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Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

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:

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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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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A rate case is fundamentally about determining how much money an electric utility needs to collect from ratepayers to pay for expenses (and make some return on investment), how those expenses will be divided among the different customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial), and how customers in those different rate classes will be billed.  It’s probably obvious that these decisions can impact affordability and equity among customers.  Rate cases can also have significant environmental impacts though.

The Austin Energy rate case is an opportunity to make changes that can allow the utility to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greater reliance on clean energy solutions, including solar energy at homes and businesses, energy efficiency, energy storage and demand response (temporarily reducing usage when energy demand and prices spike).  What the utility spends money on, what programs are offered, and how rates are designed have profound impacts on climate change, air quality, water pollution, water use, land use – all of which impact society in a variety of ways, including public health and vulnerability to natural disasters.  So, it might sound boring at first, but if you care about the environment or social equity, you should care about how your electric utility is doing business.

What we’re advocating for:

  • 2009-08-21-fayette

    Fayette Power Project

    Budget to allow Austin Energy’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire.  It is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions (and over 28% of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors).  It’s also a major source of other air pollution that causes and worsens respiratory diseases (sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which contributes to ground level ozone formation) and cause neurological disorders mercury.  And it requires over 5 billion gallons of water to operate.  The latest adopted plan for Austin Energy calls for the retirement of the utility’s portion of Fayette by 2023, and Austin Energy staff say its remaining debt associated with the plant must be paid off before it can be retired.  The plan calls for that money to be collected in a dedicated fund through annual budgeting, but that isn’t happening, putting the retirement plan at risk.  Please use our action page to email City Council about budgeting to retire Fayette.

  • Maintain residential rates that encourage energy conservation and allow thrifty customers to keep their bills low.  Austin Energy has proposed to increase electric rates for those who use the least energy and reduce them for those who use the most.  For those trying to reduce their electric usage for environmental reasons or because their household budgets are strained, Austin Energy’s proposal will increase bills.  Austin Energy’s proposal will also make it more difficult to project from year to year how higher much summer rates will be from winter rates.  Both of these changes would reduce the incentive to conserve energy and invest in energy efficiency upgrade.  And these changes were proposed despite a study that Austin Energy commissioned that said that the existing rate structure is succeeding in encouraging conservation.  These proposed changes to how residential customers are billed would be a step backwards.
  • LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation - Meridian Solar

    LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation – Meridian Solar

    Adopt a policy to fairly compensate businesses for energy they produce from solar energy systems.  The City Council has adopted goals solar energy on homes and businesses, but Austin Energy’s current policy doesn’t include any way for most commercial customers to receive compensation for the energy they provide to the utility.  Incentives have temporarily filled that gap, but they are coming to an end.  The value of solar (VoS) rate is used to provide bill credits to residential customers, based on the calculated value of local distributed solar energy.  The same method should be used to compensate commercial customers.  Making this policy change will help grow solar adoption, while shifting away from incentives.

  • Ensure that enough money is collected to fully fund energy efficiency, solar energy and demand response programs.  Helping customers reduce their electric bills by making energy efficiency improvement or install solar energy systems doesn’t just benefit those customers who participate in those programs, it benefits all customers by allowing the utility to avoid purchasing expensive power that would drive all of our bills up.  The Energy Efficiency Services fee is used to collect money for this purpose.  With more people moving to Austin all the time, Austin Energy needs to ensure that budgets are set to match the need for local energy improvements.

Public Citizen and Sierra Club jointly participated in the Austin Energy rate case over the past several months, in an effort to push the utility to make environmentally sound decisions about both spending and billing customers.  That was just a warm-up for the real decision-making process though.  Because Austin Energy is owned by the city of Austin, the Austin City Council will make the final decisions about the rate case.  That’s where you come in.  City Council members, including Mayor Adler, need to hear from Austin Energy customers.  There will be a public hearing on Thursday, August 25th at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall.  Meet at 3:00 p.m. for a rally to support fair rates that meet Austin’s environmental goals.

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IMG_1653Around 10:10 AM on Sunday July 17th, a pipeline leaked propylene in the community of Baytown, TX, near the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery. Propylene is a dense, colorless gas that is considered non-toxic but flammable. The pipeline leak highlights some of the challenges associated with emergency response along within the Houston region.

At 10:30 AM, according to the Houston Chronicle, three houses were evacuated and all others within the vicinity of the leak were told to shelter in place. The emergency response was mixed. Residents who signed up for city notifications through Baytown Alert were apparently notified by phone and by email around 10:30 AM about the order to shelter-in-place. Yet some confusion remained – who exactly did the shelter-in-place include? What had happened, and what kind of chemical was released – something flammable or something toxic? Should residents downwind be concerned?

