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We can make the end of coal in Texas happen

It’s already happening. It just needs a bit of a boost.

Texas might have the perfect environment to quit coal for good.

Texas is one of the only places—potentially in the world—where the natural patterns of wind and sun could produce power around the clock, according to new research from Rice University.

Scientists found that between wind energy from West Texas and the Gulf Coast, and solar energy across the state, Texas could meet a significant portion of its electricity demand from renewable power without extensive battery storage. The reason: These sources generate power at different times of day, meaning that coordinating them could replace production from coal-fired plants.

“There is no where else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is,” said Dan Cohan an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who co-authored the report with a student, Joanna Slusarewicz. “Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”

[…]

Coal still generates about 25 percent of the state’s power, but its share is shrinking. Since 2007, coal used in generating electricity has decreased 36 percent. Last year, Vistra Energy of Dallas shut down three coal-fired plants in Texas, citing changing economics in the power industry that make it difficult for coal to compete.

Texas has more than 20,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, which could rise to 38,000 megawatts by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar energy, however, has developed much more slowly in Texas, despite the abundance of sunshine. Texas installed about 2,500 megawatts of solar capacity in 2018.

The research article is here. Texas has done well generating wind energy, but needs to step it up with solar. The Lege could provide some incentives for this, so maybe mention to your State Rep the next time you call their office that this would be a productive thing to do.

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.

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?

Dan Wallach: 2016 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

We’ve now had a solar system on our house, and an electric car charging from the house, for just over a year. Also of note, in my post last May, I suggested that what we need is a retail electric plan that sells to you at a competitive rate (versus the inflated prices at Green Mountain) and buys from you at the wholesale price (which can climb impressively high on hot summer afternoons, when your solar system is cranking out the juice). Well, plans like this are starting to appear on the market. MP2 Energy has such a plan and others are looking into it.

Today, I want to discuss a few related questions:

  • How much electricity did our solar system generate, and our electric car consume, in the past year?
  • Based on our year of data, would we do any better to stick with Green Mountain or go to one of the newer plans?

Of course, I’m only writing about our own usage, with our house and our car. Your house and your car and your, umm, mileage will vary, but you might be able to extrapolate from our numbers to reach your own conclusions about whether you want to go solar.

How much electricity did our solar system generate?

Below is a graph of the energy-per-day produced by our solar array. You can see the system generating more energy in the summer months, with the correspondingly longer days. You can also see the occasional days with bad weather. No sun = no power.

Dan Wallach 2016 chart

In total, over this twelve month period, our solar array (36 panels, 250W peak production per panel) produced 10.3 MWh of electricity. At the $0.12/kWh buyback rate we’re getting with Green Mountain Energy, that means that our solar array saved us roughly $1240 this year. (Our panels are facing east and west, as a result of the way our roof is built. If your house has a large southern-facing roof, you could get this much power from fewer panels.)

How much juice did our Tesla consume?

According to the Tesla’s dashboard measurements, after a year of owning it, we’ve driven a total of 7033 miles, and used 2476 kWh to do it. That’s 352 Wh/mile. Assuming you were paying $0.10/kWh for your electricity, then we’re talking about 3.5 cents/mile. Contrast that with a comparably large sedan with comparable performance (e.g., an Audi A7), doing the same sort of city driving and thus getting something crappy like 15 miles/gallon, then with current $2/gallon prices, you’re looking at 13.3 cents/mile. You’d have to have some kind of amazing 57mpg  hybrid to achieve the same cost per mile. (A Prius is almost there. Big luxury cars, not so much.)

Another way to think about it: the “long tailpipe” problem. Some critics of electric cars note that they still burn fossil fuels, just somewhere far away from home. Our solar array produced enough energy to run our Tesla for nearly 30,000 miles. So if you want to have a “solar powered electric car”, you can do it with even a modest-sized solar system.

What if you drive a longer commute? The prior owner of our Tesla lived up in the Woodlands and commuted back and forth to Houston. He was averaging an even more amazing 300 Wh/mile, driving twice as many miles per year in the same exact car. He upgraded to a Tesla P85D (the four-wheel-drive version that goes insanely faster) and his mileage stayed roughly the same. Supercar performance, tiny hybrid efficiency.

All that said, I don’t have a really good handle on the overhead of the Tesla. Sure, it consumed 2476 kWh in the past year, but that’s going from the car’s battery to the tires. There’s some fractional overhead beyond that, going from the wall outlet to the car’s battery. Charging a battery creates heat, which represents wasted electricity, and also requires additional energy to remove. The Tesla will thus use extra power to run the A/C compressor while it’s charging. For now, let’s just say that measuring the charging overhead is future work. (Hey OffTheKuff readers: if you’ve got measurement infrastructure that I could borrow for this, let me know!)

Lastly, I’ll note that we did several road trips in the Tesla, using their Supercharger infrastructure. I’d estimate that somewhere around 500 kWh of that energy was “free” from the Supercharger network (i.e., included in the cost of buying the car).

Should we stick with Green Mountain or switch elsewhere?

