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Posts Tagged ‘solar power’

solar panelsLate last week, Austin Energy announced that it will bring contracts for two large new solar projects to City Council for approval at the March 20th meeting.  The contracts that Austin Energy is poised to sign, after Council approval, are for 150 megawatts of solar power from SunEdison and the price agreed to is nothing short of phenomenal.  At less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, Austin will have solar energy for the same price as electricity from natural gas generators.

Austin Energy predicts that this solar project will actually LOWER RATES slightly.  That’s right folks – we’re getting clean renewable energy AND lower bills.

These new solar facilities will be completed by 2016, and will provide Austin Energy with power for 25 years.  That’s 25 years of electricity at a fixed cost, something that simply can’t be obtained from a gas or coal plant.  When natural gas prices go up, so does that “Power Supply Adjustment Fee” on bills.  The beauty of wind and solar projects as that there are no fuel costs, so consumers are protected from unexpected price hikes.

Austin Energy should be commended for it’s excellent work in seeking competitive bids for this project and for capitalizing on an opportunity to contract for more than the 25 to 50 megawatts it initially planned for when it became clear that prices were lower than expected.  This significant Austin Energy solar expansion is big news, not just for the utility and the city, but for the state of Texas.

Show your utility some love on Facebook and Twitter (@austinenergy) for a job well done.  Use the hashtag #solarsaves.

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SAN ANTONIO – The newly formed Re-Energize San Antonio Coalition called on CPS Energy to meet a set of conditions before following through with an October rate hike.

Describing the hike as an increase that will “unfairly burden residential taxpayers,” coalition members called on CPS to take steps to reduce pollution, waste and costs for consumers.

The coalition presented its demands in a petition handed off to the utility during the Monday, Sept. 9 CPS Rate Case Input Session held at the TriPoint Grantham Center.

“We oppose the rate hike because it promotes unsustainable growth, driven by dirty energy, on the shoulders of the poor and working class folks who already pay the most for energy costs relative to income and quality of housing stock,” said Dr. Marisol Cortez, scholar-in-residence at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center.
(more…)

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This article written by Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, appeared on the editorial page of the San Antonio Express-News on Sept. 2

The newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, leaked to media earlier this week, is frightening and conclusive.

The panel of several hundred scientists, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, says the odds are at least 95 percent that humans are the principal cause of climate change. The panel predicts an increase of 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and warns that a rise of that magnitude would cause “extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including   a wave of extinction,” according to the New York Times.

Yet U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the Committee on Science and Technology, claims the science is uncertain about how much of the warming is caused by humans.
(more…)

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wind_turbine_aalborgProbably not overall, but the City of Houston has made a historic commitment – to buy half its power from renewable sources.

Houston was built around the oil and gas industries and has long suffered the consequences of being home to many of the nation’s most polluting refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.  Purchasing clean energy for the City’s facilities won’t change all that, but it does represent a significant change in mindset.

In the absence of federal legislation to address the increasingly pressing problem of climate change, local action has become essential.  At the very least, the energy used in public buildings – that taxpayers pay for – should be clean energy.  Houston is taking a huge step in that direction.

Wind energy is already one of the cheaper energy sources in Texas and solar energy is becoming competitive, especially as prices increase with higher energy demand.  These trends will be helped by large-scale investments like the one Houston is making.

Moving away from energy from coal-fired power plants will also help keep jobs growing in Texas.  Luckily, this isn’t an issue of jobs vs. the environment.  It’s an easy choice of supporting both.  Kudos to Houston to for recognizing an opportunity to take a leadership role.

Talk to your local elected officials about using clean energy to power your public buildings.

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Texas Capitol - north viewWith the regular session behind us and energy and environmental issues not likely to find a place in the special session, it’s a good time to look at what we accomplished.

Our wins came in two forms – bills that passed that will actually improve policy in Texas and bills that didn’t pass that would have taken policy in the wrong direction.

We made progress by helping to get bills passed that:

  • Expand funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) by about 40%;
  • Create a program within TERP to replace old diesel tractor trailer trucks used in and around ports and rail yards (these are some of the most polluting vehicles on the road);
  • Establish new incentives within TERP for purchasing plug-in electric cars; and
  • Assign authority to the Railroad Commission (RRC) to regulate small oil and gas lines (these lines, known as gathering lines, are prone to leaks); and
  • Allows commercial and industrial building owners to obtain low-cost, long-term private sector financing for water conservation and energy-efficiency improvements, including on-site renewable energy, such as solar.