The CAER line, which is supported by the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, provides a hotline for Harris County residents to call to obtain more information regarding emergency situations. During the incident on Sunday, several people known to us called CAER to hear the messages it posted regarding the situation. It is unclear how quickly the first message regarding the incident was posted to CAER; a Baytown resident stated that it took about an hour following the incident before CAER posted a message. On Sunday at 1:05 PM, there were no current messages, even though the shelter-in-place had not yet been lifted. At 2:30 PM, CAER’s message stated that a propylene leaked resulted in the shelter-in-place warning. The City of Baytown reported via twitter that the shelter-in-place had been lifted at 2:38 PM. At 3:30 PM, CAER’s message line mentioned the leak without any mention of a shelter-in-place. Around 4:20 PM there were no current messages on the CAER line.

Although the City of Baytown notified residents of the shelter-in-place, the residents we spoke with never received the all clear and were not informed when the shelter-in-place had been lifted either via siren or via email and phone. In fact, it is unclear if sirens were used to communicate the shelter-in-place, which is an important way to inform people who may be visiting the area or who may not have access to other technology. Many questions remain unanswered and the Healthy Ports Community Coalition (HPCC) is actively researching to fully understand the emergency response.

The HPCC is also proposing a system like an amber alert system to make use of our modern technology so that residents can be informed immediately when emergency evacuations or a shelter-in-place is called for, notified when it is all clear to return to normal, and they can be instructed specifically on what steps to take to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. In this case, Baytown residents were lucky that the chemical leaked was not deemed toxic and that no one suffered any known health impacts from the leak. HPCC is working to keep residents safe and informed for when the next incident happens.

hpcc

 

The Healthy Port Communities Coalition is growing a strong base of well-informed and active local residents who engage public and private stakeholders directly on priority issues including jobs, pollution, health, neighborhood safety, and economic opportunities.

 

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photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

During the last week of June, President Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for the North American Leaders Summit (known as the Three Amigos Summit) in Ottawa to focus primarily on climate-related issues. These climate accords are essential not only in combating climate change, but also in seeing how countries can forge multi-lateral partnerships in addressing environmental issues.

This summit was the first in two and a half years. The trilateral summit last year was postponed due to disputes over the Keystone oil pipeline between President Obama, who saw the pipeline as a threat to the environment, and Canada’s former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was a strong advocate of it. Now, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party, and President Enrique Peña Nieto, a close ally of President Obama’s, US, Canada, and Mexico are unifying their energy policies more than ever.

The new agreement calls for 50 percent of North America’s electricity to come from clean power sources by 2025. According to the agreement, clean power sources include renewable energy, efficiency, nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage technology. Currently, 37% of North America’s electricity is powered by non-carbon-emitting power plants, mostly nuclear and hydro. Among the three countries, Canada is leading in carbon-free energy with 81 percent (if nuclear energy is included), coming from clean energy sources. United States and Mexico lag behind. In Mexico, only 22 percent of its energy is carbon-free. The statistics for the United States are not much better given that only 33 percent of electric power (including 20 percent nuclear) comes from carbon-free energy sources. Another 33 percent of our electricity is fueled by coal which is primarily composed of carbon.

The trilateral agreement opens up new avenues for carbon-dependent states to replace their energy sources through the transmission of power from Canada’s electricity grid. Another way the countries are looking to decrease carbon emissions is by boosting deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, as well as cutting emissions from the shipping and airline sectors.

The agreement’s main targets are methane and carbon dioxide (CO2), along with other greenhouse gas pollutants. Cutting down on methane emissions should be a priority for North America given that it produces 20% of the world’s methane emissions.  The pollutant traps 25 times more heat over a 100 year period and 87 times more over a 20 year period, compared to CO2. The pressure of being accountable to your neighbor will hopefully bring all three of the North American states to significantly reduce their methane emissions.

A part of the accord that U.S. and Canada had previously decided on before the summit, promises to reduce methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in refrigerators, by 40 to 45 percent. During the Three Amigos Summit, the Mexican President agreed to the terms as well.

Finally, the Three Amigos also agreed on protecting biodiversity, particularly preserving migratory birds and butterflies that fly every year between the three countries, but are losing their habitat due to environmental threats.

The climate change goals of the North America Leaders Summit are aligned with the Paris Agreements of 2015, in which U.S. committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.
(more…)

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