile Midwest of the U.S., croplands are too far from geologic storage to be a viable location for BECCS in the near-term. There are relatively few pipelines in place for transporting CO2 and the long-distance transportation of large volumes of captured CO2 is expensive, particularly if many small pipelines have to be built. Biomass could be transported to sites where CO2 storage is available, but that would significantly add to the cost of a BECCS project.
  • Land Use challenges: Could displace or expose small farmers to the volatility of world markets. Also, as a result of changing land applications, soil erosion, and degradation could happen and soil would lose its fertility. Poor management of bioenergy crop production can result in soil carbon loss from direct and indirect land use changes and significantly affect the net amount of CO2 removed by BECCS. In addition, land rights of farmers & ranchers should be considered as important challenges as well.
  • Cost of Ethanol Production: Depending on a cost of a barrel of oil and production cost of gasoline refining, ethanol can either increase or slightly decrease the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

Overall, even though the U.S has a large potential for geological storage sites, there is still a need for transportation systems for either biomass or CO2 for the large-scale deployment of BECCS. Also, concerns associated with the land, water, and fertilizer use that would be required at the large-scale deployment of BECCS make the long-term economic viability of this technology uncertain. Tax incentives such as 45Q might cover some parts of the related costs, however, the health, environmental, and economic impacts of this project on the society is still unclear as well.

Overly optimistic assumptions about quickly achieving negative emissions on a large scale are dangerous. The world carbon budget is running out for 2 degree Celsius and we have already used the 1.5 degree’s carbon budget. While investments in BECCS are needed, these technologies do not give us a license to postpone eliminating emissions from other sources. And BECCS is only a solution if sustainable agriculture practices are employed, CO2 emissions are permanently sequestered and not used for oil recovery, and project sites are carefully selected to reduce emissions from transportation.
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Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture facility sucks CO2 directly from the atmospheric air. – Carbon Engineering

To maintain climate, we need to cut greenhouse gas – especially carbon – emissions down to zero. The more greenhouse gases that are released, the hotter our planet will be. If we are seeking to keep the global temperature below 1.5-2 degree Celsius, we need to find a way to reduce CO2 emissions. Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a technology which sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere by using large fans that move air through a filter to generate a pure CO2 stream. Depending on the application of the captured CO2, DAC can be either a “carbon recycling” or “carbon removal” technology. Carbon recycling refers to the process of using CO2 produced by DAC as fuel, or in other ways which will release CO2 back into the atmosphere, such as to carbonated beverages. Carbon removal requires CO2 to be stored underground or used in materials that do not allow CO2 to be released into the atmosphere, such as in cement or plastics.

DAC Carbon Recycling Case Study: Carbon Engineering

Recently, “Carbon Engineering,” a Canadian-based company leading the commercialization of direct air capture technology, have been working on Air to Fuels project, which uses renewable electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and then combines it with CO₂ captured from the atmosphere to use it as an input to produce synthetic fuels that can substitute for diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel. DAC’s cost at a commercial scale is not exactly determined yet. However, the latest estimate cost announced by Carbon Engineering is a range cost from $94 to $232 per ton for capturing CO2 and they hope to produce fuels from the Air2fuel project for less than $1.00 per litter, once it scaled up.

DAC Carbon Removal Case Study: Climeworks

Direct air capture unit along with the cooling towers of the geothermal power plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland. (Climeworks/Zev Starr-Tambor)

Swiss firm Climeworks recently launched the world’s first “commercial” direct CO2 capture plant at Hinwil, Zurich. Climeworks has been working on CO2 for carbonated drinks and renewable fuels project through the partnership with CarbFix which working on the project of dissolving CO2 into drinking water. Also, the Gebrüder Maier fruit and vegetable company uses the captured CO2 to boost the growth of cucumbers, tomatoes, and aubergines in its large greenhouses. However, the most interesting project which is designed to be a carbon removal project is happening right now! Climeworks recently launched a pilot project in Iceland which is a geothermal power plant with direct air capture technology. The facility is capturing 50 metric tons CO2 from the air each year, which is equivalent to a single U.S household or 10 Indian households. The CO2 captured in order to convert the emissions into stone. Thus, they’re making sure that CO2 doesn’t escape back into the atmosphere for the next millions of years.

Climeworks / Julia Dunlop Carbon capture from ambient air goes commercial

Pros of DAC:

  • Full-scale operations are able to absorb significant amounts of carbon, is equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 average cars
  • DAC system can be sited anywhere which reduce the cost of transporting CO2 to the sequestration sites
  • DAC can be scaled easily and has a relatively small land footprint in comparison to other carbon removal technologies such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS)
  • DAC system produces fuels with 100x less land use footprint and less water use than biofuels.

Cons of DAC:

  • Energy Intensive: Direct air capture is a fairly energy intensive process because the concentration of CO2 in ambient air is relatively low. Separating CO2 from the air is challenging since it takes a significant amount of energy and air to separate and concentrate CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus, large volumes of air must be processed in order to collect meaningful amounts of CO2
  • Very Expensive: Currently, it is not a financially viable option because it is very expensive. The cost of CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranges between $94 and $232 per ton according to Carbon Engineering estimate
  • Water consumption concern: One study estimates for removing 3.3 gigatons of carbon per year, DAC could expect to use around 7.925e+13 gallons of water per year (assuming current amine technology, which is what Climeworks uses). This is equivalent to 4% of the water used for crop cultivation each year. Carbon Engineering using sodium hydroxide that would use far less, but this, in turn, is a highly caustic and dangerous substance
  • Revenue Opportunities: Revenue opportunities for DAC carbon removal systems depend on carbon markets and regulations. Without high enough carbon prices, DAC systems are likely to find the largest revenue opportunities by providing CO2 for manufacturing fuels, enhanced oil recovery, greenhouses and carbonated beverages, as DAC systems can be sited anywhere.