We successfully helped to stop or improve bad legislation that would have:

  • Eliminated hearings on permits for new pollution sources (the contested case hearing process is crucial to limiting pollution increases);
  • Eliminated additional inspections for facilities with repeated pollution violations;
  • Weakened protections against utilities that violate market rules and safety guidelines;
  • Eliminated property tax breaks for wind farms, while continuing the policy for other industries;
  • Granted home owners associations (HOAs) authority to unreasonably restrict homeowners ability to install solar panels on their roofs; and
  • Permitted Austin City Council to turn control of Austin Energy over to an unelected board without a vote by the citizens of Austin.

We did lose ground on the issue of radioactive waste disposal.  Despite our considerable efforts, a bill passed that will allow more highly radioactive waste to be disposed of in the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in west Texas.  Campaign contributions certainly played an important roll in getting the bill passed.

We were also disappointed by Governor Perry’s veto of the Ethics Commission sunset bill, which included several improvements, including a requirement that railroad commissioners resign before running for another office, as they are prone to do.  Read Carol’s post about this bill and the issue.

With the legislation over and Perry’s veto pen out of ink, we now shift our attention to organizing and advocating for a transition from polluting energy sources that send money out of our state to clean energy sources that can grow our economy.

We’re working to:

  • Promote solar energy at electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities;
  • Speed up the retirement of old, inefficient, polluting coal-fired power plants in east Texas;
  • Protect our climate and our port communities throughout the Gulf states from health hazards from new and expanded coal export facilities;
  • Fight permitting of the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines in Texas;
  • Ensure full implementation of improvements made to TERP; and
  • Develop an environmental platform for the 2014 election cycle.

Our power comes from people like you getting involved – even in small ways, like writing an email or making a call.  If you want to help us work for a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future, email me at [email protected] And one of the best things you can do is to get your friends involved too.

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While Austin City Council continues to move forward with an ordinance to transfer governing authority of Austin Energy from our elected City Council to an unelected board, Austin democracy is being attacked at in the state legislature as well.  Senate bill 410, sponsored by Senator Kirk Watson and Representative Paul Workman, would allow the city to establish an unelected board without a charter election, as our city charter calls for.

The issue of who should govern Austin Energy is important, but it’s also local in nature.  There is no need for state to amend Austin’s charter.  That is a right reserved for the citizens of Austin.  If the changes proposed by City Council are truly in the best interest of our city, that case should be made to the voters and decided upon at the ballot box. 

To have a state representative who doesn’t even live in Austin carrying a bill to change our charter is unacceptable.

The Austin City Charter was adopted by the people of Austin and the people of Austin approved a governance structure for Austin Energy that is accountable to the people through elections.

An unelected board won’t be directly accountable to the ratepayers and wouldn’t necessarily represent our values.  As we debate this issue in Austin the unelected board at San Antonio’s CPS Energy is slashing the rate customers with solar installations will receive for their energy in half without first consulting the public or the solar industry.  Austin Energy customers could be facing similar changes if we don’t act now to protect our rights.

SB 410 has passed the Senate and will be heard by the House Committee on State Affairs tomorrow.

Please consider attending the hearing and speaking against SB 410.

What: Hearing on SB 410 to change Austin’s charter to move Austin Energy governance to an undemocratic board without a vote by the citizens of Austin, as our charter requires.

When: 1:00pm on Wednesday, May 1

Where: John H. Reagan (JHR) building, room 140 – 105 W. 15th St., Austin, TX, 78701

Why: Because Austin Energy’s governance structure will impact decisions going forward, including on renewable energy and energy efficiency programs and rates.  This is the decision that will determine how other decisions are made.

You can register against the bill at the kiosks outside of room 140.  Even if you don’t wish to speak, registering against the bill would be helpful.  We hope you’ll consider saying a few words about the value of local democracy though.  Speakers will be limited to 3 minutes each.

SB 410 is anti-democratic and is one more example of the state government trying to interfere with Austin’s internal policies and governance.

We need your help to stop this bill.

Public opposition to SB 410 at Wednesday’s hearing may be the only thing that can ensure that our Austin representatives don’t let this bad bill move forward.

Please email Kaiba White at kwhite (at) citizen.org if you can attend the hearing at 1:00pm on Wednesday.

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You may have never heard of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), but it has the potential to make a huge difference in adoption of distributed renewable energy systems, such as rooftop solar installations. PACE allows businesses to borrow money from local governments to work on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in the buildings they occupy.

