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The war on coal is over in Texas

Coal lost, and good riddance.

Wind power capacity edged out coal for the first time in the Texas history last week after a new 155-megawatt wind farm in Scurry County came online. The farm in question is the Fluvanna Wind Energy Project, located on some 32,000 acres leased from more than 130 landowners.

Fluvanna pushed total wind power capacity in the state to more than 20,000 megawatts, while coal capacity stands at 19,800 megawatts and is slated to fall to 14,700 megawatts by the end of 2018 thanks to planned coal powerplant closures. Next year, Luminant will shutter three coal-fired plants—Monticello, Sandow, and Big Brown—and San Antonio’s CPS Energy will close J.T. Deely Station. Wind capacity in the state will reach 24,400 megawatts by the end of 2018, according to projections from Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at UT Austin’s Energy Institute.

But capacity is one thing, electricity generation is another. In the first ten months of 2017, wind generated 17.2 percent of power in the state, and coal 31.9 percent, according to ERCOT. But wind should soon see large gains there. “By our analysis, in 2019 we’ll have more energy from wind than coal,” Rhodes said.

Don’t anyone tell Donald Trump.

Clean Power Plan’s day in the DC court

We’ll see how it goes.

Dozens of lawyers from the government, industry and public interest groups packed the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, to hear the divisive case that comes just weeks before a heated presidential election and illustrates how a President’s picks for the lower court might impact his own agenda.

The plan is currently frozen because last February, the Supreme Court voted to delay implementation until the appeals process could play out.

Opponents to the plan claim that the EPA went too far under the law to push the rule.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh at one point questioned EPA’s authority.

“This is a huge case,” he said and noted that it could “fundamentally” transform the industry. Kavanaugh said the administration’s policy is “laudable” but questioned under the separation of powers whether Congress, and not the EPA, had to speak clearly on the issue.

Judge Thomas B. Griffith chimed in asking, “why isn’t this debate going on in the floor of the Senate?” rather than before a panel of judges. But Judge Patricia A. Millet reiterated at one point that the Supreme Court “has already said” that the EPA has the authority to regulate in the area.

Other judges questioned whether by 2030, the rule would be any more transformative to the coal industry, for example, than market forces would be.

Judge David S. Tatel asked whether the agency was simply “invoking existing authority.”

While the morning session in court was dedicated to statutory arguments, in the afternoon the court heard arguments concerning whether it was unconstitutional. The challengers’ constitutional arguments did not appear to to get much traction with the judges.

[…]

During complex arguments before a multi-member court is dangerous to try to determine — based on questions posed at oral arguments — how a judge will ultimately rule. It’s worth noting however, that Tuesday’s case comes before an appellate court that has been transformed during the Obama administration.

Before Obama took office the appeals court tilted toward conservative appointees with six judges nominated by a Republican president and three nominated by a Democratic president. There were also two vacancies.

Currently, the active judges on the court consist of four GOP appointees and seven Democratic appointees. In 2013, Obama placed four judges on the court, three of them immediately after the Senate changed its filibuster rules. Tuesday’s case was heard by all the active members of the court except for Chief Judge Merrick Garland who has recused himself from hearing cases because he has been nominated to the Supreme Court.

“The party of an appointing president surely makes a difference in some types of cases — environmental for example — more than others,” said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. “When the full court meets is when the party of appointing president is likely to matter most because the great majority of decisions are made by three-judge panels, randomly drawn and not necessarily reflective of the overall composition of the court.”

See here for the background. ThinkProgress agrees with the basic vote counting, with the possibility of a GOP judge siding with the Dems. The long and short of it is that we’ve seen this basic fight play out multiple times before – the Obama administration proposes a regulatory enforcement plan for the EPA, various Republican states led by Texas freak out and file suit, and the courts sort it out, usually with the feds winning. But do keep in mind that all of this is happening because 1) a Democratic President who cares about fighting climate change proposed this regulatory scheme, among others, and 2) an appeals court that has more Democratic appointees than Republican ones will make the decision that is likely to stand thanks to the current makeup of the Supreme Court. The fastest way to undo this is to not have a Democratic President in place after November. I’m just saying.

Back to court for the Clean Power Plan

Here we go.

One of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s final acts on Earth may have been to doom it.

Last February, on the final Tuesday of Scalia’s life, the Supreme Court handed down a 5–4 decision suspending the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. It was a surprising development — a lower court panel that included a conservative Republican judge previously denied a request to stay this plan — and a chilling development for anyone who cares about the planet. The Clean Power Plan is the Obama administration’s most ambitious effort to fight climate change. And it is difficult to exaggerate the consequences if these efforts fail:

In the relatively short term, the Environmental Protection Agency predicts that the Clean Power Plan will “avoid thousands of premature deaths and mean thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond.” In the longer term, major cities could be swallowed by the ocean. Displaced residents will trigger a worldwide refugee crisis. Entire regions of the United States could be converted into a permanent Dust Bowl. The sheer magnitude of the catastrophe will rival any tragedy that has faced humanity since the Book of Genesis.

Scalia’s vote to stay the Clean Power Plan was enough to delay it, but not enough to destroy it. Now, however, the effort to permanently kill the plan is about to face its first big test.

A ten judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — arguably the second-most powerful court in the country — will hear arguments on the fate of the plan on Tuesday. With Scalia dead, and the Supreme Court evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the D.C. Circuit’s decision could be the last word on the plan’s legality.

While Scalia did not live to cast a vote eradicating the plan, his ghost still haunts this case. It lingers over the parties’ briefs, casting doubt upon long-settled doctrines viewed as rock solid just a few years ago. West Virginia v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, the challenge to the Clean Power Plan, is the culmination of a years-long effort by conservatives to hobble the executive branch — an effort Scalia started to embrace during his final years on the Court. And, if the Clean Power Plan falls, it will be because this effort scored just enough victories during the twilight of Scalia’s life.

See here, here, and here for the background. Needless to say, Texas is leading the charge in this litigation.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of trying to “force Texas to change how we regulate energy production,” through what he called an “unprecedented expansion of federal authority.”

“What we need is more reliable energy — not less, and the EPA is trying to stop that,” the Republican said while appearing on a panel in Washington, D.C.

Paxton specifically targeted the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s state-by-state effort to fight climate change by shifting away from coal power to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable resources.

His appearance on the panel, organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, came one day before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is to hear four hours of oral arguments over the carbon dioxide-cutting rule. Those watching the litigation say the outcome could make or break Obama’s legacy on climate change.

[…]

The regulations would force states to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants however they see fit — accelerating a shift from coal that started years ago. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas that directly contributes to climate change.

For Texas — the nation’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter by far — that would mean cutting an annual average of 51 million tons of emissions, down about 21 percent from 2012 levels.

Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans have argued that doing so would cost the state jobs, push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability on the grid. They say the regulations subvert state power.

Eighteen states and a litany of health and environmental groups have joined the Obama administration in defending the Clean Power Plan.

On Monday, one environmental group criticized Paxton for championing coal interests while challenging the regulation.

“Dirty coal just doesn’t make sense anymore, economically or environmentally, but Attorney General Paxton appears to want to go down with a sinking ship,” Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said in an email. “Texans support transitioning to clean energy and the Clean Power Plan is helping make that possible.”

Proponents of the rules, backed by early analyses, suggest that market forces and existing policies alone would push Texas most of the way toward its target.

One study released in May predicted that coal generation would shrink from about 28 percent of state power generation to 6 percent by 2035 — not factoring in the controversial federal regulation.

Aside from inflation, Texans would see “virtually no price increase” if natural gas and solar prices continue to get cheaper as some expect, concluded the study by the Brattle Group, a global research firm that often crunches numbers for Texas regulators. Funding for that study came from the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, which supports natural gas and renewable energy sources.

boy, nothing says “forward-thinking” like protecting the interests of coal-burning power plants. The DC Court’s decision here is very likely to be the final word. If it comes down to a Supreme Court that has a ninth member that was appointed by President Trump, it won’t matter anyway since the EPA will cease enforcing environmental regulations because global warming is a myth. So, you know, no big deal. The Observer and the Chron have more.

Getting the (wind and solar) power to the people

It’s all about the transmission lines.

The Lone Star state is by far the largest state for wind power, with nearly 18,000 megawatts of wind generation capacity already built and another 5,500 megawatts—nearly equal to California’s total installed capacity—planned. The biggest driver of that wind boom was an $8 billion transmission system that was built to bring electricity from the desolate western and northern parts of the state to the big cities of the south and east: Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston.

Completed in 2014, the new wires—known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ—have the capacity to carry some 18,500 megawatts of wind power across the state. That’s not enough to handle the 21,000 megawatts of capacity Texas expects to reach this year, and it’s creating a situation that’s straining the transmission system and potentially resulting in periods where the turbines go idle.

Now the state’s utilities and transmission companies are faced with spending hundreds of millions more to upgrade the system, demonstrating just how costly and complicated it is to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, even where those sources are abundant.

EDF Renewable Energy, which owns five wind farms in northern Texas, and other operators have proposed adding second lines to existing transmission lines from the panhandle, where much of the new wind-farm construction is happening. Doing so, EDF says, will accommodate nearly 4,000 megawatts of new generation expected in the panhandle over the next several years.

“If some of these projects get developed in the panhandle and they haven’t done the upgrades to the grid, for sure those farms will be curtailed,” says Frank Horak, the CEO of Austin-based energy consultancy Astek Energy.

[…]

Another looming challenge is an expected surge in solar projects in Texas. The state ranks third in terms of total solar capacity, and another 6,000 megawatts of solar projects are planned. That will further strain the grid.

“Last time I looked there were 42 solar projects in far West Texas that were in the interconnection queue waiting for new transmission because there’s a bottleneck there now,” says Horak. Most of those projects will remain on hold until new wires are in place; some may never be built.

Seems to me to be a supply and demand problem, with the supply of transmission not keeping up with the demand of energy production. Texas’ population continues to grow, and the grid is increasingly dependent on wind and solar power to meet usage peaks, so it would be very shortsighted not to keep investing in more transmission capacity. This ought to be a no-brainer.

Full DC Circuit Court to review Clean Power Plan

From ThinkProgress, an update on yet another federal lawsuit involving Texas.

The Clean Power Plan will get its day in court, but in September, not June — and by the full en banc D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, not the court’s normal three-judge panel that was scheduled to hear it in just over two weeks.

West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency is one of the most important environmental cases in almost a decade. The case will decide whether the EPA violated the law when it finalized its carbon rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector under the Clean Air Act.

So Monday evening the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals announced it is bypassing its planned June 2 oral arguments over the Obama administration’s signature climate policy.

“It is ORDERED, on the court’s own motion, that these cases, currently scheduled for oral argument on June 2, 2016, be rescheduled for oral argument before the en banc court on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 9:30 a.m.,” the D.C. Circuit’s announcement read. “It is FURTHER ORDERED that the parties and amici curiae provide 25 additional paper copies of all final briefs and appendices to the court by June 1, 2016. A separate order will issue regarding allocation of oral argument time.”

See here and here for the proximate events that led to this, and here for all prior blogging on the Clean Power Plan. The linked article explains what the court’s order is all about, but the nickel version is that this ought to speed things up a bit, since the full court’s eventual ruling would go next to SCOTUS instead of being a midway point between the three-judge panel and SCOTUS. Since it was a 5-4 SCOTUS ruling that suspended the CPP pending judicial review – the first time that had ever happened – it’s highly likely that today’s diminished SCOTUS would deadlock if this were now on their plate. One presumes the high court will be at full strength by the time this does come their way, but regardless of that, it raises the stakes on the DC court’s eventual ruling. Buckle up, and get ready for a bunch of briefs to be headed the DC court’s way. E&E Publishing and the WaPo have more.

Pity the poor utilities

Sorry, but low electricity prices, especially when they are aided by record amounts of wind power generation, are good news.

ERCOT

Texas’ national lead in cheap wind power, combined with near historically low natural gas prices, mild weather, an abundant power supply and slower growth in electricity demand, can work to the detriment of power companies.

The combination weighed down wholesale power prices last year to their lowest averages since 2002. And the effects are only becoming more dramatic in 2016, even creating bizarre instances when, in the abstract at least, providers are paying to put electricity on the market.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Michael Ferguson, associate director at Standard & Poor’s covering utilities and infrastructure. “It’s a bad situation for gas generators, but for coal generation, it’s even worse.”

Texas’ wholesale power prices averaged $26.77 per megawatt-hour last year, down nearly 35 percent from $40.64 per megawatt-hour in 2014. The cost was more than $70 as recently as 2008.

While now is a good time for consumers to lock in cheaper electricity prices, well more than 25 percent of the state’s power plants are operating at a cash loss, especially the older coal-fired plants, power executives and analysts estimated. That’s before more stringent federal emissions regulations go into effect in coming years

Until coal plants start shutting down or the state tweaks regulations to artificially inflate prices, power companies will struggle, executives said. A new Moody’s Investors Service report concluded that Texas “power prices are unlikely to climb out of their doldrums.”

Already, less than a quarter of Texas’ coal fleet is operating early this spring, as more generators simply take their coal plants offline until the summer heat brings more demand, analysts from Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. noted.

In March, wind added to the grid more than coal power for the first time ever for a full month. Wind contributed 21.4 percent of the grid’s overall power, compared with 12.9 percent from coal, which used to be the dominant source of the state’s electricity generation, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electricity load.