Green Mountain has the best net metering plan on the market, but there are only two competitors. In a nutshell, Green Mountain buys and sells power from you at the exact same price: $0.12/kWh, inclusive of all fees and taxes. But there are plenty of standard retail plans that will sell you electricity at $0.08 or $0.09/kWh. Can we do better than Green Mountain’s net metering plan? The real issue, once you strip away all the dumb politics, is that the underlying pricing model isn’t at all a flat rate for electricity.

Roughly speaking, there’s a wholesale price for the electricity coming from a commercial generator and then there’s a distribution price to get it to you. Wholesale prices vary all day long, with overnight lows below a penny and mid-afternoon highs as much as 3 cents/kWh, with occasional peaks that are much, much higher. CenterPoint charges 3.8 cents/kWh for delivery of that power, no matter what, alongside a flat monthly charge of $5.47 per residential customer. All those charges are often rolled into the pricing plans you see from other retail electricity providers, who are essentially gambling that they can buy power at variable wholesale rates and sell it to you at a flat retail price while still somehow making a profit.

When a retail electricity provider wants to get into the solar buyback game, their actual costs to get power downstream to your house (so far as I can tell) are the wholesale price plus the distribution price. Your excess solar power production is worth the same to them as the spot wholesale price when it flows back upstream. CenterPoint doesn’t give any sort of rebate for upstream electricity flows. CenterPoint’s argument: Somebody else is receiving the power you’re sending upstream, and they’re paying to get it delivered. CenterPoint charges for that delivery.

Can a retail electricity provider offer a competitive pricing plan that’s closer to the wholesale market structure while still buffering consumers from the sometimes insane spikes of the raw wholesale market? One such provider, who prefers not to be named yet in public, approached me privately and offered me the chance to test drive a new plan they’re working on. Their proposal is to pass through all the CenterPoint charges, as is, and then have a flat 3 cents/kWh for buying and selling power, downstream or upstream. I ran these numbers through my spreadsheet for the same 12 months of data I’ve already captured. Here’s what came out: Green Mountain’s $0.12/kWh net metering plan cost us $692.84 for the year. If we had this new plan instead, it would come out to $712.07 for the same usage in the same year.

Evaluating MP2’s spot-price “solar buyback” plan is a bit more complicated, because the upstream price they pay you varies all day long. Conveniently, MP2 did this analysis for me. I emailed them all our data and their conclusion was that our annual bill would be $904.32, so not especially competitive with Green Mountain’s net metering. MP2 also offers a net metering plan, similar to Green Mountain’s plan, but it’s presently offered as part of getting your solar system installed through SolarCity. Thus, not an option for us.

Call me modestly bullish on this. Even though MP2’s solar buyback plan isn’t a good deal for our house, other firms are looking to offer variants on the same business model that are competitive. As an added bonus, I’d now be incentivized to put a big battery on our house to capture the excess daily production and reuse it at night. With standard net-metering, there was no incentive, but now I’d save those distribution charges. I’ll still wait for the cost of battery packs to drop, but it’s fun to think about.

Some Thoughts About the Future

There are always going to be a few days in the summer where the demand on the grid peaks out. In those cases, all the market-rate adjustments in the world won’t cause a new industrial generator to be constructed and placed online. That means high prices and brownouts. (If anything, there’s a reasonable fear that generators might deliberately go off-line to force price spikes. That’s beyond the scope of today’s post.)

Solar has a big role to play in stabilizing our grid, because those hottest hours of the day are exactly when solar panels will be generating the most power. Solar also happens to do the job without pollution, and without incurring large infrastructure costs for long-distance power distribution. On top of that, solar’s one-time purchase and installation costs are rapidly shrinking.

Consequently, it’s sensible and desirable for the Federal government to continue its solar subsidy, and it would make a lot of sense for the Texas state government to get in on the game as well. The solar on our roof helps our neighbors, not just us. I’m not suggesting that we’ll stop burning fossil fuels, but rather that a diversified set of sources is a desirable way to meet the needs for a stable and scalable power grid.

The biggest objection to solar, so far as I can tell, comes from shills who misrepresent the financial structure of the electricity markets and claim that residential solar production leads to “mooching” off the grid. What I like about MP2 and some of the other buyback plans coming online is that they address this concern head-on. By passing through the monthly CenterPoint connection charge and pricing power consumption somewhere only marginally higher than wholesale rates, these new plans make it clear that solar systems aren’t mooching at all. They’re paying their fair share, and they’re improving the reliability of the grid while they’re at it.

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.

Dan Wallach: 2015 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

I’ve been blogging about our electricity situation for the past few years here at OffTheKuff. In 2014, I mentioned that we were pondering going with a solar system. Well, we did it — a 9 kW (peak) solar system via Texas Solar Outfitters — and we also picked up a Tesla Model S. This is less about being green hippie freaks and more about disconnecting from what I’ve viewed as a deeply dysfunctional electricity market. (And also having a car that kicks ass, but that’s for another day and a different blog.)

We’ve only had the solar system since November, so it’s too soon to have full-year statistics. Once the system reaches its first full year anniversary, I’ll run the “profitability” numbers and do another guest post here. Stay tuned for more exciting charts and financial math (present value, IRR, and more)! Instead, I wanted to give some perspective on the economics of solar power.