Since PACE is funding is loans, there is no real expense to the taxpayer.  On the other side of the coin, it allows businesses to spread out the costs of becoming more environmentally friendly over time, all while lowering their monthly utility costs.  This strategy is a win-win-win for Texans.  Business save money, the environment benefits, and it cost Texans nothing.

The Texas Legislature is currently considering legislation that would move PACE forward for our state.  Senate bill 385 has already cleared the hurdle of the Texas Senate, and now is pending in our House of Representatives. House bill 1094 is still waiting be voted out of the House Committee on Energy Resources.  The House should move forward to adopt this common sense measure.

As of 2013, 27 states and the District of Columbia have PACE legislation on the books to help combat harmful emissions from electric generation.  States from California to Wyoming have enacted PACE programs.  Generally, in these states, the financing terms are 15-20 years.  It works very much like taking out a home loan, or perhaps a better example would be a home improvement loan, but for commercial properties. Disbursing the payments over a longer period of time makes these efficiency upgrades affordable for a wider variety of business.  It also makes upgrades attainable for smaller businesses.

I urge fellow Texans to get in touch with their State Representative and tell him or her to support the PACE bills (HB 1094 and SB 385).  This is common sense legislation that benefits everyone.

Click here to find out who represents you. 

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It wouldn’t be a Texas legislative session without some truly backwards bills.  Today we have House Bill 2026 by freshman Representative Sanford of Collin county that would eliminate our state renewable energy goals.

BeachWindIn 1999, the state of Texas made a commitment to renewable energy in the form of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS).  That decision played a major role in spurring the development of the wind industry in Texas.

We have now exceeded the renewable energy goals established in the 2005 update to the RPS and Texas has more wind energy capacity than any other state.[1]  On the surface that may seem to indicate that the RPS has been 100% successful and is no longer needed, but that isn’t the case.

One of the major reasons for establishing the RPS was to encourage diversification of our energy sources, which ultimately makes us more resilient to physical and economic forces that can impact the availability and price of energy sources.  While wind energy has increased from zero percent when the RPS was first established to around ten percent today, other renewable energy sources are still largely absent from our energy portfolio.

With more solar energy potential than any other state, Texas should be the center point of the solar industry as well.[2]  Instead we are lagging behind states with far less solar resources, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania,[3] and are paying the price in missed opportunities for job growth and new generation capacity that can produce during peak demand.

Solar companies invest in California and other states, because smart policies created attractive markets in those places.  California has 1,505 solar companies compared to Texas’ 260. Even New Jersey has more, with 382.[4] Texas should be doing more, not less to attract solar businesses to our state.

SolarInstallProjections showing that we won’t have enough electricity to meet demand by 2020.[5]  The maximum wholesale price of electricity has been set to triple by 2015, without even determining what the cost to consumers will be.  There have been workshops and meetings to consider the prospect of implementing a capacity market in Texas, which would raise costs even more.  But little time has been spent considering simpler, cheaper solutions such as expanding efficiency and demand response (where customers get paid to reduce there energy usage for short periods of time when demand is high) and getting more solar capacity built in Texas.  Solar is most productive when we need it the most – on hot, sunny afternoons.

The RPS should be retooled to focus on solar and other renewable energy resources that are most capable of producing during peak demand.  Millions of dollars could be saved in the wholesale electric market if we had more solar panels installed.[6]

Solar, like wind, also has the benefit of needing very little water to operate.  Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations need an occasional cleaning to keep performance high, but the amount of water need is minimal in comparison to fossil fuel options.  Coal-fired generators need billions of gallons of water to operate each year[7] and while natural gas-fired generations consume less water than coal-fired generators, they still use more than solar, even without accounting for the millions of gallons of water used to extract the gas with hydraulic fracturing.[8]  Including more renewable energy in our portfolio will make our electric grid less vulnerable to drought[9] and will free up water supplies that are desperately needed for human consumption and agriculture.

Abandoning the RPS now would send a terrible signal to renewable energy companies that are deciding where to establish their businesses.  Our state made a commitment that isn’t set to expire until 2025 at the earliest.  There is no good reason to abandon the policy now.  We should be moving in the opposite direction of what is proposed in HB 2026.  Instead of giving up on a policy that has been successful, we should be looking at ways to build on that success and benefit our state.


[1] AWEA. “Wind Energy Facts: Texas.” Oct 2012. http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/factsheets/upload/3Q-12-Texas.pdf.

[2] NREL. “U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS Based Analysis.” July, 2012. Pg. 10-13. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/51946.pdf.

