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Image from Lyn Tec

Image from Lyn Tec

There is something lurking in households all over the US that is costing its residents an average of $220 or 5-10% of their annual electric bill. The culprit is called vampire power, or phantom load. It’s the power that electronic devices consume even while in standby mode. Kilowatt hours of electricity are being used just by being plugged into the wall.

Vampire power costs the US 100 billion kWh of electricity and over $10 billion in annual energy costs according to energystar.gov. That means, based off a 500 MW coal power plant which can produce up to 2.2 billion kWh of electricity per year, it would take 45.5 coal power plants to produce the amount of electricity vampire power consumes each year!

 

Image from Bentley University

Image from Bentley University

The top 5 vampire electronics per typical household are:

1. TVs- Rear projection and plasmas are the highest electricity consumers.

2. Video game consoles- Xbox and PS3 gaming consoles can cost around $25 per year.

3. Computers- Keeping your laptop plugged into the wall 24/7 can degrade the battery along with costing you money to keep it at a max charge.

4. Cable/satellite TV box- Along with a monthly payment, these services also come with a hidden fee in wasted electricity.

5. Phone chargers- Although they are small, if left in an outlet these vampire suckers just add to the lost power.

 

Image from Sierra Club

Image from Sierra Club

Things you could do to lessen vampire power and save money:

Lessening the impact of vampire power on your electricity bill doesn’t have to be unplugging every power hungry item every time you aren’t using it.There are many ways you can lessen the bill. Buying electronics that have the Energy Star emblem on the box guarantees that product lies within the EPA’s efficiency guidelines and consumes less energy while it’s in standby mode.

Saving energy and money can also be as simple as switching to power strips specifically designed to reduce vampire power. 3 different types of power strips- the timer, occupancy sensing, and current sensing strip- are designs that cater to different people and settings.

1. Timer strip allows user to set timers for when the current can flow within the strips. In an office setting this design could work best by turning power on and off in sync with hours of operation.

2. Occupancy sensing strip turns on power flow when it senses motion in the room, cater towards homes and home offices.

3. Current sensing strip detects the energy mode of an electronic, such as a computer monitor, which is plugged into the master outlet. If the monitor of a computer is in sleep mode, the current sensing strip will cut the electrical current to the rest of the electronic plugged in such as a printer, speakers, or other computer related device.

Small simple changes can be made to reduce the vampire power of each home or office, reducing not only the cost of your electric bill but also its environmental impact.

Once again, Austin Energy has reduced solar incentives with less than 2 hours notice. This time, the changes will impact both residential and commercial customers.

As of 3pm today, the rebate for a residential solar installation is $1.10 per watt (down from $1.25) and the commercial performance based incentive (PBI) is $0.09 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) (down from $0.10).

You might well be asking why Austin Energy made these changes and why so suddenly.

The memo released by Austin Energy indicates that the decrease in the residential rebate was made because Austin Energy wanted to make sure that it didn’t exceed it’s budget for such rebates (the fiscal year ends in September). On the face, that sounds like a responsible move, but there was another option.  Austin Energy could have reasonably anticipated this budget shortfall because the same thing happened last year. It could have requested a larger solar rebate budget instead of trying to cut that budget by about 42% (a proposal that was changed due to public outcry).

The reason stated for reducing the commercial PBI is that Austin Energy doesn’t want to make commitments now that would force it to exceed it’s planned FY2015 budget. PBI incentives are paid for each kWh for 10 years, so this kind of foresight is needed, but, again, another option would be to ask for a larger budget for commercial solar in FY2015.

Before you get to thinking that our answer to everything is just “spend more,” let’s clarify that spending more now could be offset with spending less later and we’d get more solar for every dollar spent.

Here’s why – Right now, and through the end of 2016, the federal government offers a 30% solar investment tax credit. So, for anyone or any business with tax liability, the federal government basically pays you back for 30% of the cost of your solar installation. In essence, Austin Energy is getting a match (about 82%, assuming installations are $3.40/watt, which is what Austin Energy has been reporting as average) for its rebate expenses.  When the federal solar tax credit ends after 2016, Austin Energy may find that its solar rebate program isn’t quite as popular and it may need to spend more per watt to keep solar adoption growing, at least for a few years.

Spending more on solar rebates and the commercial PBI now could provide a buffer that will allow us to spend less in those post solar tax credit years.