Climeworks direct air capture plant founders Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher onsite. Climeworks / Julia Dunlop

Policy Approach:

There have been some policies that provided a shift toward greater development and deployment of carbon dioxide removal and recycling. In February 2018, the U.S budget bill passed by Congress which extends and reforms the federal Section 45Q tax credit. 45Q provides credits for businesses that use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and for CO2 injection into underground geologic formations. Mostly, the 45Q tax credits benefits fossil fuels industry. Based on the bill, any new fossil-fuel power plant or carbon-dioxide producing industry that commences construction before 2024 is eligible for tax credits for up to 12 years. The tax credits offered up to $35 per metric ton of carbon dioxide captured if the CO2 is put to use (pushing out oil from depleting fields is the most popular use) or up to $50 if it is simply buried in underground storage. Hence, the bill benefits fossil fuels companies at a lower cost of carbon capture and help fossil fuels companies expand oil production, and continue to build coal plants. Thus, the carbon removal companies are not willing to sequestrate carbon when there is a market for selling it. The only way to make money off sequestration is if the government is directly subsidizing it or if there is an extremely high carbon price. Currently, there is no carbon price anywhere in the world great enough to make sequestration profitable. At present, carbon is trading at a low price in the global market compared to the cost of storing it underground.

However, tax credits could make negative emission projects more financially attractive and more economically viable. Based on the incentives provided by 45Q bill, direct air capture could be a critical tool for CO2 removal since it has a countless potential for removing carbon and reuse it. Since the high cost of the technology in pilot projects has been an obstacle to a large-scale implementation, hopefully, new regulations and tax credits such as 45Q bill ease the process and lower the costs. Although the tax credit will not cover the full cost of these technologies, it will make a noticeable reduction in the operating cost.

Tax credits and regulations mean greater opportunities for developers and suggest positive movement in wider efforts to stem climate change, as carbon capture and storage is widely considered to be a significant element of addressing climate change. Recently, several private investors and fossil fuels companies have started investments in DAC technology. Especially, the oil and coal industry since the captured CO2 can be used for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). However, utilizing DAC technology to develop EOR would neutralize any efforts regarding climate mitigation actions.

Direct air capture could hold the promise of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, since there is an economic benefit of using CO2 to make fuels or for enhanced oil recovery, fossil fuels industry are making money off the technology. In a time that there is relatively little carbon budget left to keep the world temperature below 1.5C or 2C, nations need to focus on cutting CO2 emissions rapidly by shifting their reliance away from fossil fuels to the renewable energy, in particular. (more…)

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25 years ago, Texas electricity prices were skyrocketing because overbudget and unneeded nuclear plants were being brought online. It was generally believed that competition among electric generators would lower costs and pollution. That thesis has come true. Natural gas producers claimed building a lot of new natural gas plants would reduce electricity costs. Advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency believed that an open market would create new market opportunities in which they have thrived.

Therefore, the Texas electric market was deregulated and split into three parts. The generators and retailers would compete based on costs but the distribution and transmission system, which provides the poles and wires on which our energy is transmitted, would remain regulated. In order to avoid conflicts of interest the rules governing deregulation clearly divided the market into those that generated electricity and those who distributed it. The rules clearly said that generators produced the energy- and that transmission and distribution companies could not.

This made sense about 25 years ago, but time has shown us that the system is out of balance, and the only time the generators really make money is when it is really hot or cold. On a daily basis the amount of energy we use swings wildly from late at night when the winds blow hard to hot afternoons when every generator is needed. As result we have a lot of wasted power produced to balance these swings. This systemic imbalance results in a lot of unneeded costs to consumers including pollution and overbuilding of poles and lines to deliver energy at times of peak demand.

Storing excess energy in big electric batteries can provide a third leg to the stool and balances out the swings while reducing costs and pollution. This isn’t new technology. We’ve been storing energy in car batteries for more than 100 years. But battery technology has changed dramatically over the last decade. The proof is in your pocket. Think about the phone you carried ten years ago. Today’s phone batteries are a fraction of the size and weight and store far more energy for longer than those of 10 years ago. Today’s storage batteries can store renewable energy at a fraction of the cost of upgrading or building transmission or distribution infrastructure. It can also store that excess energy produced by renewables until we need it on hot afternoons, cutting costs for consumers and reducing pollution. Add to that the expected explosion in energy storage provide when millions of electric cars plug into the grid and allow tier batteries to be used to meet short term peaks on a hot summer day.

The rules adopted 25 years ago didn’t envision the dramatic technological changes that have occurred. What we need to do is modify the rules that deregulated the electric industry by allowing batteries to provide energy to reduce costs while making money. That means clearing up the question of who can own storage and how to pay for it.