[3] SEIA. Solar Industry Data. http://www.seia.org/research-resources/solar-industry-data#state_rankings.

[4] SEIA. State Solar Policy. http://www.seia.org/policy/state-solar-policy.

[5] “Report on the Capacity, Demand, and Reserves in the ERCOT Region.” Dec 2012. Pg 8. http://www.ercot.com/content/news/presentations/2012/CapacityDemandandReservesReport_Winter_2012_Final.pdf.

[6] Weiss, Jurgen, Judy Chang and Onur Aydin. “The Potential Impact of Solar PV on Electricity Markets in Texas.” The Brattle Group.  June 19, 2012. http://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/brattlegrouptexasstudy6-19-12-120619081828-phpapp01.pdf.

[7] “Environmental impacts of coal power: water use” Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c02b.html

[8] http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/energy-and-water-use/water-energy-electricity-natural-gas.html

[9] Wu, M. and M. J. Peng.  “Developing a Tool to Estimate Water Use in Electric Power Generation in the United States.” Argonne National Laboratory – U.S. Department of Energy. http://greet.es.anl.gov/publication-watertool.

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Texas Capitol - north viewTwo bills have now been filed in the Texas House that would expand the state’s goals for renewable energy.  Representative Rafael Anchia‘s bill, HB 723, would establish goals for growing renewable energy installations other than large-scale wind through 2022.  Similarly, Representative Eddie Rodriquez‘s bill, HB 303, would establish a goal for solar installations and increase the existing goal (which was met 15 years ahead of schedule) for all renewable energy for 2020.

We applaud these efforts and the leadership that Rep. Anchia and Rep. Rodriquez are showing by filing these bills.  These proposals recognize that success is a good thing and something we want more of.  You wouldn’t think that would need saying, but when a state agency recommends tossing out a successful policy, I start to wonder.  Texas’s renewable energy goals have been extraordinarily successful.  Not only have the goals been met ahead of time, but they have spurred development of the wind industry in Texas, bringing economic benefits to rural parts of West Texas, as well as to manufacturing centers.  On top of that, wind energy is helping to keep electric bills lower.

A carpenter doesn’t throw away her hammer just because she finished building her first book shelf and Texas shouldn’t repeal it’s renewable energy policies, just because we’ve met some of our goals (remember, the non-wind goal was never enforced).  Wind energy does now makes a substantial contribution to meeting the state’s electrical needs – it contributed a record 26% this past Christmas day, but solar energy is still very underutilized (accounting for less than 1% of energy on the ERCOT grid, which serves 85% of the Texas population) and the geothermal energy industry is still getting off it’s feet.  As Rep. Anchia and Rep. Rodriquez’s bills show, this successful policy tool can be adjusted to keep moving Texas forward.

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When you subtract out shady roofs, renters, and other factors, only about 25% of Americans have a place to install solar power. With the high upfront cost of a complete system, the potential solar universe shrinks further.

That changes with “community solar.”

After a long wait on the state’s Public Utilities Commission to finalize the rules, Colorado’s “community solar gardens” program ( summary here) sold out in 30 minutes when it opened , testament to the pent-up demand for solar among those who don’t own a sunny roof. The program allows individuals to subscribe or buy shares in a local solar project, and in return receive a share of the electricity output.

The community solar garden policy offers several significant benefits:

  • Individuals can go solar without a sunny roof or without owning one at all.
  • Individuals can buy as little as a 1 kW share or as much as produces 120% of their own consumption.
  • The solar garden projects capture economies of scale by building more panels at a single, central location and capture the advantages of decentralization by interconnecting to the distribution (low voltage) part of the electricity grid close to demand.
  • Solar gardens cultivate a sense of ownership and geographic connection, requiring subscribers to live in the same county as their shared solar array. This can reduce political opposition to solar projects and increase local economic benefits.

Fortunately, Colorado isn’t the only state considering this policy. California’s legislature is currently debating SB 843 to allow “community shared solar” and other renewable energy. Several other states offer a blanket policy called “virtual net metering” that lets customers share the output from a single renewable energy facility, although sometimes it’s limited to certain types of customers (municipalities, residential, etc.) and we can do this in Texas.

This post was written by John Farrell and originally appeared on ILSR’s Energy Self-Reliant States blog.

Editor’s Note: California’s SB 843, mentioned in this article, failed to pass.