Notably, Tesla just announced a new “PowerWall” contraption that puts a 10kWh battery pack on your garage wall for $3500 (plus hiring an electrician, plus permitting, plus ancillary equipment like inverters, so let’s call it $6000 minimum). Elon Musk envisions that we can truly replace our entirely fossil fuel-based economy with solar power: homes, cars, everything. (For more technical details on the PowerWall products, Teslarati has a good writeup.) Let’s do the numbers, shall we?

To begin, here’s our March electrical bill from Green Mountain — the best of the three available plans if you have solar.

WallachElectricBill

This is what “net metering” looks like. We drew 862kWh from the grid and fed back 573kWh. Meanwhile, over the same time period, our solar system reports that it produced 853kWh. Of this, the house consumed 280kWh and we sold back the remaining 573kWh. So, our actual power consumption for March was 1142kWh (solar generation plus grid consumption, minus excesses solar generation sold back).

I rolled back to last year’s stats, when we had neither solar nor a Tesla, and the monthly usage for the same time period was 864kWh, which says that the Tesla used around 280kWh for the month, or maybe it’s just hotter this year. Last year’s awful summer peaks were well north of 1500kWh, so presumably this summer, with the Tesla, we’re looking at 1800-2000kWh / month of peak usage.

(With our Tesla, we’re on target to hit about 7500 miles/year, so these numbers may represent a “low” usage point relative to others, but you can easily scale our numbers up if you want to predict your own hypothetical costs. Your mileage and the weather may vary, etc.)

Here’s where solar gets fun. The graph below shows the energy generated by our solar system on a beautiful, sunny April day. Positive numbers represent power we’re drawing from the grid. Negative numbers represent excess power we’re selling back to the grid. You can see our Tesla charging itself up after we got home from eating dinner out. You can also nicely see when the sun came up and when it went down again. On this particular day, midnight to midnight, we drew 20kWh from the grid while the sun was down. The solar system generated 52kWh, and we had an excess of 44kWh that we sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed a total of 28kWh on this particular day and were a net seller of electricity). Sounds great right?

WallachSunnyDayApril

The new Tesla PowerWall contraption leads you to ask the question of whether you could store all that extra energy in a battery during the day and release it at night. If you could do that, you could then cut yourself free from the grid. Today’s question: what would it take to go completely “off grid”?

To pull this off, you need to generate everything you might ever need, even in the worst case. So how bad is bad? Here’s a chart of our power usage over a two day period in early April when it was rainy and awful.

WallachRainyApril

Over these two days, our total power drawn from the grid was 46kWh. The solar system generated 25.2kWh, of which 9kWh was sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed an average of 31kWh/day on these two days). To make this work “off grid”, we’d need to double the size of our solar system. To make this work on a bad weather winter day, with correspondingly less daylight, the solar system would need to grow yet again. Also, this included a typical day of driving with our Tesla. What if we did a long drive and got home with a near-empty battery? You’d have a whole new form of range anxiety to deal with. Conversely, on days when you generate more than you use you’re just throwing it away.

Our current solar system cost us roughly $30k to purchase and install (before the 30% tax credit, which might go down in future years). No matter how you slice it, the profitability of the system is dubious, given how much cheaper electricity became after the Saudis decided to crank up their production. Doubling the solar system, installing expensive batteries, going off-grid, and discarding excess production? Sorry, that’s not financially rational.

Incidentally, if you want to know how to size up a Tesla PowerWall system for an off-grid solar application, you pretty much just add up your grid consumption during the night; you need to ensure you have enough solar capacity and battery capacity during the day to cover it. For our house, two PowerWall batteries ($3500/ea, for 20kWh total storage capacity) wouldn’t quite do the job. We’d need three of them to have a decent margin. If you had a bigger house or you drove many more miles on your electric car, then you’d have to ratchet everything up appropriately.

Conclusion 1: building a solar system to deal with worst-case power generation, operating your house “off grid”, will require your solar system to be much larger than you’d specify for a net-metering application, where you can rely on the grid for bad-weather days. As solar panels get more powerful and cheaper, the economics of this will change. Today, no. Ten years, maybe.

Next question for today: is there any point in buying a PowerWall if not to go off-grid? If what you want is “emergency” service in a power-outage situation, you can buy all sorts of natural gas generators. They’re loud when running and they require regular service, but after Hurricane Ike knocked our power out for ten days, we could feel the soulful allure. Unfortunately, a smaller PowerWall system wouldn’t help here, since for a ten day blackout, you’re really in a situation equivalent to the fully off-grid scenario.

Sadly, with only flat-rate grid electricity pricing available here, I conclude that a PowerWall has no real use at our home.

Caveat 1: so long as TXU is willing to give you “free nights”, then a PowerWall means free electricity for your home! You can expect TXU to kill that program off quickly once Tesla’s battery packs start shipping. Sorry about that.

Caveat 2: electric utilities are cranking up the scare machine that it’s “unfair” for solar consumers to pay less for the grid. First off, this is totally bogus, as we pay the same fixed fee as everybody else pays for CenterPoint to maintain the grid. (Many retail electric plans hide this fee, so long as you use more than 1000kWh, but they’re still paying it on your behalf. ) And if you’re a net provider rather than net consumer of power at peak times, you’re helping the grid. But let’s say the utilities win the argument and kill off or weaken solar net metering. At that point, we’re forced to buy a battery storage system to recapture our excess daytime usage. The grid then loses the benefit of our excess generation, and every new solar system just got more expensive for no good reason.