The Public Utility Commission (PUC) is beginning to hold hearings to resolve this question. There are many solutions being discussed. The basic message is clear. We support storage which will lower costs and pollution and can enable new technologies to thrive.

Public Citizen believes that consumers deserve energy that is reliable, resilient, responsive, modern, clean, and affordable. Energy storage technology is the next big step in reducing pollution and costs from power generation.  If correctly deployed, it will help us avoid expensive and unnecessary buildouts of transmission infrastructure, thus lowering costs for consumers. Storage will also help us to realize the full potential of our renewable energy sources, particularly wind which blows strongest at night and solar which produces energy during the middle of the day and storing it until we need it most in the late afternoon and evening.  We support PUC adopting policies that will reward utilities for investing in energy storage that is cost effective in providing clean, reliable, affordable energy to Texans.

Tom "Smitty" SmithThis guest post was written by Tom “Smitty” Smith, who served as the Texas state director of Public Citizen for 31 years from 1985 until his retirement in early 2017.  For more than four decades, Smitty organized citizens to stand up for their rights in a wide variety of forums. He has worked on energy, environment, ethics and campaign finance reforms.  His passion has been reducing global warming by promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency and cleaner transportation. Many of the programs he promoted have become national and international models.

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UPDATE:  The EPA has extended the public comment period for this rule.  You can now submit your comments by an August 23rd deadline:
https://action.citizen.org/p/dia/action4/common/public/…

Last week, I, Stephanie Thomas, Houston Organizer for Public Citizen, joined members of community and environmental groups testifying in opposition to Polluting Pruitt’s proposed rollbacks of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule.

The Chemical Disaster Rule helps better protect workers, first responders, and fenceline communities. So what exactly is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gutting?…

Almost all of the disaster prevention measures in the Chemical Disaster Rule.

What’s Being Lost

The repeals mean that industry will no longer be required to invest in third party audits when accidents happen nor will facilities need to conduct a root cause analysis as part of incident investigations following incidents with a catastrophic release or a near miss.

The EPA is merely putting out fires, not working to prevent the fires, explosions, and deaths from happening in the first place.

Safer technologies? The EPA proposal rescinds requirements for certain facilities to complete safer technology and alternatives analyses to minimize the amount of hazardous substances used. Also, they are rolling back demands to use less hazardous substances, incorporate safer designs, and minimize the impact of releases. This seems like a a no-brainer, but unfortunately, these rollbacks toss safer technology out the window.

Even first responders will be losing out. The proposed changes remove a requirement to provide, upon request, information to the public on chemical hazards, including substance names, safety data sheets, accident history, emergency response program information, and LEPC contact information (Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) must develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community to citizens).

Let us remember Hurricane Harvey and its devastating chemical impacts along the Gulf Coast – most notably the explosion at the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas. Floodwaters caused the backup generator to fail, leading to explosions of unstable organic peroxides and the release of a slew of toxic chemicals, including an unpermitted release of cancer-causing ethylbenzene. Had the 2017 chemical disaster rule been in place, first responders and community members would have had access to safety data sheets providing information for protecting themselves against the harmful chemicals released into the air and water; and would not have had to file lawsuits such as the one filed in Harris County by first responders alleging Arkema failed to take adequate safety steps to secure dangerous chemicals ahead of Hurricane Harvey.

Known Impact to Communities

By the EPA’s own account, more than 150 chemical incidents occur each year. And the agency knows that repealing these rules will hurt minority, low-income communities the most. 

Who benefits? The chemical industry – and all for a measly $88 million per year, a drop in the bucket for these big corporations.  

The EPA only provided one opportunity to testify on the rollbacks to the Chemical Disaster Rule. While I was glad to be able to testify there, that’s not good enough. Because this proposal knowingly harms communities, impacted communities need a seat at the table.

While the EPA leaves out environmental justice communities, industry interests are well-represented within the agency. Several administrators and counselors for the EPA have served as lobbyists and litigators for industry. Just yesterday, the US Senate held a confirmation hearing for DowDupont lawyer Peter Wright, who will likely be leading the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, which oversees the Risk Management Program.

It’s no accident that these rollbacks are being proposed at a time when industry’s foxes have taken over the henhouse. The EPA should be supporting the health and wellbeing of Texas communities, not padding the profits of corporate polluters.

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Look for this tear pad display at the register when you check out at any Texas HEB store.  Take this opportunity to make donations when you check out with your groceries.  Donations go to Earthshare, which supports Public Citizen.

Making a donation at the register when you check out with your groceries at any HEB store in Texas funds environmental organizations in the state.  This funds Public Citizen’s Texas office as well as several of our partner organizations, such as EDF, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Air Alliance Houston, and Sierra Club (among many).  If you want to help us and the many other organizations that are working to keep the Texas environment clean and healthy for all Texans, make a donation before Tuesday, May 1st.

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La Loma Community Solar Farm – Photo by RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Just northeast of Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard and adjacent to the Austin Energy’s Kingsbery substation, La Loma boasts more than 9,000 panels. The 2.6 megawatt project will produce at least 4,400 megawatt-hours of electric power per year. Community solar allows multiple customers to share the output of a central facility rather than installing solar on their own roofs. Customers include renters, people with shaded roofs, and residents who can’t afford the upfront costs of rooftop solar. More than half of Austin Energy customers are renters and have limited access to rooftop solar.