Austin Energy says that it must make announcements about solar rebate and PBI levels without much notice because there would be a mad rush to get projects in under the higher incentive levels if solar contractors and customers knew ahead of time.  There is some logic in that, but what has suffered is any opportunity for public input on changes being made.  There is no set formula for reducing rebates, so Austin Energy simply adjusts the levels when and how it see fit.  This leaves no room for ensuring that these changes align with the priorities of of the city.

It was less than 2 years ago that payback times for residential solar installations in Austin were bouncing around in the 5 to 6 year range.  Now they’re at about 10 years and Austin Energy seems quite content with that change.

One option would be to establish a formulas that could be based on the capacity of residential and commercial solar installations or the average payback time, or some combination that would determine when and how Austin Energy’s incentives would be adjusted.

More importantly though, this problem of adjusting solar incentives to meet artificial budget targets, instead of trying to maximize solar adoption while federal rebates are still available would be minimized if Austin Energy had strong residential and commercial solar goals to achieve.  Austin Energy’s overall solar goal should be doubled to 400 megawatts (MW) by 2020.  Even more importantly, the local solar goal should be doubled to 200 MW and the residential and commercial solar goal to 100 MW.  Only with more ambitious goals will Austin Energy be forced to prioritize the expansion of solar.

You can help make this change happen: 

The Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force, which has the job of making recommendations about Austin Energy’s energy plan for the coming 10 years, has 2 more meetings scheduled – 2:30 pm this Wednesday, June 18, and 2:30 pm next Monday, June 23, both in the bull pen at City Hall.  If you care about expanding Austin Energy’s solar goals as a way of keeping its solar programs robust, show up and speak at citizen communication at the start of the meeting.  Arrive a few minutes early to sign up because only the first 5 to sign up get to speak.  You will be limited to 3 minutes.  It won’t take you long and the task force really does want to hear from the public.

declining cost of solar panels 1977-2013 graph- BloombergAll over the U.S, the price of going solar has been falling dramatically. The price for one watt of photovoltaic panels has fallen from $76.67 in 1977 to as low as $0.50 in 2013. Other items such as inverters and wiring make the rest of the so called hard costs of going solar, which according to the National Renewable Energy laboratory, come to a total of $1.76 per watt. The rest of the average $5.00/watt that residential customers in the U.S pay for solar comes from “soft costs”.

While hard costs have been consistently falling, soft costs have not undergone such a radically change. In fact, soft costs now make up over 64% of the total price for a residential solar system. Rebates programs in some areas help to offset these soft costs and to make solar affordable enough for the average home owner, but that isn’t a sustainable model. Controlling these soft costs is key to creating a competitive and thriving solar market in the United States.

US vs Germany Solar Soft Costs - CleanTechnica

Graph from CleanTechnica

Solar is already cheaper in places like Germany, where the average total cost per watt is as low as $2.56. An average U.S system costs nearly twice as much, even though hardware costs are the same in both countries. So what are the areas that the U.S solar industry can improve upon?

The largest solar soft costs in the U.S come from supply chain management, both physical and financial. Supply chain issues represent 11.7% of the total cost of solar, or about $0.61/watt. Transportation and storage costs in the U.S tend to be higher than in Germany. This has a lot to do with the fact that the U.S is a large country with a fairly spread out population, compared to Germany. Solar companies often cover large geographic markets, which requires them to ship their hardware across equally long distances.
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Abandoned oil wells and oil extraction equipment are common problems that plague Texas residents. One of the largest concerns about this problem is that many oil wells have been left poorly maintained and not sealed. Some linger from the early- to mid-20th century, before current standards were set in place. More recently, regulators have worked to plug and seal the old wells, so they do not act as a channel for liquid pollutants to enter groundwater. But some fear that the recent surge in oil drilling, brought about by the modern practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), will catalyze troublesome encounters with the old wells.

Abandoned oil well in Texas - photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Abandoned oil well in Texas – photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Abandoned oil and gas wells are all over the United States in areas such as Texas, New York and Pennsylvania that were prominent regions for oil drilling. An abandoned or “orphaned” well is a well that is no longer in use or that is in such an unusable state that oil and gas can no longer be obtained from it. While there have been great efforts to remedy this problem, in Texas alone there are still more than 8,400 known uncapped wells all over the state.