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Orbach: $1 billion for energy storage research could launch state’s next energy era

Watch for the University of Texas at Austin to soon make a $1 billion pitch to lawmakers aimed at unleashing the state’s vast potential to lead the nation and even the world in renewable energy production.

Ray Orbach, director of UT’s Texas Energy Institute, has compiled what he considers a compelling case for a large public investment in battery storage research meaningful enough to launch Texas into a new energy economy that taps the state’s enormous potential capacity for solar, wind and geothermal power generation.

“I really would like to have a crash program. My thought is it could be comparable to the cancer initiative,” he told Texas Energy Report. “I would like to see it in the billion-dollar range. My point is the potential is there. I just think it’s crazy not to sit down and optimize it for Texas.”

Orbach said a new study found that Texas has the potential to lead the nation in nearly every form of renewable energy. In concentrating solar alone – which allows for fluctuations that make it more economical – tapping just one percent of Texas’ total capacity could generate electricity equivalent to the entire needs of the ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) power grid, he said.

“We have as much energy potential above ground as we do below ground,” Orbach said this week to an audience attending a symposium sponsored by the Texas Public Utility Commission called “Renewable Solutions for Energy Prosperity in Texas.”

Citing a just released July study called “U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis,” Orbach laid out what’s in it for Texas if the state’s leading scientific minds solve the energy storage puzzle:

Urban utility-scale photovoltaics:  Texas has the highest estimated potential (13 percent of the U.S.)

Rural utility-scale photovoltaic: Texas has the highest estimated potential (14 percent of the U.S.

Rooftop photovoltaic’s: Texas has the second-highest estimated potential (9 percent of the U.S.)

Concentrating solar power: Texas has the highest estimated potential (20 percent of U.S.)

Onshore wind power: Texas has the highest estimated potential (17 percent of U.S.)

Offshore wind power: Hawaii has the highest estimated potential, while Texas has 6 percent of U.S.

Enhanced geothermal systems: Texas has the highest estimated potential (10 percent of U.S.)

“The opportunities are so enormous. I was stunned,” Orbach said of his reaction when he read the study that takes into account environmental and land-use constraints, and topographical limitations.

Because each of the renewable capacity calculations is based on the same total land, Orbach said Texas leaders need to determine how to best optimize the state’s renewable resources with decisions about which fuel mix to pursue and where. In an interview, he acknowledged that political and economic considerations would pose major challenges, but he suggested a planning commission appointed by the governor and legislators could help navigate those.

Think of the planning concept as akin to the Texas Railroad Commission’s early history in setting production limits to ensure that oil and gas resources would last longer with conservation measures such as adequate well spacing, he said.  And think of state’s commitment to building CREZ (Competitive Renewable Energy Zones) transmission lines to transport wind energy as a parallel to the research commitment needed to solve the problem of energy battery storage for wind and solar.

With its federal production tax credits, Orbach said wind has posed pricing issues for ERCOT’s wholesale competitive market. But he insisted he’s a free-market advocate who does not think wind or solar would need any subsidies to compete. As for kick-starting research to solve energy storage issues, he said Texans should think of that as an investment that would repay itself many times over.

“Our future will depend on our ability to store base load electricity from fluctuating sources. We are truly blessed with intellectual and energy sources. It’s time for a zoning, an optimization of how we use these wonderful resources for the benefit of citizens in this state,” Orbach said. “This is not just a Texas issue. The market for what we produce in Texas is global. You can think outside the boundaries of our state for these opportunities.”

In addition to the big picture, some of Texas’ energy opportunities have hardly been discussed, he said. The potential for enhanced geothermal energy alone, he said, is 384 gigawatts. That’s equivalent to five times the total ERCOT load.

Geothermal energy taps into underground heat, and fracturing underground rock is one way to release the heat. He points to natural gas wells hydraulically fractured in the Barnett Shale of North Texas and their future to be repurposed in 10 to 20 years for renewable energy production. The wells have already fractured rock at a depth of 8,000 to 10,000 feet where temperatures range from 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit, he noted.

“What happens when those wells are played out? Do we just cap them and walk away? They are a source of potential enhanced geothermal energy. We have the sources now that we’re using for liquids and gas and oil that in fact may well be available in the future for enhanced geothermal,” Orbach said.

Meanwhile, the price of solar panels is dropping sharply as China floods the market with panels at 80 cents a watt, he said. Consequently, solar installations in the first half of this year doubled to 1,254 megawatts over the 623 installed in the first six months of 2011. That’s the size of a nuclear reactor, he said, and this year it will amount to two.