Following Austin City Council approval in December, Austin Energy dedicated half of La Loma’s capacity to low-income customers in the City of Austin Utilities’ Customer Assistance Program at a discounted rate. At the time of the opening, 130 had signed up for the 220 slots available in the discount program. The market-rate community solar option is fully subscribed with 220 participants and another 38 on the waitlist for future projects.

“Austin Energy’s Community Solar Program is another great example of what happens when the City Council, the community and the utility work together to drive value for all of our customers,” said Jackie Sargent, General Manager of Austin Energy. “Our new program will help bring the benefits of our local solar offerings to even more of our customers.”

Austin Energy has offered solar incentives to customers since 2004, and today more than 7,200 customers have solar panels on their rooftops. The Utility’s Community Solar Program launched more than a year ago with a 185-kilowatt rooftop solar array at the Palmer Events Center in Central Austin, which serves 23 customers. The program allows residential customers to meet their electric needs with 100 percent locally generated solar energy, and participants lock in the price for 15 years.

Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program provides utility discounts to some 37,000 energy customers who qualify by participating in at least one of seven specified social service programs.

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This week marks the six month anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophic storm that killed 88 people and caused about $125 billion in damages. Scientists have shown that Harvey’s strength was fueled in part by climate change.

Houston Mayor Turner has voiced concerns about climate change and pollution, recently through an op-ed published in the Huffington Post entitled “Cities Must Get Creative In The Fight Against Air Pollution.” In this piece, Turner says that cities must address the poor air quality that too often disproportionately impacts low-income communities. Specifically, he states that he will protest permits for new concrete batch plants. Turner also plans to address climate change through using renewable energy to power city operations and through electric vehicle adoption.

Yet, the city of Houston can do more. The Houston Climate Movement came together last year before Harvey because we know that Houston is at risk for the impacts of climate change. The Houston Climate Movement advocates for a community-wide climate action and adaptation plan.

In response to Turner’s op-ed, we penned this letter to him:

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The following is from a story at the Texas Emergy Report (www.texasenergyreport.com)  For all the energy news in Texas, consider subscribing.

Like the Sierra Club. Public Citizen is pleased about this announcement and has long advocated that these old highly polluting plants be retired completely.  See the story below.

Big Brown is shutting down.

The two-unit coal-fired electricity generation plant in Freestone County between Palestine and Corsicana began phasing out operations on Monday.

It’s the third of three Texas coal-power plants being shut down by Luminant, dropping more than 4,600 MW of power capacity in Texas, and the effects are being felt around the nation.

Because of related pollution, the Sierra Club estimates that the closing of Big Brown alone will save “an estimated 163 lives every year, prevent nearly 6,000 asthma attacks, prevent tens of thousands of lost work and school days, and save $1.6 billion in in annual public health costs, according to analysis conducted with EPA-approved air modeling.”

The other two plants, the Monticello about 130 miles east of Dallas and the Sandow Steam Electric Station in Milam County east of Round Rock, are already phasing out and ceased operations last month.

Coal-fired plants can no longer compete with cheap natural gas, and as Vistra Energy subsidiary Luminant put it when announcing the shutdowns, “sustained low wholesale power prices, an oversupplied renewable generation market” and other factors joined in making poor investments of the plants.

Mine operations are also affected.

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The Texas Senate Committee on Natural Resources held its hearing at Houston’s City Hall.

The Texas Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development held a hearing in Houston Thursday, February 1st on two interim charges, the first being on hotel occupancy taxes and the second on regulatory barriers.

The second interim charge reviewed at the hearing states: Identify options to maintain our state’s competitive advantage and make recommendations to remove or reduce administrative or regulatory barriers hindering economic growth, including permitting or registration requirements and fees.

Public Citizen’s Houston-based organizer, Stephanie Thomas, was one of six people to provide invited testimony. Others included representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Texas Chemical Council, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the National Energy Association.

Our role at the hearing was to comment on specific aspects of regulation, including the issue of expedited permitting. Public Citizen recommended sufficient funding to the regulatory agencies like TCEQ to thoroughly and effectively review permits. Public Citizen also brought forth issues in reducing public participation that may come from the expedition of permits.

Public Citizen also provided comment on Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s use of exceptional events for determining National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) designation, i.e. whether a location is in attainment or nonattainment for levels criteria pollutants. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, exceptional events “are unusual or naturally occurring events that can affect air quality but are not reasonably controllable using techniques that tribal, state or local air agencies may implement in order to attain and maintain the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Exceptional events include wildfires, stratospheric ozone intrusions and volcanic and seismic activities.”

Public Citizen argued that the TCEQ should not use exceptional events to make it seem as though an area is in attainment of an air quality standard when it is not. This practice of using exceptional events to avoid nonattainment status is particularly dangerous because people still have to breath air pollution regardless of whether it comes from a refinery or it comes from agricultural fires in Mexico.

Many of what seems like regulations to industry are public safeguards, with tangible benefits to human health and quality of life.

To read Public Citizen’s written testimony, click here: Regulatory Barriers hearing comments – Public Citizen.docx.

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Austin City Council adopted a resolution yesterday to direct $500,000 of Austin Energy’s fiscal year 2018 budget to prove solar to “multi-family affordable housing, low-income residents, renters, and non-profits.”  Austin Energy staff agree that this goal is achievable and have committed to develop programs to serve these customers.  Per the resolution, staff will report back to Council in February on progress made toward achieving this goal.