Uncapped wells pose dangers environmentally and physically. There is the possibility of children or small animals falling into them and seriously harming and potentially killing themselves. They serve as potential groundwater contamination routes and allow poor quality/contaminated water to move between aquifers, further polluting them.

A geyser of methane and gas sprays out of the ground near a Shell drilling site in Tioga County. - photo from StateImpact Pennsylvania

A geyser of methane and gas sprays out of the ground near a Shell drilling site in Tioga County. – photo from StateImpact Pennsylvania

Aside from the general risks abandoned oil wells pose, drilling near them causes even greater dangers. There are still many undocumented wells throughout the U.S. that pose potential hazards. By drilling near abandoned and unknown wells, methane gas becomes more pressurized and works to find a way to the surface. If a high volume of methane gas comes together it creates an explosion, something we would definitely want to avoid. When drilling near wells the potential for an excess of methane to come together and explode becomes exponentially greater. A well in Tioga County, Pennsylvania that was 5,385 feet deep, and lined with four layers of metal casing, is an excellent example of the potential dangers. Eighty years and four months after being dug and used, the well was part of an unfortunate incident — even though it had been inactive for generations. The well played a key role in a methane gas leak that led to a 30-foot geyser of gas and water spraying out of the ground for more than a week. Since there are so many unknown wells all over the state you can see how this could be a problem.

Even wells that have been inactive for extremely long periods of time can still pose a threat. Abandoned oil and natural gas wells can serve as conduits for injected oil and natural gas drilling waste fluids to migrate from underground to an area near the surface where the fluids can break out of the abandoned wells and contaminate groundwater, raising the possibility that abandoned wells can serve as similar conduits for injected hydraulic fracturing fluids.Ed Walker, the general manager of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District in South Texas, said that a few years ago, water came up out of an abandoned 1940s-era well that lay slightly more than a quarter-mile from a disposal well.

Currently the Texas Railroad Commission regulates and oversees any and all drilling in Texas and there are measures in place to make sure these wells are taken care of, however there are still thousands of known wells that have not been suitably covered and filled. In order to ensure that our water supplies and air is not being contaminated we need to push to make sure these wells are properly sealed and all unknown wells are found and dealt with accordingly.

Big Brown coal plant in Texas

Big Brown coal plant in Texas is one of the largest CO2 emitters

Yesterday, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced stage two of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to reduce power plant greenhouse gas pollution and increase energy efficiency. The plan is to create a flexible environment for each state by allowing cooperation between multiple states along with individual state plans to comply with the Clean Power Plan guidelines. The proposal aims to encourage states, companies and private individuals to get involved in the reduction of greenhouse gasses that come from domestic power plants that burn fossil fuels, especially coal. Its flexibility and benefits are what’s going to drive this environmental plan to its final goal.

The plan requires that states have their proposals submitted by June of 2016 and started by 2020, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In addition to reducing our impact on climate change, the plan is projected have many other benefits as well.  It is projected to cut electric bills by 8%, cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25%, and have tremendous health benefits. This regulation has the potential to prevent 6,600 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks in children who are all exposed to the toxins coal plants emit into the environment. According to the EPA, a projected increase of 104,000 jobs will be created in power production, fuel extraction and the demand side energy sector, and up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits could be made by making the changes this plan guides us to do.

Texas is home to 18 coal plants

Texas is home to 18 coal plants

Coal plants alone count for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US, with Texas being the largest producer from its 18 coal fired power plants located mostly in east Texas. Currently, there is no restriction on carbon pollution from existing power plants and a steady increase of carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration has gone from 387 parts per million in 2009, to a record 401 parts per million as of April 2014 which, according to ice core records, hasn’t been reached in over 800,000 years. With over 40% of US power generated from coal plants, adjustment of environmental regulations has been needed for a long while.

The goals of the Clean Power Plan are outlined with specific requirements of greenhouse gas emissions that will serve as another step forward towards low-carbon technologies and a cleaner planet. The Clean Power Plan will require a change in each state for the better of the environment, fueling new technologies and businesses that support low carbon economy. By requiring action from the states, the plan will hopefully encourage action from the citizens as well.