All of this would change if consumers were more exposed to the variable pricing of the commercial power market. Rice University, for example, buys its electricity a full year ahead of time, hour by hour, offset by in-house solar production. If it turns out that Rice pre-bought more than they need, they sell it back on the spot market. If they need more than they pre-bought, they have to go buy power on that same spot market. And, of course, when do they really need it? The same time as everybody else does, on the hottest days, so spot prices can be brutal. With this in mind, typical commercial flat rooftop solar installations point their panels southwest, maximizing their power generation in the afternoon when electricity is most expensive.

The real genius of power storage systems is that you can buy and store the power when it’s cheap and uses it when it’s expensive. Energy arbitrage! That means that the mammoth version of Tesla’s PowerWall might be very attractive for industrial and commercial users. Even utilities might deploy them into neighborhoods. And if home users were more exposed to the “real” pricing in the commercial market, they too would be incentivized to get personal battery storage systems, with or without solar, for the same reasons. So far as I can tell, none of the available-in-Houston 325 plans from the 52 different retail electric providers offer hour-by-hour variable pricing like this, but in Austin or San Antonio, your traditional electric utility might be able to do it. Here’s a nice NPR article with useful details.

Conclusion 2: so long as consumers have net metering available and are not exposed to variable time-of-day electricity pricing, they won’t be incentivized to buy a battery storage system, with or without a solar system on the roof. There’s really no benefit for Houston consumers today to buy a storage system.

Teslarati runs a similar analysis in a state with variable pricing. In Southern California, the PowerWall becomes profitable in 3-5 years, and is unattractive for off-grid. Also, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, not to be confused with our NRG-owned Green Mountain Energy, is ramping up some kind of joint program with Tesla. Who knows, maybe we’ll see something like it here some day.

One parting thought: in the insane, fragmented universe of the deregulated Texas electricity market, where generation, distribution, and retail sales are performed by unrelated players, we’ll probably be stuck with pricing policies that incentivize consumers to waste energy for make benefit most glorious State of Texas. Of course, exposing consumers to the raw industrial electricity market would likely be disastrous. Consumers can’t easily manage their load or trade contracts against future use. The best we seem to get are “smart” thermostats that can throttle back at peak times. Yawn. What seems missing, then, is better regulations for how consumer pricing is structured to incentivize lower peak usage. My proposed solution? Net metering and predictable time-variable pricing should be a standard part of any retail electricity offering. Let me sell high and buy low! Similarly, every plan should be structured to eliminate perverse rate structures where marginal rates go down as usage goes up. That’s common sense. Deregulation!

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has written four of these analyses before.

Get out of solar’s way

Keep an eye on this.

“Hawaii is a postcard from the future,” said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a policy and advocacy group based in California.

Other states and countries, including California, Arizona, Japan and Germany, are struggling to adapt to the growing popularity of making electricity at home, which puts new pressures on old infrastructure like circuits and power lines and cuts into electric company revenue.

As a result, many utilities are trying desperately to stem the rise of solar, either by reducing incentives, adding steep fees or effectively pushing home solar companies out of the market. In response, those solar companies are fighting back through regulators, lawmakers and the courts.

The shift in the electric business is no less profound than those that upended the telecommunications and cable industries in recent decades. It is already remaking the relationship between power companies and the public while raising questions about how to pay for maintaining and operating the nation’s grid.

The issue is not merely academic, electrical engineers say.

In solar-rich areas of California and Arizona, as well as in Hawaii, all that solar-generated electricity flowing out of houses and into a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction has caused unanticipated voltage fluctuations that can overload circuits, burn lines and lead to brownouts or blackouts.

“Hawaii’s case is not isolated,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the smart grid program at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical association. “When we push year-on-year 30 to 40 percent growth in this market, with the number of installations doubling, quickly — every two years or so — there’s going to be problems.”

The economic threat also has electric companies on edge. Over all, demand for electricity is softening while home solar is rapidly spreading across the country. There are now about 600,000 installed systems, and the number is expected to reach 3.3 million by 2020, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Edison Electric Institute, the main utility trade group, has been warning its members of the economic perils of high levels of rooftop solar since at least 2012, and the companies are responding. In February, the Salt River Project, a large utility in Arizona, approved charges that could add about $50 to a typical monthly bill for new solar customers, while last year in Wisconsin, where rooftop solar is still relatively rare, regulators approved fees that would add $182 a year for the average solar customer.

This story doesn’t have a direct connection to Texas, but our state has a tremendous potential for solar, high electric bills in many cities, and a Legislature that isn’t all that friendly to renewable energy, but very much is friendly to the entrenched status quo. That’s a combination that makes this all worth keeping an eye on.

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.

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.

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to SmartMeterTexas.com). For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from PowerToChoose.org, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.

WallachPowerAnalysisChart2014

While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Google energy

Fascinating.

Google may not seem like an energy company, but it sure is acting like one.