“Ultimately, something is going to have to give here,” said Thad Hill, president and CEO of Calpine Corp., the largest power generator in the Houston region and owner of the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired power plants.

[…]

Texas is home to nearly 20 coal-fired power plants and the near future of at least six of them are considered at risk.

They will require expensive upgrades to meet federal standards, according to a recent ERCOT analysis, and the costs could outweigh the benefits of keeping them open. That’s not even counting the effects of the federal Clean Power Plan, which is pending in court.

“Ultimately, we think the market could be a lot tighter than people think, particularly if people start mothballing or retiring units,” said Hill, whose Calpine would stand to benefit because it doesn’t own any coal plants.

At-risk plants include Luminant’s Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake coal plants in East Texas, half of Luminant’s Sandow plant east of Austin, NRG Energy’s Limestone plant east of Waco, and Engie’s Coleto Creek plant near Victoria that’s being bought by Dynegy.

It’s fine by me if those coal plants go the way of the dodo. It’s long overdue, and their demise will make meeting the Clean Power Plan benchmarks even easier. More investment in solar energy will help mitigate the low-wind periods and ensure demand can be met in the summertime. What’s not to like?

SCOTUS allows mercury regulations to remain in effect

Good.

Martin Lake coal plant

Martin Lake coal plant

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a request from Texas and 19 other states to block a landmark federal rule requiring power plants to slash emissions of mercury, acid gases and other toxic metals — a setback for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a case where he saw earlier success.

Without offering an explanation, Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday denied the states’ request for a stay on the rules, according to media reports.

That decision followed a Supreme Court ruling last June — hailed by Texas Republicans — that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not properly weigh the cost of compliance for coal-fired power plants against the benefits to public health while setting the new standards.

The June ruling sent the Obama Administration back to the drawing board on the regulations, which had already gone into effect. But it did not halt them.

The states, led by Michigan, had asked the justices to block the rules during the revision process. Roberts said no.

See here, here, and here for the background. Any day where Ken Paxton loses a fight to enable pollution is a good day. Think Progress has more.

SCOTUS puts Clean Power Plan on hold

And in doubt.

ERCOT

In a major setback for President Obama’s climate change agenda, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups.

But the Supreme Court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices.

The 5-to-4 vote, with the court’s four liberal members dissenting, was unprecedented — the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court.

“It’s a stunning development,” Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former environmental legal counsel to the Obama administration, said in an email. She added that “the order certainly indicates a high degree of initial judicial skepticism from five justices on the court,” and that the ruling would raise serious questions from nations that signed on to the landmark Paris climate change pact in December.

In negotiating that deal, which requires every country to enact policies to lower emissions, Mr. Obama pointed to the power plant rule as evidence that the United States would take ambitious action, and that other countries should follow.

The White House said in a statement that it disagreed with the court’s decision and remained confident that it would ultimately prevail. “The administration will continue to take aggressive steps to make forward progress to reduce carbon emissions,” it said.

[…]

The E.P.A., represented by [Solicitor General Donald] Verrilli, called the requests for a stay “extraordinary and unprecedented.” The states challenging the administration’s plan, he said, could point to no case in which the Supreme Court had “granted a stay of a generally applicable regulation pending initial judicial review in the court of appeals.” In a later brief, the states conceded that point.

Mr. Verrilli said judicial review of the plan, including by the Supreme Court, will be complete before the first deadline for emissions reductions in 2022.

“There is no reason to suppose that states’ duties under the rule will be especially onerous,” Mr. Verrilli wrote. “A state can elect not to prepare a plan at all, but instead may allow E.P.A. to develop and implement a federal plan for sources in that state.”

Less than three weeks before this, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied the same request. As with everything the Roberts Court does, it’s hard not to read politics into their unprecedented granting of this request. I hope I’m wrong about that. The DC court will hear arguments on June 2, so one way or the other SCOTUS will be letting us know how they really feel in the near future. The Trib, Think Progress, SCOTUSBlog, Daily Kos, Slate, and the Observer have more.

Clean Power Plan can proceed for now

Good.

ERCOT

A federal appeals court has denied a request from Texas and other states to block President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, leaving the controversial climate change rules in place as a legal challenge winds through the courts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia wrote Thursday that the states — joined by the coal industry — “have not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay.”

The two-page order was an early victory for Obama and others who support the state-by-state effort to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants — largely through a shift from coal-fired power to natural gas and renewable sources.

Texas and West Virginia are leading a 25-state coalition challenging the plan, arguing that it could push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability. Beyond declining to immediately halt the rules, the court on Thursday set oral arguments in the case for June 2.

[…]

Texas must cut an annual average of 51 million tons of carbon to reach its federal target, a reduction of about 21 percent from 2012 emissions. The mandate rankles Republicans, but proponents of the rules — backed by early analyses — suggest that market forces and existing policies alone will push Texas most of the way toward its target.

As it stands, states have until Sept. 6 to submit a final plan or apply for an extension.

Texas leaders have refused to confirm whether they will create a carbon-cutting plan in case they lose in court. If the state flouts the rule, the EPA will impose its own plan on the state.

See here and here for the background. In addition to being not too hard a target to meet, the Clean Power Plan would have the ancillary benefit of saving water, and there are power companies in Texas who support it and oppose the lawsuit against the EPA. Not that any of that matters to Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. FuelFix and Think Progress have more.

Some power companies like the Clean Power Plan

Not that you’d ever know it.

ERCOT

Thad Hill, in a split with many fellow power company executives, flatly opposes the lawsuits that Texas and 25 others states have filed to block the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

The plan, which the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled in the summer, seeks to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions at existing power plants. It would affect coal-fired plants most profoundly, because they emit the most carbon dioxide.

It’s no coincidence that the company Hill heads, Houston’s Calpine Corp., owns exactly zero coal plants.

While it’s intuitive that wind and solar power companies, which don’t emit greenhouse gas in generating power, support the Clean Power Plan, opinion within the traditional electricity generation sector is more nuanced.

Calpine, which operates the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired generators, leads a relatively small group supporting the federal rule.

Most companies that generate power with coal oppose it, including Dallas-based Luminant, the state’s largest power generator. It also operates some gas plants and one of Texas’ two nuclear plants.

[…]

While the EPA has tightened other emissions regulations under President Barack Obama, the Clean Power Plan is the most sweeping overhaul, said Travis Miller, director of utilities research at Morningstar.

The plan is intended to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants 32 percent from their 2005 levels by 2030.

“The Clean Power Plan is going to have ripple effects throughout the entire energy system in the U.S.,” Miller said. “Utilities need a long runway to adapt, but they’re willing to adapt.”