In addition to making changes here in the United States, the plan is also hoped to spur greater international action to address climate change. The announcement that the worlds largest carbon emitter, China, will place a cap on carbon emissions in 2016, seems to indicate that the strategy might already be working.

This announcement isn’t the end of the process.  EPA is now collecting feedback from the public on this proposal.  You can help ensure that this proposed regulation to address the urgent problem of climate change is adopted and put into action as quickly as possible by letting EPA know that you support limited carbon pollution from power plants.

A new technology – solar roadways – has emerged that has the potential for powering the entire United States 3 times over for each year it is in service, along with reducing 75% of greenhouse gases the US produces. With over 31,000 sq miles of roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and bike paths connecting the US, converting the surface areas into solar roadways is the ambitious and creative solution that creators Julie and Scott Brunsaw have proposed to solve the energy problems we face today and ahead of us.

solar roadways

Julie and Scott Brunsaw, creators of the Solar Roadways

Scott Brunsaw is an electrical engineer based in Idaho with his wife and solar roadway partner, Julie. Scott thought of this idea when he was younger and dreamed of a world that was futuristic and sustainable. First hand experience working in an oil company grew his drive to build a practical solar road.  Now, he and his wife have made the technology a reality.

The solar roadway panel itself is in a hexagonal shape that is designed to last a minimum of 20 years. It is covered in a snow and ice resistant, durable glass that is capable of supporting 250,000 lbs of weight and is equipped with programmable LED lights to easily light up the road. A parking lot-size prototype has been built with funding from the Federal Highway Administration and through a public funding initiative that has raised close to $150,000,000 through Indigogo.com.

solar roadwaysInside each of the solar panels are hi-tech microprocessing chips covered in a tempered glass that is capable of heating the panels to a few degrees above freezing to keep snow and ice off of the roads, making them safer and eliminating the need for snow plows. The microprocessing chips can also detect weight and can be programmed to illuminate the LED lights in the panels to show road lines, animals crossing, hazards on the road and more. The panels themselves are made up of mostly recycled material and are attached to a cable corridor that lines up alongside the road which is where the power lines and fiber optics are stored. More about the specs and benefits of solar roadways can be found watching this entertaining video.

solar roadwaysWhy this is so important to the US and the world can be seen in multiple statistics of our current energy situation. In 2011, the United States’ energy sources for electricity were made up of 91% non renewable resources such as coal, petroleum, natural gas, and nuclear, with only 9% made up of renewable resources. With energy production contributing to 79% of greenhouse gas emissions, the US is in dire need of a new energy source to not only lower its contribution to global pollution, but also to act as an example to developing countries who are building their infrastructure. If an idea like solar roads were to be adopted by the most powerful country in the world, it would have a tremendously positive effect on the globe including cutting a significant amount of transportation emissions, creating new jobs to build the new infrastructure, help reduce dependence on foreign oil, and provide access to a  large renewable energy resource.

The positive potential for this project is very high, but it comes with great costs including an investment of up to $56 trillion to cover 29,000 sq miles of US roadways, electrical grid updates that allow for a greater electricity capacity, along with much more research and testing that needs to be done. Although the upfront costs are significant, solar roadways would pay for themselves as well as generate excess revenue. With more support and research, solar roadways could turn into the next big thing that could solve the energy crisis for the US.

 

 

Solar Jobs StatsA recent report by the Solar Foundation shows that employment in the solar industry is booming. Over the past four years, employment in the nation’s solar companies has grown by about 53%. The number of solar jobs grew by an astonishing 20% between 2012 and 2013 alone. By contrast, the overall economy created only 1.9% more jobs over the same period of time. Texas has 4,100 employees in the solar industry, and experienced a 28% growth in solar jobs from 2012 to 2013. Texas is in 6th place for total number of solar employees.

Of the jobs created in the solar industry, sales and installations are leading the way. Within the next year, jobs installing panels are expected to grow by 21.4%, while sales jobs are expected to grow by 14.1%. However, jobs in the solar manufacturing sector are projected to grow only by 8.6%, as U.S manufacturers struggle to compete with cheap panels from China and other developing markets. In response the U.S has imposed a 31% tariff on imported Chinese solar panels. Still, even the slowest growing sector in the solar industry is creating jobs four times faster than the overall economy. The solar industry is truly one of the great success stories of the economic recovery.