Through more than $1 billion in investments and through large contracts for renewable power, Google has become the most significant player in the energy business outside of actual energy companies and financial institutions.

The Internet search giant’s efforts to transform the world’s use of power and fossil fuels have included a $200 million investment in a Texas wind farm and the purchase of a company that makes innovative flying wind turbines. It has invested $168 million in a solar project in California and is funding the development of an offshore grid to support wind turbines off the Atlantic coast.

In total, it has an ownership stake in more than 2 gigawatts of power generation capacity, the equivalent of Hoover Dam, said Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability.

Google even has a subsidiary, Google Energy, that’s authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sell wholesale electricity that it generates from its power assets.

Analysts say it is the only company other than energy businesses and financial institutions that has taken large ownership stakes in major stand-alone power projects.

Read the whole thing – try this FuelFix link if the houstonchronicle.com one is not available to you – it’s quite a story. It’s great to see an innovator and big investor like Google pushing renewable energy for business reasons as well as altruistic ones. I hope a lot of other companies follow their lead.

Dan Wallach: Energy pricing 2012

This is a guest post that follows up on an earlier guest post.

Dan Wallach

Last year, I wrote a guest article for Off The Kuff where I discussed the complexity of trying to get a good price on your electric bill. In Houston, we have seemingly hundreds of companies who will gladly take our money in return for electricity. Which should you choose? The place to begin remains PowerToChoose.com, but the market has changed a bunch from when I last took a look.

If you really dig around PowerToChoose, you’ll see all these companies you’ve never heard of, each of which has a piece of clip-art on its web page of a beautiful meadow with a shining sun, or maybe a happy family with perfect teeth. (Exercise for the reader running the Chrome browser: you can right-click on those pictures, and select “Search Google with this image”, and see how widespread those stock images are used. In one case, the smiling family I saw also appeared in web sites for a car dealership, a dentist, a youth ministry, a nutrition supplements company, and an alarm system company.)

Last year, it was common for these companies to offer low teaser rates for the first month that bubbled them up to the top of the list. You’d then pay the regular higher rate thereafter. This made it very difficult to do comparison shopping, since you had to dig deeper into the “electricity facts label” sheets to find out what the real prices were. It also created a huge incentive for you to switch companies every month.

At the time, I decided to switch to Pennywise Power, who was advertising a relatively low variable rate. I was entirely happy with them until this July, when their prices exploded. My bill for June was $197.99 for 1873 kWh ($0.105 per kWh, after taxes, fees, and such). My bill for July was $289.78 for 1662 kWh ($0.174 per kWh). It’s come back down again, but at least for two months, they were charging far above other companies’ advertised rates. (Note: the wholesale market for electricity went bonkers at the end of June, and some of that was clearly passed on to me.)

My conclusion last year was that Pennywise’s rates were low enough to be attractive, but I apparently failed to notice my own warning:

“Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

After seeing the shocking July bill, I figured it was time to jump into a fixed rate product, so back I went to PowerToChoose.com and slogged through the various options. These days, the low teaser rates from last year are all gone. Now, the advertised price seems to be the price you actually pay, but things are still a bit wonky. One of the tricks I observed with Pennywise is that their pricing, which included a $9.95 “base charge” if you use less than 1000 kWh, creates some perverse incentives if your electrical usage is just below that number per month. Wasting energy to get over the top might save you real money! This year, I resolved to find the best fixed price with zero “base” charge. That led me to Summer Energy, where I inked a one year lock-in at $0.093 per kWh. (If you sign up today, with the proper promotion code, it’s $0.085 per kWh.) My first bill showed up for the back half of July, and it included a $4.89 base charge! I had to threaten to abandon them if they didn’t fix it, and they eventually came around.

So, what have we learned here? First, when you’re doing business with faceless companies who advertise low rates, you might expect to have unexpected charges and unusual behaviors. (Summer Energy still hasn’t sorted out my request to set up automatic credit card payment.)

Second, this “deregulated” market could stand to have more regulation. If you read the electricity fact sheets that our vendors are required to publish, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity among them, and lots of fine print they leave out. If I were king for a day, all of these fixed “base rate” fees would be standardized, simplifying vendor competition to price per kilowatt-hour within equivalence classes of different percentages of “renewable” energy.

Finally, a word about the future. A buddy of mine in California got himself a fancy solar panel system on his house. He sells excess capacity back to the grid, but it’s much better than that. His electric utility company (for which he has no choice) has tiered rates. The more electricity he burns, the more he pays. But by selling power back, he stays out of the higher rate tiers. He also gets tax credits and other incentives that aren’t available in Houston; some other Texas utilities offer rebates, but Centerpoint has nothing in our area. In theory, with our shiny new smart meters, we could have some all kinds of sophisticated billing policies like variable day/night rates or solar systems that let you sell power back to the grid, but these aren’t happening yet. I suspect this is an unfortunate side effect of our multi-vendor deregulated market. (Reliant does have a plan that lets you sell power back, but the base electrical rate is uncompetitive.)

If you dig deeper into your electrical bill, you’re paying a big chunk of your bill to Centerpoint for “delivering” your electricity, no matter who you’re paying for your juice. That’s the place where we might eventually see some innovation. Centerpoint could charge variable time-of-day or tiered rates, they could buy back your electricity if you have solar, and so forth. One of these days, I might buy myself an electric car, and I’d be keen to have more sophisticated electrical pricing in place before then.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice University.