In the lawsuit challenging the rules put forth by the Democratic Obama administration, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton calls the plan a massive power grab by the EPA that would increase Texans’ electric bills significantly and threaten the reliability of the electric grid.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages 90 percent of the state’s power grid, has estimated the rule could force the closures of some Texas coal plants and increase electricity prices 16 percent by 2030.

Miller agreed that the Clean Power initiative would affect Texas, though he said that Midwestern, Great Plains and Appalachian states most dependent on coal would feel the greatest effects.

Some of the changes in Texas’ power landscape are occurring anyway, because of cheap shale gas and Texas’ ranking as the largest wind power producer in the nation.

“There’s an impressive pipeline of new gas generation and new wind generation in Texas,” Miller said.

That presents market challenges to coal plants, and could move the state toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. “Texas might not have to do all that much,” Miller said.

See here for the background. Miller’s statement is consistent with what ERCOT itself has said, and the Clean Power Plan would help conserve water, too. But this is Texas, and our leadership has to do things the hard way. Just remember, they don’t speak for everyone, not even in the power generation business.

The inevitable latest lawsuit against the EPA

As night follows the day.

ERCOT

As promised, Texas is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over President Obama’s plan to combat climate change, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Friday, just after the new regulation had been finalized.

The state is suing as part of a bipartisan coalition of 24 states — including Missouri and Kentucky, which are led by Democrats — that will jointly request a stay on the plan Friday afternoon.

The regulation, known as the Clean Power Plan, requires states to cut carbon emissions by shifting from coal power to natural gas and renewables over the next 15 years.

Paxton has warned that the Clean Power Plan would dramatically inflate the cost of electricity for consumers and imperil the state’s power grid, describing the regulation as a federal “power grab.”

[…]

The coalition will argue that the EPA “cannot force the states to regulate where the EPA doesn’t have authority to regulate itself,” Morrisey explained.

It filed a petition for review of the regulation Friday morning with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“Petitioners will show that the final rule is in excess of the agency’s statutory authority, goes beyond the bounds set by the United States Constitution, and otherwise is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law,” the petition says. “Accordingly, the petitioners ask the court to hold unlawful and set aside the rule, and to order other such relief as may be appropriate.”

See here for the background, and here for the AG’s complaint. ERCOT has actually confirmed that Texas is well-positioned to comply with the Clean Power Plan, but what fun would that be? The ritual must be observed, like the playing of the National Anthem before a sporting event. Round and round we go, and when the Supreme Court ultimately settles it, nobody knows.

SCOTUS gives polluters a win

Alas.

Martin Lake coal plant

Martin Lake coal plant

t emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants, but it may only be a temporary setback for regulators.

The justices split 5-4 along ideological lines to rule that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to take cost into account when it first decided to regulate the toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants.

The EPA did factor in costs at a later stage, when it wrote standards that are expected to reduce the toxic emissions by 90 percent. But the court said that was too late.

The rules, which took effect in April, will remain in place while the case goes back to a lower court for the EPA to decide how to account for costs, environmental advocates say.

They were supposed to be fully in place next year. The issue was whether health risks are the only consideration under the Clean Air Act.

[…]

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the EPA was unreasonable in refusing to consider costs at the outset. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said it was enough for EPA to consider costs later in the process.

“Over more than a decade, EPA took costs into account at multiple stages and through multiple means as it set emissions limits for power plants,” Kagan said.

She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The EPA said it is reviewing the court’s decision and will determine any appropriate next steps once a review is completed.

“EPA is disappointed that the Supreme Court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance,” EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said.

Indeed, more than 70 percent of power plants already have installed controls to comply with the rules, said Vicki Patton, an attorney at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund.

“EPA already has an economic analysis that it can rely on to demonstrate that the public health benefits of the standards far outweigh the costs,” Patton said.

See here and here for the background. I would obviously have preferred a win here, but at least the EPA will get another shot at this. As noted in the story and acknowledged by ERCOT, most power plants are already there, and there are (in Texas, at least) no new coal-fired plants about to come on line. As Vox explains, the national effect of this ruling is likely to be minimal as well.

That’s the only thing at stake here: how long these 22 plants get to keep spewing [hazardous air pollutants, HAPs]. That’s not nothing — especially to the vulnerable populations exposed to those toxic pollutants — but it amounts to a mopping-up operation.

You might note an irony here. The entire Supreme Court case is premised on the fact that [mercury and air toxins, MATS] regulations are “the most expensive ever.” Industry claims it’s outrageous that EPA didn’t consider these extraordinary costs, which it says could cause blackouts and destroy the power sector and leave the US a smoking ruin.

Oh, but, by the way, while we were debating this, the power sector went ahead and complied with the regulations. Notice any blackouts? Any big bankruptcies in the power sector? Any economic devastation? No. As usual with air pollution rules, when the power sector quits complaining and starts complying, the costs turn out to be much lower than anyone anticipated. This case was a fight over a question that’s already been settled by facts on the ground.

So there’s that. The bad news is that the coal-fired plants we have now in Texas are chock full of mercury and other toxins, which they release into the atmosphere every day. So every extra day we have to wait for the new rules means that much more poisonous filth in our environment. Isn’t that nice? Daily Kos, Kevin Drum, and Ed Kilgore have more.

Georgetown goes all in on renewable energy

From ThinkProgress.

Located about 30 miles north of the Texas capital in a deeply conservative county, the city of Georgetown will be powered 100 percent by renewable energy within the next couple years. Georgetown’s residents and elected officials made the decision to invest in two large renewable energy projects, one solar and one wind, not because they reduced greenhouse gas emissions or sent a message about the viability of renewable energy — but because it just made sense, according to Mayor Dale Ross.

“This was a business decision and it was a no-brainer,” Ross told ThinkProgress from his office along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. “This is a long-term source of power that creates cost certainty, brings economic development, uses less water, and helps the environment.”

[…]

Ross said that a lot of “folks don’t really care what kind of electrons are flowing down the transmission lines,” they just don’t want to pay more for power. Once he explains the new setup to residents, even the most skeptical and politically conservative, they tend to come around.

“The main criticism I’ve heard about green energy is the worry that the tax credits might go away,” said Ross. “Well that doesn’t impact us because they are contractually obligated to deliver energy at that price for 25 years.”

Ross, who is a Certified Public Accountant by trade, took this idea one step further.

“And if you are really looking into that — in the tax code which industry gets the most deductions and credits of any industry out there? That would be fossil fuels. Renewable energy credits are minuscule compared to fossil fuels,” said Ross, who was elected as a Republican mayor earlier this year.

While the cost of both wind and solar power are trending downwards quickly, Georgetown was able to get such a good deal in part due to timing. According to Chris Foster, Georgetown’s Resource Planning & Integration manager and the one responsible for working through all the logistics of the city’s energy needs, wind prices were particularly low at the time the city locked in the 144-megawatt, 20-year deal with EDF Renewables in early 2014. Foster said that in late 2013 wind energy bidders were worried that tax breaks wouldn’t be renewed, and because of this they offered extremely cheap rates in exchange for a long-term contract. Foster was not allowed to disclose the exact rate.