Solar panel installationIt’s important to note that one thing driving panel prices down so rapidly, and creating a ton of jobs in the process, is the increased demand being created from the solar subsidies at the various levels of government. If these subsidies are ended prematurely, solar panels would be out of reach for many consumers, resulting in a reduction in demand. If this happens, the reduced demand could slow jobs growth.

In order to keep the solar industry going strong and creating jobs, clear guidance on the federal level surrounding renewable energy subsidies is needed. For example, the solar investment tax credit, which has helped spark the economic boom in solar, is set to expire at the end of 2016. This tax credit has played a key role in fostering the 1,600% increase in solar installations since 2006. In fact subsidized solar power has already reached grid parity in some states. That means that on a kilowatt-hour (kwh) basis, solar can be as cheap as or cheaper than coal, natural gas, or any other conventional form of energy. In states or cities where solar reaches grid parity, observers are expecting an even further surge in solar energy, yielding even more jobs growth. But if the solar investment tax credit completely expires for residential customers and is reduced to 10% for commercial customers, as scheduled, in 2016, jobs growth in the solar industry could slow unless soft cost are reduced . Any reduction in subsides should be offset with a reduction in the required permitting and paper work for solar installation. These soft costs related to regulatory compliance cause solar installation to cost nearly twice as much as they do in other countries. In Germany, where the solar instillation process is stream lined, a 4kw system costs only $10,000 to install, where the same system costs nearly $20,000 in the United States.

As of right now, solar appears to be entering a period of nearly exponential growth thanks to falling panel prices, and effective subsidies at the various levels of government. While every industry should aspire to be able to stand on its own two feet, ending the subsidies for solar in 2016 would be premature and would put the industry at a disadvantage among the many energy industries, including coal, natural gas and nuclear, that receive other subsidies. Any reduction in subsidies should be offset by making the regulatory process simpler, and cheaper. The solar industry is one of the fastest growing industries around, and until solar can consistently reach grid parity, subsidies should kept in place to ensure strong jobs growth, and a bright future for the green U.S economy.

The business behind hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has become a hot button issue in the more recent years, but natural gas pipeline projects often get less attention.

2013-091-31 Bluegrass Pipeline - map of proposed routeThe Bluegrass Pipeline was to be built in order to transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) from the Utica and Marcellus shale regions down to the Gulf Coast. The Bluegrass Pipeline is a joint project by Williams and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, LP, two of the nation’s leading energy infrastructure companies. As it is proposed, the completed pipeline will transport at a rate of up to 200,000 barrels of NGLs per day. The company was to start by building and repurposing approximately 600 miles of the 1,200 mile pipeline. It would begin in Pennsylvania and travels through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

One of the largest environmental concerns involves the pipeline spurs from Kentucky. The land that the pipeline will be built on has limestone karst geology that carries water through caves. In the past there have been problems with pipelines running underneath the ground such as massive sinkholes and pipe explosions, and by building the Bluegrass Pipeline in the territory they are subjecting the residents that live on that very sensitive part of the land to possible danger and a great destruction of the land.

The construction of the pipeline has been halted due to a lack of customer commitment. Along the Gulf Coast there are many regions from which customers could purchase natural gas, so it would be might be more expensive to transport the NGLs from the north to the south than to just pull from closer sights like the Eagle Ford and Barnett shale regions in Texas.

Texas has played a major role in the natural gas industry for many years. Currently, Texas is the highest ranked natural gas consuming state and 58,600 miles of natural gas pipelines within the state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

With such deep roots in the fracking industry, it is understandable that many in Texas wants to keep it here – it brings jobs and money into the state. However, our water supplies are taking a large hit from this industry. They become contaminated by the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing procedures such as lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde and we drink from that contaminated water supply.

Fracking is the process by which dangerous chemicals are mixed with large quantities of water and sand are injected into wells at extremely high pressure which causes a major water contamination problem. In Texas alone there have been more than 2,000 reported cases of groundwater and private well contamination and more than 1,200 reports among other states within the last five years. They range from allegations of short-term diminished water flow to pollution from stray gas and other substances. With the current drought problem plaguing many areas of Texas, the issue of water contamination has become more prominent and our water resources more precious.

Many national and local organizations have openly opposed expanded fracking until safeguards are in place to ensure minimal pollution. Until these measures are taken our water supplies, climate and health will suffer.