Expanding access to solar for low-income residents is the next generation of distributed solar policy.   As solar prices have dropped significantly and solar financing has become widely available, solar adoption among middle-income residents has increased.  But it is still difficult for low-income residents and renters to take advantage of these opportunities in Austin.

There are several barriers to adopting solar with these groups of customers.  Renters lack control over the decision and landlords often see no reason to invest in solar to reduce bills for tenants.  Low-income residents are more likely to lack access to credit, or sufficient savings to buy solar.  And multi-family properties require different billing arrangements than single family homes.

Affordable housing developed by Foundation Communities has been the one big exception to this deficit of solar for low-income residents in Austin.  The non-profit boasts 720 kilowatts of solar across many of its Austin properties.  Most of these installations are used to supply energy for common areas, or are at properties where Foundation Communities pays all bills for its tenants.

Foundation Communities Homestead Oaks Apartments in south Austin is the one example where the organization uses solar to reduce the bills of each of its 140 tenants.  Unfortunately, Austin Energy’s billing policy required that each unit have its own, independent solar array.  Instead of one big solar installation on the roof, there are 140 installations, each with its own production meter.  This drove up the cost by 15-20%, resulting in a large area of wall being filled with meters, and made the job more complicated.  It’s not an attractive model.

What is the solution?  Shared solar – similar to virtual net metering that exists in many other states.  Austin Energy needs to update its billing system to allow Value of Solar production credits (Austin Energy’s alternative to net metering) from a single solar array to be divided among multiple customer accounts.  Austin Energy has committed to making this change by September 2018.

The Shared Solar billing solution is just the start.  Much more will be needed to make solar accessible to low-income residents and renters.  Austin Energy could offer a higher residential solar rebate for installations on affordable housing properties where solar is used to benefit the individual residences (such as at the Homestead property).  The utility already offers a somewhat higher solar incentive for nonprofits with commercial customer accounts, but these is currently no such offer for residential accounts for multifamily housing.

Another option would be to implement a program similar to CPS Energy’s Solar Host program.  This program allows residents to benefit from rooftop solar without making any investment.  The utility contracts with a solar developer who installs solar on customer rooftops.  The utility pays the solar developer a set rate per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, and each participating customer receives a bill credit for each kilowatt-hour produced on their roof.  Essentially, the customer is renting their roof space.  The bill credits aren’t as high as if the customer owned the solar installation, but it requires no investment on their part, making solar accessible to low-income customers.

Implementing an on-bill repayment program could expand access to solar for renters.  This would tie a solar loan to a particular customer meter, as opposed to the customer themselves.   When one tenant moves out and another moves in, both the repayment of the loan and the bill credits from solar production transfer to the new tenant.  Ideally, such a program would ensure that average annual bill credits exceed annual loan repayment, meaning that a customer’s energy bill would not increase.

Buying down the community solar rate for low-income customers would also help renters.  Austin Energy is considering donating solar installations to affordable housing properties.  That’s how the Guadalupe-Saldana Net Zero Subdivision was able to incorporate solar.  Public Citizen fully supports this, but recognizes that this solution will always be limited by available funding.

The Austin City Council resolution was sponsored by Council Member Greg Casar and co-sponsored by Council Members Leslie Pool, Delia Garza, and Pio Renteria.  They were joined in support by Council Members Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Ora Houston, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo, and Mayor Steve Adler.  Public Citizen applauds City Council and Austin Energy for embracing this next step in local solar development in Austin and looks forward to engaging with staff and other stakeholders to make this effort a success.

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UPDATE:  Public Citizen’s legal team argued our case forcefully.  But it’s all up to the judge now, who could rule — either for or against us — any day.  Either way, there is likely to be an appeal and you can bet we will continue to need your support.

On August 10th, we appear before a judge to argue Public Citizen v. Donald J. Trump.

In the case, we’re challenging Trump’s deregulatory executive order.

The order aims to make it harder for the government to protect our air and water, guarantee the safety of our food, ensure our cars are safe, protect workers from on-duty hazards, address climate change and much more.

Before we argue the case before the judge, I wanted to take a moment to explain the stakes.

It’s not just what the deregulatory order would do on its own, as horrible as that is.

The order is the centerpiece of one of Trump’s overriding objectives:

Empower Big Business to pollute, cheat, rip off, endanger, discriminate and price gouge free from governmental restrictions.

Trump can’t stop talking about this.

On his fifth day in office, Trump told a gathering of CEOs that environmental protections are “out of control,” and promised to roll back regulations.

A week later, he met with Big Pharma CEOs. In place of his tough talk about medicine prices, he promised to eliminate 75 to 80 percent of FDA regulations — a far more extreme position even than Big Pharma’s.

He’s kept up the talk in his endless meetings with CEOs.

Unfortunately, it’s not just talk.