Laura Spanjian – From Industrial to Green Revolution: The New Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Laura Spanjian

Bike Share kiosks in downtown. Electric vehicle charging stations at the grocery store. Over 15 miles of new rail lines being constructed. Wind turbines and solar on rooftops. Solar-powered mini-offices at schools and parks. E-cycling and polystyrene foam recycling. Urban gardens surrounding office buildings. LEED-certified historic buildings. Complete Streets in urban neighborhoods. Accessible and recreation-oriented bayous.

What City is this you ask?

The New Houston.

Innovation, creativity and a black gold rush spirit dominated industrial Houston at the turn of the last century – putting Houston on the map as an economic leader.

Today, Houston is at an historic juncture. Decision-drivers for the city and the region are no longer only economic. There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution.

What are these building blocks? Recently, Forbes Magazine placed Houston as the number one city for young professionals. And young professionals drive innovation and use new thinking to solve old issues. Houston has a business-friendly environment and a plethora of large companies conducting business in new ways. Houston has high average incomes and a concentration of graduates from elite colleges from across the country. Also, for the first time in thirty years, the Kinder Houston Area Study revealed a significant increase in the number of residents who support mass transit and prefer a less automobile-dependent, more urbanized lifestyle. And Mayor Annise Parker’s forward-thinking and innovative approaches and initiatives are putting Houston on the map as a national green leader.

What’s most exciting about Houston is that few people think it will lead the green revolution. But this sleeping giant is starting to awaken. Houstonians love a good challenge and love to save money.

At the turn of the last century, rich resources made Houston a national economic leader. At the turn of this century, rich resources will do the same. Texas has, by far, the largest installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. The City of Houston capitalized on this and has been recognized by the EPA as the number one municipal purchaser of green power and the seventh largest overall purchaser in the nation.

The City has a robust partnership with the University of Houston’s College of Architecture’s Green Building Components Program. Their innovative faculty has designed the first movable solar powered office/generator, and the City, through a grant, has purchased 17 of these units for emergency preparedness and other uses. Houston also recently received two large grants to reduce the cost of solar for residents and test out new types of rooftop solar technology.

Houston Green Office Challenge

Houston does not only create cleaner ways to use energy, Houston actually uses less energy. The City knows about energy efficiency: over 80 City facilities are expected to achieve guaranteed energy use reductions of 30% with paybacks of, on average, less than ten years.

The City also wants energy efficiency to be part of the urban fabric of Houston. Through our Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), led by the General Services Department, the City has helped 13k Houston residents weatherize their homes, resulting in 12-20% kWh reduction and $60-125 savings each month. On the commercial side, the award-winning Houston Green Office Challenge and the City’s partnership in the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge are encouraging building owners and property managers to find innovative measures to reduce their energy and water consumption and decrease waste.

We also know that equally important to encouraging high performing buildings is looking at our codes. In January 2012, the City, with leadership from the Public Works and Engineering Department, set the bar high by adopting the Houston Residential Energy Code. This code makes Houston’s standards 5% above the state code for residential energy efficiency standards, and also requires all new residential buildings to be solar ready. And Houston is poised to adopt another 5% increase above state code this year.

It’s not just about energy efficiency. Houston also embraces green buildings. Currently Houston is number four in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings with 186 certified projects. That’s up from #7 just a year ago.

One of the most impressive pieces of the green revolution is the emphasis on public transportation and new transportation technologies. Under the leadership of METRO, Houston will soon have three new rail lines, adding over 15 miles to the system.

Houston is at the forefront of the electric car movement. Houston was one of the first cities to receive EV cars for a City fleet, which now includes 40 Nissan Leafs and plug-in hybrids. And with partners such as NRG launching the first private investment in public EV charging infrastructure, Houston is leading in electric vehicle readiness.

In addition to electric, CNG is offering cleaner, cheaper fuel for additional options: In a partnership with Apache, the Airport’s new parking shuttles at IAH are being powered by natural gas.

With the launch of Houston B-cycle, the City’s bike share program is now a reality with 3 stations and 18 bikes in downtown, with $1 million in committed funding to grow to 20 stations and 225 bikes by the fall of 2012. This grant-funded program offers a transportation alternative for citizens and will help address pollution issues, traffic congestion, and rising oil costs.

And the City, under the leadership of the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, recently won a $15 million highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 TIGER grant. This project will assist in eliminating gaps in Houston’s bike grid: the project includes building 7.5 miles of off-street shared-use paths, 2.8 miles of sidewalks, and 7.9 miles of on-street bikeways.

And the dream and vision behind the Bayou Greenway project is becoming more of a reality. This proposed linear park system is unrivaled in its breadth and scope.

Finally, sustainability must encompass urban agriculture. The City Gardens and Farmers Market Initiative supports urban gardens and markets: the City has planted numerous new vegetable gardens (some of which are highlighted in First Lady Michele Obama’s new book, American Grown) and, with its partner Urban Harvest, has encouraged the sale and purchase of local food by starting a weekly farmers market at City Hall, with over 40 vendors.