The wind power Georgetown is getting from EDF’s farm is just a small push in the much larger rush of wind power taking place across Texas. Around 2,200 megawatts, enough to bring power to some 400,000 homes, are expected to come online in the state before 2017. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas leads the country in both under-construction wind capacity and installed wind capacity, of which it has over 14,000 megawatts.

Even though wind power has brought some 17,000 jobs and $26 billion in capital investment to the state, lawmakers came remarkably close to repealing key renewable energy policies in this year’s legislative session, which ended in early June. The Senate passed legislation that would have done away with the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which has already been surpassed anyways, and — more harmfully — frozen the CREZ program that is responsible for the bulk of the new transmission lines. The bill never made it out of the House. Advocates of both programs argue that they have worked, and Georgetown appears to be the model example.

“We asked everybody in the state to show us the cheapest power at the longest terms,” Foster told ThinkProgress. “We looked at nuclear, coal, gas, some solar, and wind — and wind was by far and away the cheapest form of power.”

Foster, who came to Ross’s office for the interview, said that natural gas prices were competitive but that the providers were only willing to offer five- or six-year contracts.

A year or so after signing the wind contract Georgetown went looking for additional long-term power. During this time Foster realized that solar would nicely complement the profile of wind energy, which blows most overnight. While solar power is less developed in Texas, as costs drop the potential is sky high. Texas is ranked first in solar energy potential according to the State Energy Conversation Office but only tenth in installed solar capacity. In 2014, Texas installed 129 megawatts of solar, ranking it 8th for the year nationally.

“Between 2012 and 2014 the solar market came down almost 80 percent in cost,” said Foster. “So once again we had great timing, as the solar providers wanted long-term contracts in order to help break into the Texas market.”

Great to see, and it really does make a lot of sense. They were able to get their rates locked in for a much longer time than they could have with any fossil fuel provider. I suppose they could miss out on some future savings this way, but they will definitely avoid any future price increases, which the traditional providers couldn’t promise they wouldn’t face. I hope other cities explore this kind of option as well. Link via EoW.

Texas plans to sue over EPA’s latest clean air plan

So what else is new?

ERCOT

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that he plans to sue the Obama administration over the proposed “Clean Power Plan,” its plan to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants.

“Texas has proven we can improve air quality without damaging our economy or Texans’ pocketbooks,” the Republican said in a statement, claiming the rules would threaten the power grid and increase electric prices. “I will fight this ill-conceived effort that threatens the livelihood and quality of life of all Texans.”

Using those arguments over the past year, the state’s Republican leadership has loudly panned the proposal, which would require the state to cut close to 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next two decades however it sees fit.

Environmental and health advocates say limiting the greenhouse gas would help fight climate change, bolster public health and conserve water in parched Texas, and they suggest that opponents are exaggerating the economic burdens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that Texas could meet its goal through a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Under the proposal, Texas could also adopt a “cap and trade” program – a scheme in which companies bid on the right to pollute.

The federal proposal is scheduled to become final in June, and Texas would have one year to submit its plan. But some watching the debate expect the EPA to push back the deadline amid pressure from states and other critics.

If Texas ignores the rules, the EPA will construct its own plan for Texas, though the agency has not said what that might look like. Democrats and others call that approach risky and suggest it would beckon more stringent requirements.

Bills that would direct Texas regulators to adopt a plan are nearing their death in the Legislature.

Fossil fuel interests and 15 U.S. states – not including Texas – have sued the EPA over the proposed rules in a case heard last week in federal court. Judges appeared skeptical of a challenge to rules that haven’t been finalized.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, if Paxton managed to deliver that line about Texas improving its air quality on its own with a straight face, it will be the most impressive thing he ever does in office. Texas has fought the EPA multiple times in recent years with little to show for it, with another fight currently before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean they’ll lose this time, but it does give one some hope. It would of course be cheaper and easier and better for everyone if they would give up this fight and adopt rules that the state is already most of the way towards meeting anyway, but like most things in life that comes down to winning elections, and we know how that has gone around here.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the idea of the EPA wielding power over Texas, you won’t like this, either.

Texas appears poised to enact environmental legislation that could trigger an unintended consequence: more federal oversight.

Fast-moving bills that would curb opportunities for public protest so state environmental permits can be issued more quickly have drawn the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, long the state’s political punching bag.

The agency says it has concerns about the legislation, and may need to review whether it jeopardizes permitting authority the EPA has granted Texas.

Senate Bill 709 would scale back contested case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution.

Similar versions of the bill pushed by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, have sailed through the House and Senate, rankling consumer and environmental groups.

[…]

The EPA says it shares concerns about the bill, which would overhaul the hearings process in a variety of ways. It would give the agency sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; set an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrow the issues the public could argue; and arguably shift the burden of proof from the company to the public.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Gray called the shift in the “burden of proof” as particularly problematic, adding that the EPA should review the legislation to ensure that it doesn’t “interfere with federal requirements or alter the basis for one or more program requirements.”

See here for the background. It’s like we can’t help ourselves sometimes, isn’t it?

And finally, on a related note:

Kansas and Texas will file amicus briefs supporting Florida in its lawsuit against the federal government over Medicaid expansion, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday.

Scott filed suit last week, alleging that the federal government is “coercing” the state into accepting Medicaid expansion by witholding the extension of a different Medicaid program. The Low Income Pool brings $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state to pay hospitals for care for the poor and uninsured and is set to expire June 30.

“I am glad Kansas and Texas are joining our fight against the Obama Administration for attempting to coerce Florida into Obamacare expansion by ending an existing federal healthcare program and telling us to expand Medicaid instead. The US Supreme Court has already called this sort of coercion tactic illegal,” Scott said in a released statement.

In granting a one-year extension last year, federal officials stated they would not extend it again without significant changes. A recent letter from federal officials to the state clearly suggested the fate of LIP was tied to Medicaid expansion but officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services have also said Florida is free to expand Medicaid or not as it wishes.

See here for the background. Daily Kos has characterized the Florida lawsuit as being about refusing federal Obamacare dollars while demanding federal non-Obamacare dollars, which strikes me as apt. Easy to see why it was irresistible to Texas to join in. Ed Kilgore has more.

ERCOT acknowledges that meeting EPA clean air requirements won’t be that big a deal

From Texas Clean Air Matters:

ERCOT

Well, it didn’t take long before the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released, at the request of Texas’ very political Public Utilities Commission, another report about the impacts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rules designed to protect public health.