“It’s a revolution,” he added. “It’s a sign for those of us interested in solar and wind and renewable energy that there’s an opportunity here for Texas to be mined.”

By Polly Ross Hughes

Copyright September 14, 2012, Harvey Kronberg, www.texasenergyreport.com, All rights are reserved.  Reposted by TexasVox.org with permission of the Texas Energy Report.

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Yesterday, Clean Energy Works for Texas – a coalition consisting of Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Texas BlueGreen Apollo Alliance, Progress Texas, Clean Water Action, Environment Texas, North Texas Renewable Energy Group, North Texas Renewable Energy Inc., SEED Coalition, Solar Austin, Solar San Antonio, Texas Campaign for the Environment and  Texas Pecan Alliance – filed a petition with the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) asking for a rule-making to implement the non-wind renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

A law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2005 established that at least 500 megawatts (MW) of the electricity used in Texas would come from renewable energy sources other than wind by 2015.  The PUC, however, has failed to establish rules to ensure that this goal is reached.  Clean Energy Works for Texas calls on the PUC to fulfill its statutory duty and create rules to ensure that the goal is reached.  The petition also proposes and expansion of that goal to 3,000 MW by 2025.

The non-wind RPS would provide a level of certainty for investors considering Texas for clean energy projects.  While the wind industry has thrived in Texas, thanks, at least in part, to the RPS, other renewable energy industries have lagged behind.  Implementation of the non-wind RPS would send a signal to investors that Texas is open for business.   At at time when nearly a million Texans are looking for work, developing 21st century industries here in Texas should be a priority.

Texas has immense solar resources, as well as substantial geothermal resources that, if developed, could be providing the State with additional electricity that it needs.  Electricity market regulators and policy-makers have had numerous discussions about electricity generation shortages over the past year.  The petition filed by Clean Energy Works for Texas offers a solution – and it’s one that can be expanded upon in the coming years.

Please visit www.CleanEnergyWorksForTexas.org to learn more and send an email to to the PUC in support of the non-wind RPS.

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On a blustery and brilliantly sunny Texas winter day a couple hundred Central Texas citizens, that included officials and solar enthusiasts, gathered on what had been an empty 380 acre field only three years ago to usher in a new era of “drought-proof” energy for the City of Austin.

Former Austin Mayor Will Wynn, PUC Commissioner Rolando Pablos, Austin Councilmember Bill Spelman, Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis, Webberville Mayor Hector Gonzales, Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis, Austin Councilmember Chris Riley, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mark Mendenhall of SunEdison.

On Friday, January 6, 2012, Austin Energy held a grand opening ceremony for their new Webberville Solar Project, the largest facility in Texas and among the largest in the nation with 127,728 ground mounted solar panels that rotate with the sun and will generate 30 megawatts (MW) of electricity – enough to power 5,000 homes annually.

A number of years ago, the City of Austin purchased this land planning to install a new coal-fired power plant.  When those plans fell through, a landfill was proposed for the site that now boasts 280 acres of solar panels with a view of downtown Austin along its horizon.

Public Citizen says kudos to the City of Austin and Austin Energy for their vision and efforts in completing this project.  Given that the State Climatologist is warning us that Texas can expect up to 5 more years of the current drought cycle, this project came just in time to help provide our community with drought–proof electricity during the peak use times – that will come in handy next summer.

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San Antonio’s dreams of becoming a solar manufacturing hub have been deferred temporarily.  CPS Energy, the city’s municipally owned utility, couldn’t come to agreement with two unnamed finalists and will restart a bidding process that would put San Antonio into the top tier of solar users around the globe by seeking bids for 400 megawatts of solar power, enough to power 80,000 homes, and will require the winning bidder to bring manufacturing jobs to the Alamo City.

San Antonio is trying to marry investment in renewables with economic development in an effort to keep the cost of electricity as low as possible while getting as many jobs as possible, but the city has had a learning curve in this process, yet they remain confident that this vision can come to fruition.

Thirty two companies initially submitted 111 proposals several months ago. The utility then re-opened the bidding process and expected to make a decision by Sept. 1. Even as CPS Energy zeroed in on two finalists, Lewis said, other companies around the globe approached the utility with their own ideas and CPS Energy officials decided to end negotiations and open a third round of bidding after rewriting the specifications of what it wants.

So the problem lies not with no takers, but with many and new ideas coming forward to possibly make this move by San Antonio more profitable.  What this Central Texas metroplex does with this process could set the trend for the country and remains an experiment to watch.

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

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

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

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

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