Trump and his cronies are doing real damage:

  • On his first day in office, Trump signed an executive order freezing all pending regulations.That act alone delayed the start date on important public protections years in the making.
  • At the end of January, Trump signed the deregulatory order at issue in Public Citizen v. Donald J. Trump.The order prevents agencies from issuing new safety, health or other regulatory protections unless they eliminate two on the books. Without considering the benefits of the rules, the costs of the new rule must be fully offset by the costs of the eliminated rules.If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is.
  • In February, Trump signed an order directing agencies to review rules and make recommendations for cuts.The New York Times reports that these reviews are “being conducted in large part out of public view and often by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts.”
  • The administration worked with the Republican Congress to use an obscure procedure to repeal more than a dozen rules adopted at the end of the Obama administration.The first such measure was an anti-corruption rule.Also sacrificed were rules on internet privacy, toxic pollution of streams and workplace health and safety.
  • On a case-by-case basis, Trump has moved to repeal many of the Obama administration’s most important rules.These include protections against predatory for-profit colleges, a retirement advice rule that will save consumers $17 billion a year, Obama’s main climate change rule and much more.
  • Last month, the White House budget office reported that the Trump administration has withdrawn or suspended 860 pending rules.

This is all part of a grand design.

To let corporations do as they will.

Even if it means more dangerous cars. More bank rip-offs. Preventable injuries at work. Dirtier air and poisoned water. Contaminated food. Preventable, avoidable and unnecessary death, disease and suffering.

And the deregulatory executive order is at the heart of the scheme.

We are doing everything we can to block Trump’s project to permit corporations to pollute and plunder.

Please chip in today to help us fight Trump’s plan.

Donate now or even join our monthly giving program.

Thank you for anything you can contribute!

Robert Weissman, President
Public Citizen

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Knowing whether to run or hide is a fundamental survival mechanism that Texans living near chemical plants and refineries know too well.

But it can be impossible to make the right decision without accurate and timely information. Is it safe to go outside? Is it safe to “shelter in place” in the nearest building? Is evacuation the only safe option?

The Legislature is holding a public hearing in the House Environmental Regulation Committee on a proposed law to help Texans get the critical information they need when toxic chemicals are released into our air and water.  The hearing is in the Texas Capitol Extension Room, E1.026 on Tuesday, March 28th at 8:00 AM

Urge the Legislature to move forward on the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System.

Ask the House Environmental Regulation Committee to support HB 1927.

The legislation, HB 1927, would establish a system to alert neighboring communities when a facility releases toxic chemicals.

People in the affected area would get notices on their phones about the chemicals released, what direction they are moving and how to stay safe.

The Toxic Alert Bill directs the State Emergency Response Commission to develop a statewide system to inform the public of chemical emergencies in a timely manner using a multi-media
approach, including traditional media, social media, and wireless emergency alerts.

This statewide system will eliminate patchwork local approaches and relieve local governments of the burden of developing and maintaining their own systems. Residents will be directed to a hyperlink, which will provide:

  • The geographic area impacted by the release
  • Information on symptoms that could require emergency medical treatment,
  • Directionality of plume movement,
  • The chemicals involved in and toxicity of the release,
    and
  • Instructions for protection from exposure to the release.

Just like the Amber Alerts for missing persons and emergency weather alerts available on our phones, the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System should be available to keep our communities safe.

A recent poll of Houston area residents shows that most people are concerned about air pollution and its impact on vulnerable populations. Furthermore, 92% support the creation of a public notification system similar to Amber alerts for leaks of hazardous chemicals. These alerts would warn residents via cellular phone of incidents and let them know what action to take to keep safe.
According to an investigative report published by the Houston Chronicle in 2016, an incident involving hazardous materials in the Houston area occurs about every six weeks.  Nationally, there have been more than 93 incidents involving hazardous chemicals since late 2015, killing 7 and injuring 573 people.

As you can see from the list and map below, the folks in the Houston area are more aware of the issue because of the frequency of such events, but you can see that other parts of the state also experience these types of toxic emergencies.

  • Oct. 2011:   Massive chemical fire at Magnablend facility, Waxahachie. Schoolchildren and neighbors evacuated.
  • Nov. 2012: Massive explosion & chemical fire at Nexeo chemical plant, Garland. Local area evacuated.
  • Apr. 2013: Chemical fire at East Texas Ag Supply, Athens. Hundreds of people evacuated.
  • May. 2014: Massive explosion & chemical fire at West Fertilizer, Co., West. Fifteen people dead and 160 injured.
  • Jan. 2015: Chlorine Spill at Magnablend facility, Waxahachie. Employees and neighbors evacuated.
  • Apr. 2015: Train derailment carrying flammable chemicals, Longview. Neighbors evacuated.
  • Aug. 2015: Massive fire at Century Industrial Coatings, Jacksonville. A neighboring business evacuated.
  • Jan. 2016: Explosion and fire at water treatment plant, Midland. One person dead, local residents evacuated.
  • Jan. 2016: Explosion at PeroxyChem, Pasadena. One person dead, three others injured.
  • Mar. 2016: Explosion at Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc., Pasadena. One person burned.
  • Apr. 2016: Explosion at LyondellBasell, SE Houston. Shelter in-place in SE Houston, including Chavez H.S., Deady Middle School, and Rucker Elementary School.
  • May 2016: Fire and chemical release in Spring Branch. Shelter-in-place. Fish, turtles, snakes, and frogs die from chemical spill.
  • Jun. 2016: Chemical leak & fire, Mont Belvieu. Dozens of people evacuated from their homes.
  • Jul. 2016: Asphalt fire, Century Asphalt Plant, Burnet. Dozens of residents evacuated.
  • Jul. 2016: Propylene leak, ExxonMobil Pipeline, Baytown. Local evacuation and shelter-in-place for nearby community.
  • Jul. 2016: Chemical Release at Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc., Pasadena. Heavy black smoke and sulfur dioxide release, shelter-in-place for Galena Park residents.
  • Aug. 2016: Explosion at Voluntary Purchasing Group, Bonham, woke up neighbors. A second explosion one month later injured 2 workers.
  • Aug. 2016: Fire at Hexion in Deer Park, shelter-in-place for neighborhoods in Deer Park.
  • Sept 2016: Chemical spill in Willow Marsh Bayou, Beaumont. Local shelter-in-place, killed over 1,400 fish, snakes, turtles, racoons, and birds.
  • Dec. 2016: A chemical leak contaminated the drinking water supply for Corpus Christi. A water ban was in effect for nearly 4 days, 7 unconfirmed illnesses associated with the drinking water.
  • Jan. 2017: Naphtha overfill at tank at Valero Texas City Refinery. Residents issues. No shelter in place alert was sent because “the incident happened in the middle of the night.”
  • Jan. 2017: Chemical fire and spill, El Paso. Residents complain to TCEQ amidst concerns of respiratory issues.
  • Mar 2017: Sodium hydrosulfide spill, Brownsville. One injured, evacuation downtown.