This time ERCOT, which manages 90 percent of Texas’ electric grid, looked at the impact of seven EPA clean air safeguards on the electric grid, including the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), the Regional Haze program (all of which go back before the Obama administration), the proposed Clean Power Plan, which would set the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and others. What was surprising to learn, though, is that after power companies in the state start complying with EPA’s other clean air protections, the proposed Clean Power Plan poses a minimal incremental impact to the power grid. We would only have to cut 200 megawatts of coal-fired generation, which equates to less than one coal-fired power plant.

For as much doom-and-gloom we heard last month in ERCOT’s report about the Clean Power Plan, they certainly seem to be singing a different tune this go-around. The new report shows that Texas can go a long way toward complying with the Clean Power Plan by meeting other clean air safeguards, for which Texas power companies have had years to prepare.

Very soon power companies in Texas will install control technologies to reduce multiple – not just one – pollutants, thereby making compliance with EPA’s subsequent regulations easier and more cost-effective. In the end, Texas will only need to take a minimal amount of additional aging coal plants offline by 2029.

Plus, other energy resources, like energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and demand response (which pays people to conserve energy when the electric grid is stressed) are gaining ground every day in Texas. They have proven to be vital resources on the power grid that help reduce electricity costs for Texas homes and businesses.

Energy efficiency, in particular, provides significant reductions in power plant emissions, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone-forming pollutants, and has a four-to-one payback on investment. This is the type of performance worth investing in.

See here for the background, and click over to read the rest. In addition to what the EDF says above, complying with the new regulations would also save a ton of water, which is a pretty big deal in and of itself. So let’s have less whining – and fewer lawsuits – and get on with the compliance. It’s a win all around.

EPA climate change plan would save water

Well, what do you know?

ERCOT

As state regulators fret about how President Obama’s effort to combat climate change would affect the Texas power grid, a new study says the rules would be simpler to adopt than those regulators suggest – and that it would save the state billions of gallons of water annually.

In an analysis released Wednesday, CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research group based in Arlington, Va., said the federal proposal – which requires states to shift from coal power to cut carbon emissions – would slash water use in the Texas power sector by 21 percent. That would save the drought-ridden state more than 28 billion gallons of water each year.

“It’s a surprising finding,” Paul Faeth, the report’s author, said in a statement. “People don’t often associate water conservation with [carbon] cuts, but for Texas, they work together.”

[…]

CNA Corporation’s analysis comes two days after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, said the proposal would threaten reliability and raise energy costs by as much as 20 percent by 2020 – not including the cost of new power lines needed to keep the grid running.

The CNA report, which relied on a model ERCOT has used in the past, said shifting away from water-guzzling coal power plants and boosting energy efficiency would ease Texas’ water woes.

Compared to Texas’ grid operator, CNA painted a rosier picture of price and reliability effects. With big investments in natural gas and wind power, Texas is already on pace to meet 70 percent of its target by 2029, according to the study. Improving energy efficiency could move the state the rest of the way.

The federal proposal would increase the per-megawatt cost of electricity by 5 percent by 2029, but cut total system costs by 2 percent, the group said.

“We find that the state will be able to meet the final and interim targets with modest incremental effort,” the study said.

See here for the background. The CNA report page is here, the press release is here, the executive summary is here, and the full report is here. It’s not clear to me if CNA was invited by someone to review the EPA plan as it affects Texas or if they did it on their own, but this is a strong argument for going along with what the EPA recommends rather than filing another frivolous lawsuit. The considerable water savings is enough by itself to make this worthwhile.

It’s OK if energy costs go up for now

That’s my reaction to this.

ERCOT

As Texas regulators weigh a response to President Obama’s proposal to combat climate change, the operator of the state’s main electric grid says the plan would raise energy costs and threaten reliability – particularly in the next few years.

In an analysis released Monday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said the plan — which requires states to shift from coal-power to cut carbon emissions — would significantly increase power prices in the next few years. But those extra costs would fall in the next decades as Texans reaped long-term savings from investments in solar power and energy efficiency. 

Under the federal proposal, Texas would need to slash carbon emissions from its power plants by as much as 195 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next 18 years, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. That 43 percent reduction is among the larger percentage of cuts required among states.

The EPA suggests that Texas could meet its goal though a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Texas would have until 2016 to submit a plan to meet its carbon target.

The ERCOT analysis comes as Texas regulators prepare to file formal comments to the EPA ahead of the Dec. 1 public comment deadline.

[…]

“Given what we see today, the risk of rotating outages increases,” Warren Lasher, director of system planning at ERCOT, said Monday in a media call.

The changes would hit coal-dependent communities around Dallas and Houston particularly hard, Lasher said. Those areas would quickly need new power lines to connect with new power sources. That could prove costly. For instance, officials project a major transmission project for the Houston area to total $590 million.

“All of those costs could ultimately be born by consumers in the power bills,” Lasher said.

And I’m okay with that. The costs would be borne in the short run and would likely lead to lower costs as more renewable sources came online and became part of the statewide grid. As the Rivard Report reminds us, there’s a lot of that happening already. The pollution reduction benefit from the EPA’s directive would be substantial as well. If ERCOT is trying to scare me, it’s not working. I’m sure the EPA would be willing to be flexible with Texas on the schedule if Texas negotiates in good faith and demonstrates a real commitment to meeting the stated goals. Or Texas can sue and lose and get no help in getting this implemented as smoothly as possible. Seems like a pretty easy choice to me. Texas Clean Air Matters has more.

Would you let Reliant turn off your air conditioning?

In the name of conservation, of course.

“Our objective is to have more and more customers participate so we can make a material difference in an event when the state needs us to make a difference,” said Elizabeth Killinger, senior vice president and retail regional president for Texas at NRG, Reliant’s parent company.

The program, which Reliant calls Degrees of Difference, is geared toward customers who use Nest, the Google-owned thermostat that can be controlled remotely over a wireless Internet connection.

Under the voluntary program, when electricity demand gets especially high, Reliant – through Nest – could remotely turn off customers’ air conditioning for around 30 minutes or less in an effort to reduce electricity consumption.

Reliant would then pay customers 80 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they’ve avoided using, based on comparisons to their historic usage.

Officials at Reliant and Nest stress that the program is purely voluntary, and participants don’t lose much control, since they can easily override the adjustment and turn the air back on. But they doubt that will be necessary.

“Most folks aren’t really going to notice when their air conditioner pops off for a short time like this,” said Ben Bixby, general manager at Nest Energy Services.

[…]

The plan may seem counterintuitive. Reliant, after all, makes money when customers use electricity. But during periods of peak demand – generally, late afternoon in the summer – companies like Reliant can face extraordinary wholesale costs from power generators, which can charge up to $5,000 per megawatt-hour of power.

That figure is poised to increase to $7,000 in June and $9,000 next year. During normal conditions, wholesale prices from generators are generally below $100 per megawatt-hour.