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about all the great energy and cost saving benefits that come from installing rooftop solar. In cities that have generous rebate programs, such as Austin and San Antonio, customers can expect to see their utility bills fall by 50% or more, and to break even on their solar investment within 7 years. These systems can produce electricity for 25 to 40 years, and can net up to tens of thousands of dollars in energy savings throughout their lifetime.

photo from RenewableEnergyWorld.com

photo from RenewableEnergyWorld.com

These benefits alone have been enough to spark a bustling solar industry in solar-friendly cities, but new research has shown that solar may be good for more than just saving on electric bills. A study conducted by the Berkeley National Laboratory shows that solar can add thousands to home resale value. Although the study is limited to California, researchers concluded that solar adds approximately $5,900 to the value of a home per kW installed.

The study found that the premium commanded by solar falls by about 9% per year. Still, this is slower than the depreciation of other major purchases, such as new cars, which loss value at a rate of nearly 15% per year. And unlike cars, solar panels actually pay the owner to use them. The premium added to home value from panels is just an extra bonus to the already substantial energy savings.

Case studies of single-family homes in the Denver metro area seem to also show that, in most circumstances, a monetary benefit is seen when selling a home with solar panels installed. One of the takeaways from this study was that the monetary benefit will vary by market area, over time and on a house-by-house basis. It will therefore be important to ensure that the appraiser and the realtor understands the value solar panels add.

In addition to increasing home values, another study done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Co. found that homes with solar sold 20% faster, and for 17% more than a typical comparable home. This study was also limited to California markets, but homeowners in solar friendly cities might consider installing panels as a way to stand out from the crowd. As more homeowners choose to install solar on their homes in a given city or neighborhood, valuing solar homes is likely to become easier in those markets.  All in all, the future of solar is looking bright.

Rainwater Harvesting Diagram - by Vanisle Water

Rainwater Harvesting Diagram – by Vanisle Water

The drought in the US southwest and west shown so much on the news is expected to get worse over the next several years and specifically in Texas where huge numbers of people are moving to cities like Austin and Dallas.  According to Forbes, the Austin area is now the fastest growing city in the US, with Dallas coming in at number 4 and Houston at number 10.

Currently, Austin is in stage 2 drought on a 0-4 scale with the lakes that store water for the city being a little above 30% full (Austin draws directly from Lake Austin, but that lake is held at a constant level by releasing water from Lake Travis, which in turn gets water from Lake Buchanan via Inks Lake). With the panhandle and parts of central Texas covered with the color of dark red symbolizing exceptional drought, and expectations that this drought will be extending its stay, new sources of water are being sought after to offset the damages.

In Wichita Falls, with a population of 100,000, the conditions have degraded so much that officials predict their water supply will only last 2 more years which has forced the city to consider using a water supply consisting of 50% treated waste water which has got residents buying bottled water instead.

Rainwater HarvestingWith 88% of Texas in some stage of drought, solutions to this problem are vital to the health of Texas, which has inspired a study funded by Texas State University and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment to the forefront of this problem.  The study explores the possibility of subdivision scale rainwater harvesting systems which would collect the rainwater off the roofs of an entire subdivision to feed the water demands instead of drilling into an existing well that may be already stressed from other residences.

The study took place from 2011-2013 in the Hill Country and yielded cost effective results that would overall be beneficial to the developer and residents.  If each house was 33ft by 44ft with an average rainfall of 32in per year (Austin’s average) then the house would yield around 30,000 gallons of water per year! In a subdivision with around 400 houses that would add up to 12,000,000 gallons of water per year for a sustainable, high quality water supply.

The study compares capital costs of a rainwater harvesting system (RWH), private wells, a community well, building a water system within the development, and a water system that connects to an already existing public system. The capital cost of RWH would be the greatest out of all options, nearly doubling that of a community well or an existing waterline. However, unlike all other options, there would be little upfront costs such as installing pipelines and a water system before a house is even built.  The cost would be at the time each house is built which means less investment on the developer on top of also having a cleaner and more sustainable water supply.

The study concludes that the decision for or against a RWH system depends on the location of the property and if there is an existing well or connection system that would guarantee long term water supply, the number of houses intended to be built which would be restricted by the available water supply, and the upfront costs that the developer is willing to invest.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the operator of the electric distribution grid for most of Texas, announced six new generating units will be going online this year that should help meet Texans’ power needs this summer and fall.  Despite this, they also said consumers could still be asked to conserve during extremely hot weather or in case of outages to help avoid blackouts.