In 2014, Iowa implement the Alert Iowa System. Counties that did not already have a system like this in place could opt-in to the statewide system to ensure that Iowans are protected from severe weather, chemical spill, and other potential disasters. The statewide system in Iowa costs about $300,000 per year.

Texas already has a system in place that can send out these type of alerts. The system proposed here is designed to work with OEMs to support them based on their needs. The intention is not for the statewide system to override functional systems already in place.

If such a system saved lives or reduced job and school absenteeism as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, it would be well worth the cost of extending our existing technology to put in place a toxic chemical emergency system.  Urge your Legislator to move forward on the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System.

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At any given movement, energy supplied to the electric grid must exactly match energy demand. Traditionally, the supply changes to meet demand, but that’s not the only way to balance the equation.

Demand response is an energy management strategy that solves grid challenges by focusing on electricity demand and usage, not production. It’s a valuable tool for affordably addressing the challenges of peak demand.

Peak demand is the point where demand is highest on a given day, month or year. These peak demand periods require extensive management, most notably during summer months. Without such, there are severe consequences; costly consequences like brownouts or blackouts. In addition to daily human activities that require electricity, blackouts can cause serious economic disturbances. In 2003, a New York City blackout alone cost the city more than $750 million in lost revenue.

The majority of utilities and energy providers handle these peak demand periods with outdated, supply-side solutions: “peaker” power plants. Peaker power plants are such that they only come online, as needed, during periods of peak demand. In addition to the polluting nature of these peaker plants, they are incredibly expensive to build and operate. They are brought online solely in preparation for peak demand events. But in order to do this, these power plants must expensively remain in standby mode to be ready to fill energy gaps at a moment’s notice. These peakers account for 10%-20% of electricity costs in the U.S. due to peak demand during only the top 100 hours on the electricity system.

Demand response is the clean, cost-effective alternative we’ve all been waiting for:

  • Consumers save money; they receive compensation in the form of rebates for electricity demand reductions and/or free access to smart technology.
  • Electricity providers avoid the high costs of bringing current peaker power plants online.
  • It reduces or eliminates a need for future natural gas power plant developments that are expensive and slow the inevitable transition to clean energy.
  • Demand response utilizes smart meters, thermostats and other devices which allow for better energy management and create higher grid stability.

So, how does it work?

Many devices – such as air conditioners, water heaters, and refrigerators – have daily energy demands. Naturally, they cycle on and off periodically throughout a day. Demand response uses systems and technologies that are able to carefully track and regulate these daily fluctuations; it simply shifts and reduces consumer electricity usage during peak demand periods as a response to time-based rates or other forms of financial incentives.

Here are 3 case studies that display the potential of demand response:

San Antonio

In San Antonio, CPS Energy’s Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP) achieves 193 total Mega-Watts (MW) of load shedding from demand response initiatives – about half from large industrial and commercial customers and half from approximately 125,000 residential customers. Both groups are called on about 15-20 times per year to reduce consumption during peak demand events.

Participating large industrial and commercial customers receive compensation for reducing electricity demand for 2-3 hours, which is sometimes achieved by temporarily shifting operations to a different time of day. For residential demand response, customers have access to a program that gets them free Honeywell smart thermostats, or an $85 rebate to purchase a different smart thermostat. They also get $30 at the end of each summer for participating in the program. The utility can then reach out remotely and control the cycling of participants air conditioning units.  Those units will run less during the event period, but aren’t off the entire time.

These electricity savings from demand response represent the majority  of current contributions to its ambitious goal reducing 771 total MW by 2020. As of 2016 CPS stands at 411 total MW towards that goal, of which demand response accounts 47%. The remainder comes from energy efficiency improvements and local solar installations.

Palo Alto

The City of Palo Alto Utilities ran a trial in 2015 called the Demand Response Pilot Program. The period between May 1st and October 15th included 4 demand response events.  The results indicate that participants reduced their aggregated demand between .6-1 MW per event. The total savings were 10,312 kilowatt hours during the trial.