“If we run into a circumstance where there’s not enough generation, and prices are rising, customer participation will help us reduce our costs,” Killinger said. The upside for Reliant is that the money it saves exceeds the value of the credits it would dole out to customers.

There’s already a program in place like this for large industrial and commercial power users, but residential users create a lot of demand, too. Basically, Reliant is looking to keep the peaks below a certain level, above which it becomes really expensive for them to provide the power needed. It reduces their costs, so they can provide an incentive to their customers to participate, and it may mean less need to build more power plants down the line. It’s a win all around if enough people agree to participate. We have a Nest at home, though we’re not currently using Reliant. I suspect we’d be willing to do this but haven’t discussed it with Tiffany yet. What do you think?

Don’t be surprised if we have brownouts

That’s the message I take from this.

Temperatures in parts of Texas have started hitting the upper 90s, and they’re likely to stay above normal this summer, according to a forecast by federal climatologists.

That means another difficult summer for the Texas power grid. In a recent report, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation projected that the Texas grid will have the lowest percentage of power reserves this summer of any region of the country.

“Sustained extreme weather could be a threat to supply adequacy this summer,” the report stated.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid, also expects summer conditions to be “tight” and will probably ask Texans to conserve power on some hot afternoons when air conditioners put extra strain on the grid. Rotating blackouts are a possibility, ERCOT says, if the summer becomes as hot as 2011, which is not expected.

The Texas grid has struggled to keep up with demand, especially on the hottest days of the year. The problem is fast-growing demand combined with few new power plants being built. According to the reliability corporation, ERCOT’s projected reserve margin this summer — defined as the amount of power available above and beyond the anticipated peak needs of the grid — is 12.88 percent. That’s below ERCOT’s target, which is 13.75 percent. Other parts of the country all show more than an 18 percent reserve margin, according to the reliability corporation report.

And though the say they will have enough reserves for next summer even if no new power plants come online, the future beyond that isn’t looking so good.

Kent Saathoff, an executive adviser to ERCOT, said that the economic growth forecast ERCOT used for its future projections “may well” need to be raised. ERCOT currently uses a “low-growth” economic forecast from Moody’s to make projections 10 years into the future. If higher economic growth occurs than ERCOT has projected, that means power demand will be higher and ERCOT, once again, may not have adequate reserves.

If the grid operator does change its current “low-growth” projections — a question Saathoff said the grid operator is still weighing — a new long-term forecast incorporating those projections would not be issued until the end of the year.

Longer term, ERCOT’s reserve margins are projected to fall still further behind, but Saathoff noted that natural gas-fired power plants can get built “relatively quickly,” in two to three years.

“Just because we don’t show some of those plants for 2015-2016 doesn’t necessarily mean that those plants won’t show up,” he said.

Environmentalists say that ERCOT should move more rapidly to incorporate programs that cut peak-time power demand. For example, home electric systems can be set up to cycle air conditioners or pool pumps on and off, thus reducing power use when the grid is strained.

Texas “lags far behind” other states in such programs, according to Colin Meehan of the Environmental Defense Fund. ERCOT says it has some pilots programs in place, and some large companies already participate in such programs.

As with water, the cheapest and most effective strategy is always going to be conservation. Reduce your peak usage and the rest takes care of itself. Sure would be nice if we paid more attention to that.

Will we have enough power?

Maybe not. From the EDF.

It’s understandable that no one seems to have noticed a strongly worded letter to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) last Monday demanding more action to ensure electric reliability in Texas, and asking ERCOT to report back to NERC by April 30 on additional actions taken.  NERC isn’t some federal boogey man either; it’s a corporation founded by the electric industry to create commonly accepted standards for electric reliability across North America, usually through voluntary compliance.  President Bush’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the corporation “the authority to create and enforce compliance with Reliability Standards,” which is where this letter comes into play.

In their 2012 report, NERC highlighted ERCOT as the only region in North America that was not maintaining adequate electric reserves to meet demand, and with this letter they made it very clear that the actions taken to date have not done enough to mitigate that risk.  In the letter, NERC President Gerry Cauley notes that the PUC and ERCOT are continuing to address energy reliability issues, but finds that “solutions have not yet sufficiently materialized to address NERC’s reserve margin concern.”

Cauley goes on to say that “it is still unclear to us how ERCOT intends to mitigate issues that may arise on the current trajectory and when new resources may be available to meet growing demand.”  So according to the corporation whose membership consists mostly of utilities, grid operators, large and small customers, and electric regulators, the actions that the PUC and ERCOT have taken at this point are not enough to ensure we’ll have reliable electric supply, risking blackouts as soon as this summer.

As lawmakers settle into Austin for the next few months they’ll certainly be paying close attention to this issue, though many have indicated they would prefer that ERCOT and the PUC develop the solutions to this problem.  Cauley’s letter serves as notice that the PUC and ERCOT need to be more aggressive if they want to ensure a reliable supply of power in Texas.  Certainly both agencies are putting serious time and effort into keeping the lights on in Texas, including effort so expand existing demand response programs, but NERC clearly thinks they need to be doing more.

This was also noted by Loren Steffy, who says that Texas is now “under more pressure than ever to encourage generation, and that’s likely to mean higher prices at a time when the deregulated market was supposed to be delivering lower prices to consumers”. (He also notes that consumer protections are likely to be weakened, because that’s how we roll in this state.) Thanks to the continued tax credit in the so-called fiscal “cliff” deal, there will be more wind projects gearing up, and ERCOT foresees $8.9 billion in electric transmission projects by the end of 2017, but neither will help in the short term, and it’s still not enough for the longer term. I don’t know what else there is to be done, so just consider this a heads up for when the crunch does hit.

ERCOT hopes this summer is better than the last

That would be nice.

Managers of the state’s primary electricity grid expect to avoid rolling blackouts this summer but not without calling on Texans to turn up their thermostats and conserve power during peak usage on the season’s hottest afternoons.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is also bringing back mothballed power plants — some 35 to 40 years old — to give itself a larger margin of error than last summer’s near-miss on rolling blackouts.

ERCOT has tweaked its program that pays large industrial and commercial users to interrupt their power during emergencies and is adding to the list smaller customers who generate their own power on-site.

“We have taken an ‘all of the above’ approach to meeting Texans’ electricity needs this summer,” said Donna Nelson, who chairs the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

Despite its efforts, ERCOT, which serves 23 million people, expects “a significant chance” it will have to issue several emergency alerts asking Texans to conserve electricity, especially at the usual daily peak usage times of 4 to 7 p.m.

More information here. We’re projected to be low on reserve power by 2014, so enjoy this while you can, and do what you can to bug your elected officials about making energy conservation a priority.

West Texas wind

The wind energy business in Texas is going strong.