This year Texans were asked to conserve power and warned of rolling blackouts during peak use, most recently in January when freezing temperatures increased demand significantly across the state.

Peak demand, typically between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on a hot summer day, is expected to reach about 68,000 megawatts, ERCOT has estimated. ERCOT’s record peak usage was 68,305 megawatts on Aug. 3, 2011.

The new generating units expected online in 2014 are the

  1. Ferguson Replacement in Llano County – 540-megawatt (MW), combined-cycle power facility to replace the now-closed 420-MW plant, which was built in 1974
  2. Panda Sherman in Grayson County – 650 MW, combined cycle natural gas powered facility
  3. Panda Temple I in Bell County – 1,200 MW combined cycle natural gas powered facility
  4. Deer Park Energy Center in Harris County – 260 MW natural gas powered facility
  5. Rentech Project in Harris County – 15 MW generation project to power its nitrogen fertilizer plant
  6. Forney Power Upgrade in Kaufman County – 26 MW natural gas powered facility upgrade
During 2013, nearly 10 percent of the energy produced and used within ERCOT came from wind operations.  By 2017 Texas can expect to see about 8,600 megawatts more of wind power capacity added to the grid. Texas continues to be the leader in wind power generation for the entire country.
Solar installations, both photovoltaic panels on rooftops and utility scale solar are slowly increasing their presence on the grid.  With prices coming down, if the Texas legislature mandated a non-wind renewable portfolio standard, Texas could expect to see the same growth in solar energy as it did in wind after the initial renewable portfolio standard was set.

Texas Leads Nation in Generation of Wind Power, Lags in Solar Power

PC Earthday Texas AnnouncementAs Earth Day approaches, Texas environmental groups are urging state leaders to jump at a rare chance to lead the nation in using renewable energy technologies that U.N. climate scientists say are increasingly inexpensive antidotes to climate change.

“Even Citigroup is climbing on the renewables bandwagon,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “The company says that the ‘Age of Renewables’ is upon us.”

Smith quoted a recent Citigroup analysis, which said that solar, wind and other renewable energy sources are becoming cost-competitive as gas prices remain high and volatile. The report also predicted that renewables will continue to gain market share from nuclear and coal power.

Study after study has shown there is serious methane leakage during the process of drilling, fracking and processing natural gas and oil,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club. “Methane emissions are cooking our climate, and they are a public health threat. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Railroad Commission and ultimately the Legislature need to step up and adopt tough regulations, inspections and enforcement to prevent methane emissions.”

Last week, the International Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. panel of hundreds of climate scientists, issued its fifth and most dire report, warning that greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than ever. The report said that only concerted action to bring down emissions in the next 15 years will keep global warming to the level the international community has agreed to – an average 3.6 degrees above preindustrial temperatures.

But it also said renewable energy is an increasingly feasible and affordable alternative to fossil fuel-generated power, the culprit in rising greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy technologies have shown “substantial improvements,” “cost reductions” and the ability to be deployed “at significant scale,” according to the report. They also have “accounted for just over half of the new electricity generating capacity added globally in 2012, led by growth in wind, hydro and solar power.”

“Texas gets more power from wind than any other state in the nation,” Smith said. “Our climate makes solar power ideal. We need to take advantage of our natural ability to lead the nation in reducing the severity of the coming crisis.”

Texas’s wind farms already have generated as much as 38 percent of the electrical power on the ERCOT grid, according to a recent media report. That reflects the highest power output by wind turbines in the country.

Although Texas is rich in solar resources, it lags behind other states in solar-generated power, in part because the state legislature has not supplied the kind of incentives provided to the fossil fuel industry. Texas ranks 13th in the nation for the amount of power generated by solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (http://www.seia.org/state-solar-policy/texas).

Austin Energy, though, just agreed to what the Austin-American Statesman described as one of the largest solar projects in the world, which will more than double the solar capacity in Austin. The article pointed out that Austin Energy’s contract with Sun Edison is inexpensive – about 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity coming from two West Texas sites.