Tampa

For Tampa Electric, a case study looked at the results from its Energy Planner program that began in 2005. Since 2008, results show that demand response works. They demonstrated significant average energy reductions per participant: 3.1 kilowatts during winter peak and 2.0 kilo-watts during summer peak. Furthermore, participants saw lower electricity prices 87% of the time. There was also a 99% customer satisfaction rate in terms of comfort during reduction events.

Logistically, demand response is a solution that solves energy grid problems. It does this more effectively and in a much cheaper way than building new power plants or bringing existing ones online. More importantly, climate change is a disastrous reality that demands both long-term and immediate solutions. Demand response isn’t a permanent solution, but it deals with reality.

 

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Freight ShuttleOn September 9th, Adrian Shelley and I went to Bryan, Texas, to watch the unveiling of the Freight Shuttle System (FSS), a technology  currently being built and tested by Freight Shuttle International. Dr. Stephen Roop, chief scientist at Freight Shuttle International and and professor at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, opened the unveiling with a press briefing sharing his vision. The FSS is an electric, autonomous shuttle powered by a linear induction motor, providing low friction to the steel wheels running on steel lines, similar to train tracks. The FSS combines elements of truck and train transport – single shuttles run on a track similar to a train track, and according to Dr. Roop’s vision, those tracks would be elevated from other modes of transportation to reduce congestion, provide a strong level of predictability and non-stop service, and reduce infrastructure damage often associated with truck transportation. 

Dr. Roop noted the emissions of the FSS are tied to the source of power. What that means is that the FSS itself would generate no point-of-source pollution like the cancer-causing pollution created by diesel engines currently on the road. Furthermore, because the FSS would operate under DC voltage, it could be tied easily to renewable energy. In that way, the FSS could take advantage of the increasing access to renewable energy in Texas and potentially be net zero in terms of carbon pollution.

Adrian and Stephanie with Freight Shuttle

Adrian and Stephanie with Freight Shuttle

The FSS is not designed to transport hazardous or toxic materials, and although it could possibly be used to transport people, it is intended now to be separate from people – that is to be contained within a separate line so that the roads and highways can be used for people, not cargo.

The Port of Houston Authority signed a memorandum of understanding with Freight Shuttle International and is planning to use the FSS to transport cargo between its container terminals, Bayport and Barbour’s Cut. Freight Shuttle International stated that the FSS line could be operational within 3 years.

 

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Mayor Adler speaking about the Austin Energy rate case settlement on Aug 25, 2016. Council Members Casar and Pool also spoke at the press conference focused on environmental aspects of the rate case. Photo by Dave Cortez.

As of yesterday afternoon, Austin Energy’s rate case officially concluded with a unanimous vote of the City Council.  The result – lower bills for everyone and commitments to address two key environmental objectives.  The utility agreed to develop a financial, legal and technical plan that will allow its portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire at the end of 2022.  And the utility agreed to address the need for compensating commercial customers with solar installations for the energy they produce.  These commitments provide a path forward to transition away from burning coal and toward renewable energy.

The 2022 retirement date for Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette was established in the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025, but a detailed implementation plan is still lacking.  The agreement that Public Citizen and Sierra Club struck with Austin Energy as part of the rate case gives the utility until June 2017 to present a plan to the City Council.  And in the meantime, $5 million will be earmarked in Austin Energy Contingency Reserve as part of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget to be used for repaying debt associated with Fayette.  What to do about the debt is expected to be a significant focus of the research Austin Energy will conduct between now and next June.  Austin Energy’s portion of Fayette is responsible for about 25% of Austin’s community-wide greenhouse gas emissions and about 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions, making retiring the plant a top priority for meeting Austin’s climate goals.  Additionally, the economics of producing power from coal are looking worse all the time, so retiring the plant will ultimately benefit ratepayers, as well as the environment.

The exact details of how to compensate commercial customers with solar will also be decided in the coming months, but a commitment to address this current policy shortfall was part of the rate case agreement.  We will continue to advocate for expansion of the Value of Solar (VoS) tariff to commercial customers.  The VoS, which was pioneered by Austin Energy and first implemented in 2012, is used to calculate bill credits for residential customers with solar.  This formula-based method allows for a transparent examination of the benefits that local solar provides and is structured to be cost-neutral to the utility.  Currently, the VoS doesn’t apply to commercial customers, nor are most commercial customers eligible for net metering (a method of one for one crediting energy produced for energy used).  As incentives continue to be phased out, it becomes even more critical that Austin Energy have good long-term policies in place to fairly compensate customers.  The rate case agreement ensures that the issue of compensating commercial customers for energy produced will be addressed as part of the FY 2018 budget.

We are pleased that the Austin City Council also chose to make adjustments to the residential rates that weren’t detailed in the agreement between Austin Energy and the other parties in the rate case.  Austin Energy had proposed changes that would have raised rates for those who use the least electricity, while reducing them for those who use the most.  We advised the Council that such a change would be contrary to established goals for reducing energy use and would unfairly burden those who had invested in energy efficiency.  In the end, Council agreed and new rates were adopted that will result in reduced bills for all residential customers (rate reductions for commercial customers were already ensured).  The new rate go into effect at the start of January 2017.

Public Citizen’s Texas office worked in partnership with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter for the past seven months to ensure that environmental priorities were reflected in Austin Energy’s rates and financial planning.  Thanks to the many Austinites, including city council members who supported our efforts.

 

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