In addition, the Mayor’s Council on Health and the Environment created an obesity task force to look at the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The Healthy Houston initiative will review and implement sustainable food policies for Houston to create work, school, and neighborhood environments conducive to healthier eating and increased physical activity. And under the leadership of Councilmember Stephen Costello, Houston is working to minimize food deserts and increase food access.

These initiatives are helping to make Houston a growing, thriving, modern, green city of the future, a destination for visitors, a magnet for new residents and a city well positioned in the global market.

The New Houston is here, and it’s on a roll.

Laura Spanjian is the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston. Learn more at http://www.greenhoustontx.gov, http://www.facebook.com/greenhoustontx and http://www.twitter.com/greenhoustontx.

Desalinization and power plants

The Trib has another story about desalinization in Texas, and reading it brings up a point that I don’t think gets enough attention.

KBH Desalinization Facility

Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water. The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)

Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said.

But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso. (Odessa’s deadline for proposals is next week.)

Separately, a planned power plant near Odessa is studying prices for the technology. John Ragan, the head of Texas operations for NRG Energy, envisions natural gas power plants along the coast that desalinate water overnight when they are not needed for electricity. Residents near the half-full Highland Lakes in Central Texas say that desalination could reduce the water-supply burden on the lakes. Texas Tech University aims to begin wind-powered desalination research later this year, in the West Texas town of Seminole.

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water. Natural gas plants use a lot less than coal plants, though they still use a lot. Renewable energy – wind and solar – pretty much don’t need water at all. See this Texas Water Development Board report about power generation and water usage through the year 2060 for more. Desalinization needs to be part of the mix in Texas – we have more than enough brackish water to supply the entire state – but desalinization requires a lot of power, and power generation, at least as we do it today, requires a lot of water. Everybody understands that greenhouse gas and climate change implications of renewable energy versus coal and gas, but the water use implications are as important. The more we invest in renewable energy the better off we’ll be in more ways than we might think.

Solar’s bright future

Here’s a long story in the Observer about the state of solar energy in Texas. The piece covers a lot of ground, including this bit about what’s going on in San Antonio.

They will be building a lot of these

San Antonio has emerged as a city willing to turn talk into action and its abundant sunlight into energy to spark what Mayor Julian Castro—the one who the New York Times Magazine suggested could be America’s first Latino president—calls the “New Energy Economy.” In the era of Solyndra, San Antonio is making a bold, maybe risky bid at deploying solar energy on a scale that could edge the city away from fossil fuels, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gasses, water consumption and air pollution. Castro and the city’s massive utility, CPS Energy, are betting that climate change, depleting fossil fuels and increased drought stress will make early investments in renewable energy and clean technologies a huge payoff in the future.

In San Antonio, things have unfolded rapidly. In 2010, CPS Energy pledged to have 20 percent of its generating capacity, about 1,500 megawatts, come from renewables and 65 percent of its portfolio be low-carbon. The utility set a goal of 100 megawatts for solar. That same year, the 14-megawatt Blue Wing, San Antonio’s first utility-scale solar farm, went online. At the time, it was the largest photovoltaic array—a system that converts sunlight directly into electricity—in Texas and the third-largest in the nation. Then in October 2010, CPS contracted with SunEdison, a Maryland-based solar developer, to build and run three more 10-megawatt solar farms around the city. Almost as soon as that deal was in place, the utility rolled out a solicitation for another 50 megawatts, nearly bringing CPS to its 100 megawatt solar goal. But there was a big twist this time: The bidders would have to bring a manufacturing proposal to the table and put down roots in San Antonio. Clean energy alone wasn’t enough; San Antonio wanted to build a clean energy economy.

In June 2011, amid a record heat wave and drought, Castro and CPS head Doyle Beneby called together the business, environmental and political community for some big news. Five clean technology companies were opening offices or relocating to San Antonio, bringing about 230 jobs to the city as well as agreements to pump money and research into the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Sustainable Energy Research Institute.

“San Antonio has the opportunity to seize a mantle that no city in the U.S. holds today: to be the recognized leader in clean energy technology,” Castro said in announcing the relocations.

But what electrified the solar industry was when CPS Energy, in July, abruptly increased its solicitation for a 50-megawatt solar plant to 400 megawatts, enough to power 80,000 homes. The response to the 50-megawatt proposal was so positive and the offers so low that CPS simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do something really big. “The price was just rock-bottom on the delivered power,” said Lanny Sinkin.

By the time the bidding closed in July, the utility had received over 30 proposals. But after the deadline, with solar costs dropping practically overnight, new intriguing offers kept rolling in. Tantalized, the CPS board voted unanimously in October to reopen the bidding, this time with stricter requirements. Bidders had to provide a plan not just for building 400 megawatts of photovoltaic solar but also for bringing a manufacturing facility to San Antonio, along with at least 800 jobs and a capital investment of $100 million.

See here and here for more, and be sure to read the whole story in the Observer as well. The story briefly mentions rooftop solar panels and some of the ways that they can be financed, but there’s still one option on the table that no one seems to be using yet. Be that as it may, this story came out at the same time as an announcement from Houston about a federal grant to help make solar panel installs more affordable. Not a huge grant – less than $100K – but every little bit helps. More big thinking like they’re doing in San Antonio would help even more.