Texas is the No. 1 contributor of greenhouse gases in the nation. Texas emitted nearly 450 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, according to the most recent EPA statistics. The next highest contributor, Indiana, generated about 150 million metric tons in 2012. Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry also proposed that Texas agree to take high-level radioactive waste from the Los Alamos national Laboratory in New Mexico.

“Gov. Perry’s proposal means a high level of risk for the state and its taxpayers,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Austin-based SEED Coalition. “Short-term exposure to waste can cause death, cancer, or birth defects. Almost every other state that has looked at this kind of proposal has said it is too risky and turned it away at the border.”

Smith added, “Texas faces both calamity and great possibility. More than most states, Texas is looking at catastrophic impacts from climate change. We’re already experiencing historic drought that has wreaked havoc on communities, businesses and the economy. But more than most states, we’re also in a position to reverse our reliance on the energy sources that cause climate change.”

Location of the Waste Control Specialists in Andrews Tx for Radioactive Waste Blog post

At Waste Control Specialists radioactive waste disposal pit in Andrews, Tex., space inside goes for $10,000 a cubic foot in some cases. As aging nuclear reactors retire, their most radioactive steel, concrete and other components must be shipped somewhere for burial. Photo by Michael Stravato, The New York Times

Texas is under radioactive waste assault. There is already an existing “low-level” radioactive waste dump owned by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) in Andrews County. Weapons waste from Fernald, Ohio is already buried in one of the three pits there. The facility is now taking nuclear reactor waste from around the country and is accepting Department of Energy waste, including nuclear weapons waste. And there is an adjacent hazardous waste pit, which can accept some 2000 chemicals, many of the toxic or corrosive. WCS expects to make some $15 billion off the site, although Texans bear the risks of contamination and financial liability.

All of this is at a site for which Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) staff originally recommended denial of the license due to concerns about water contamination. There are 2 water bodies are present at the site, the the most significant of which is the southern tip of the massive Ogallala Aquifer.  Although some maps have been drawn to show that the aquifer doesn’t extend as far as the WCS disposal site, water has been present in up to 40% of the monitoring wells on the site, indicating that a hydrological connection could exists.  The site is supposed to be dry for safety reasons, but that hasn’t stopped the TCEQ from granting permits or WCS from burying radioactive waste there.

Now two new threats have emerged, including storage of very hot transuranic waste – which includes plutonium, neptunium, and americium from the failed national repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site.

Carlsbad Nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Carlsbad, NM Nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Texas is getting the transuranic waste unexpectedly. The Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is a disposal site for transuranic waste that is buried half a mile underground. The site had a fire on February 5th and a major radiation leak 9 days later. At least 21 workers were exposed to radiation. The New Mexico facility has been closed since the accident and the WCS radioactive waste dump in Andrews County, Texas is now taking this same highly radioactive waste and storing it above ground in steel sided buildings, raising concerns about what would happen if there were tornadoes, floods or wildfires.

In addition, now Governor Perry is actively campaigning to bring spent nuclear fuel to Texas for storage. This the hottest, most dangerous of radioactive waste, the kind that was to be sent to the failed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

It is so dangerous that  shielding is required to protect humans from a lethal dose as a result of exposure to spent nuclear fuel. Even 10 years after this waste is removed from a spent fuel pool, the radiation field at one meter away is 20,000 rem/hour. It only takes a quarter of that amount to incapacitate a person immediately and cause the person’s death within one week.

The spent fuel is currently cooled and then kept in dry casks at the sites where it was generated. Storing the waste at the power plant sites raises the risks for people living in those areas, but transporting the waste to a central location increases risks for those living along transportation routes and those near the disposal site. There is simply no safe way to deal with the amount of radioactive waste we are producing in the long term.

The Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee will soon address an interim charge on how to bring this high-level waste to Texas and how much economic benefit there could be. Discussion of the risks isn’t on the agenda. It seems that the committee may be blinded by potential profit for their campaign donors.

Stay tuned and learn more at www.NukeFreeTexas.org Continue Reading »

According to NBC News,  the State Department announced today that it will take more time to review the controversial Keystone pipeline proposal before a decision is made, and that will likely be after the midterm elections in November.  Click here to read the story.

How does the largest utility in Texas — Energy Future Holdings — go bankrupt?  Click here to find out more in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram op-ed by Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who examined Energy Future Holdings for The Sierra Club and Public Citizen Texas.