BP and other energy companies are funneling millions of dollars into building and operating wind farms in West Texas, helping to transform the oil country into one of the nation’s leading hubs for green energy production.

Skylines dominated by nodding pump jacks increasingly are spotted with spinning turbines. Economies tied to the ebb and flow of commodity prices are finding stability in supplying the power grid.

“We’ve been through lots of booms and busts with the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas areas deplete over time,” said Doug May, economic development director for Pecos County.

“The wind resource here is sustainable. We look at these wind farms as a long-term investment in the future of Pecos County.”

Recent energy analyses predict renewable fuels — including wind, solar and biofuels — will be the world’s fastest-growing energy source in coming decades. BP’s own outlook predicts the country’s renewable energy production will surge 252 percent over the next 20 years.

Wind and solar energy are potentially huge boons to West Texas, which is the perfect location in many ways for harvesting both kinds. There’s already a lot of investment out there, and more is to come. There are some obstacles, however.

West Texas wind farms are at the end of the state’s main electrical grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. The Public Utility Commission of Texas has been working on plans to build a more robust network of power lines to bring more wind-generated power to major cities.

But those lines are still two years and nearly $7 billion away.

Meanwhile, the federal tax credit that gives wind power generators 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy produced is slated to expire at year’s end unless lawmakers approve a renewal.

“If Congress chooses not to renew, there is no hope for the wind industry next year,” [John] Graham, the BP executive, said of the tax credit. “Without it, U.S. wind projects aren’t viable.”

BP has joined the pack of wind executives fighting to keep the production tax credit for renewable energy. Graham said he has traveled to Washington five times since October.

You’d think giving an energy company a tax break would come as naturally to Congress as breathing, but that renewable energy credit was a casualty of the payroll tax cut deal. It could be revived, and again, it’s hard to imagine a world in which energy executives have to go begging for bones from Congress. The ERCOT issue has been in the works for four years already. That will be a big deal when it’s done.

Rolling blackouts may be on the summer horizon

Better hope the mild weather we’re getting in winter translates to mild weather for the summer, because the alternative isn’t pretty.

Inadequate electric power reserves likely will force Texans to cut back this summer to avoid rolling outages if the weather matches last year’s record heat, utility experts warned legislators [last] Thursday.

“We have to have conservation, and everyone made a tremendous difference during the peak of hot, summer days (last) August. We have to have that, plus some, to survive this summer without rotating outages,” H.B. “Trip” Doggett, president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told the House State Affairs Committee.

Legislators are looking at the state’s electricity market to find ways to keep lights on in Texas during peak demand periods. A range of issues contributes to the problem, including surging population growth, regulatory influences on the power industry, low natural gas prices that discourage new power plants, and difficulties in borrowing money to build them. Texas faces “a serious problem,” State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said after 13 experts spoke to his committee.

“It looks like we’re going to really have to embrace conservation because we don’t have the extra generation,” he said.

I’d say we need to embrace conservation anyway for a whole host of reasons, but in this particular case the need is obvious. One solution suggested in the story to help achieve that is a public relations campaign to explain the situation to residents. I remember Con Edison in New York doing exactly this sort of thing in the 70s. They were a sponsor of Yankee games on WPIX, and their exhortations to conserve electricity, usually given by the Yankees’ broadcasters, were on all the time. If I can remember that 35 years later, it seems safe to suggest this kind of campaign can have an effect. We’ll need a lot more than that going forward, but one hopes this can suffice for now.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have solar panels on your roof right now?

Some people do. More people should.

Despite Houston’s sweltering heat, Grady Hill hasn’t paid an electric bill since 2009.

He keeps his thermostat set at a comfortable 78 degrees when he’s home, but a combination of solar panels and an energy-efficient home have helped him make more power than he uses for most of the year.

That excess power goes to his electric company, Green Mountain Energy, which gives him credits that he taps during the summer months, when he tends to use more than he generates. He earns credits at the same rate he pays, 12.915 cents per kilowatt hour, for the first 500 kwh he generates. Green Mountain buys the rest for half that rate.

At the end of June, when his 3,200-square-foot home used 522 kwh, he had a credit balance of $288.82.

Yes, he wanted to be green, he says, but the savings are the real incentive.

[…]

When Hill and his wife bought their house for $300,000, it had double-pane windows, three feet of insulation in the attic and energy-efficient appliances. The Hills added a tankless water heater, ceiling fans, solar panels and a few other items for $60,000.

The five-kilowatt solar system cost about $22,000 after federal tax rebates, and the Hills also saved because the home was pre-wired for a solar system.

The couple moved in during the summer of 2009. The electric bill that July? $40.

But because of the high up-front costs, the solar industry has struggled to break into the local homeowner market even though many residents spend hundreds of dollars a month keeping homes cool in the scorching summer.

Craig Lobel, president of EcoEdge Consulting, an energy efficiency firm working with Discovery at Spring Trails, said it only makes financial sense to add solar after making less expensive investments. These include efficient appliances and light bulbs and radiant barriers to keep heat out of the attic.

New homes in Discovery at Spring Trails come equipped with those energy-efficient features and an electronic monitor that shows residents how much energy they consume and how much they generate if their houses are solar-equipped.

“You have to build the home efficient from the ground up,” Lobel said. “You can’t just put a Band-Aid on an inefficient home. After homeowners monitor their energy use for several months, many choose to add more solar panels to work toward being grid neutral,” Lobel said.

Doing other energy-efficiency things makes sense on its own, and can get you a lot of bang for your buck. The thing about solar panels is that there are creative ways for local governments to help amortize the cost for homeowners. With our summers getting hotter and the demands on our power grid setting records, there’s a lot to be said for adding to our solar capacity in any way we can. Wouldn’t you like to have that guy’s electricity bills?

Illegal electrons

Hilarious.

As Texas struggles to keep the lights on, who should come to the rescue? Mexico. That’s right, Mexico’s state electricity company on Wednesday started supplying electricity to Texas, where cold weather and power shortages forced rolling blackouts across the state. Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission issued a statement saying it “was determined to support Texas with electrical energy” as its neighbor to the north scrambled to deal with its power woes.

If we can figure out some way to harness the energy from all of the heads that will explode as a result of this, we ought to be able to avoid any summer brownouts, too. You can also thank wind power for keeping the lights on. No word on whether or not it was a Mexican wind, however.

On a more serious note, you might be wondering why we experienced rolling blackouts in the winter, for a weather event that we knew was coming for days, and without any advanced notice of said blackouts. The Public Utility Commission is also wondering. Hopefully they’ll get some answers. Perhaps if Governor Perry spent more time in Texas and less time gallivanting around the country, he’d know what was going on, too. PDiddie, McBlogger, and Texas Vox have more.

UPDATE: From California to Kentucky. Our Governor does get around.