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.

San Antonio chooses its solar provider

Nice.

They will be building a lot of these

Under a bright winter sun Wednesday, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby introduced the companies selected to build one of the country’s largest solar projects and a solar manufacturing plant in San Antonio, an investment of more than $100 million.

OCI Solar Power, whose parent is a South Korean chemical company, will build the solar farms, using panels from a factory to be built here by Nexolon, another South Korean firm with close ties to OCI and a builder of solar cell components.

Both companies will open headquarters in San Antonio, part of their larger commitment to bring at least 800 jobs to town with a $38-$40 million payroll. Mayor Julián Castro said at a news conference that the average pay would be $47,000.

That does not include the temporary construction jobs that will be created to build the multiple solar farms, most of which will be in CPS Energy’s service territory. Together, they will generate 400 megawatts of zero-emission electricity — enough to power 80,000 homes.

See here for some background, and CPS’ homepage for more. As an earlier story notes, this is for a 25-year deal, and the price CPS will be charged for the energy generated will reportedly be on the order of 11 or 12 cents per megawatt. Not too shabby.

Apparently, this deal has some folks in Austin a little envious.

But as Austin Energy is set to begin public hearings tonight on its proposed rate increase, solar advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith said solar energy proponents will urge the Austin City Council to copy the San Antonio model.

“The race is on” to become a manufacturing hub, Smith said. “They are going to beat us, unless Austin takes action quickly.”

If the two cities get into a race like that, I daresay the residents of both will win. Too bad we can’t do that here in Houston, since we don’t own our utility like they do. But at least we’re free of the yoke of burdensome government regulations. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

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?

Why not put solar panels on school rooftops?

EoW asks a good question:

As the debate over the Texas GOP’s cuts to public education funding raged, and the summer sun started to heat up, it became apparent that at least one opportunity was being missed. That’s when a question arose, Why don’t we have solar panels on every school building in Texas?

With all the sunshine we get in Texas, especially in the summer, it would stand to reason that all of that sunshine could be harnessed and used to heat, cool, and light the many school buildings across Texas. Likely saving large school districts like Austin and Round Rock millions each year. An opportunity that wasn’t even discussed by the legislature.

He lays out the case for doing this, which you should read. I agree that would make an excellent long-term investment, the sort of thing where spending some money now would save a lot more over time. The capital costs are high enough, and the returns gradual enough, that you’d want to do something else in the short term while getting this done. Fortunately, there’s a pretty simple solution there, one that would get you a decent bang for your buck, and that’s painting the roofs white. Each district could hire a bunch of its high schoolers to do this for a fairly moderate cost. Of course, either of these ideas would require a Legislature that cared about solving problems and not simply slashing expenditures willy-nilly. Sadly, that’s not the kind of Legislature we had.

Solar bills advance

Bills relating to solar energy are moving forward through the Lege.

Texas is the top-producing state for wind-generated electricity just 12 years after a legislative deal jump-started the industry.

The Legislature is now debating whether Texas should provide a similar subsidy for other renewable energy sources that, according to proponents, would kick-start solar, geothermal and biomass as job-producing industries. The goals also would be to diversify the state’s renewable energy base and help the environment.

Austin lawmakers Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama , both Democrats, are carrying legislation to do just that. But some manufacturers and electric companies oppose the efforts as either too costly or anti-market.

One bill would encourage utilities statewide to purchase up to 1,500 megawatts of power from non-wind, renewable sources between now and 2021, about 2 percent of the state’s electricity usage.

A second bill would make it clear that state law already mandates 500 megawatts be purchased from renewable sources other than wind.

“We’ve proved we can do it with wind,” Watson said of the legislation. “Now we ought to be doing it in the area of solar.”

[…]

Bill Peacock with the Texas Public Policy Foundation , a conservative think tank, agreed that wind lowered electricity prices but he said that was only because wind receives federal tax credits.

It’s not like more traditional forms of energy don’t get tax breaks of their own. One could easily argue that giving a break to solar is just leveling the playing field a bit.

Anyway, Here’s SB330 HB774. In addition to those bills, measures to make it easier to put solar panels on your own home moved along as well.

The [Senate] Intergovernmental Relations committee voted on an amended bill that would allow HOAs to prohibit a panel if it sticks off the roof, looms above a fence or turns into an eyesore.

Chairman Royce West, D-Dallas, who sponsored the bill, said HOAs could still ban solar panels if they “caused unreasonable discomfort to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”

[…]

The bill was placed on the fast track to passage. It follows a handful of others, including ones that give homeowners greater voting rights in their associations and help ensure military families don’t lose their homes to HOA foreclosure.

The bill in question is SB 238 and its House companion is HB 362. A lot of similarly solar-themed legislation progressed through the Lege last session but died in the chubfest at the end. I don’t know what will happen with these bills, but I’m pretty sure that fate will not be repeated. The Texas Green Report has more.

Another story about solar energy in Texas

They keep writing them, I’ll keep blogging about them.

Dallas renewable energy investor Panda Power Funds is developing one of the country’s largest solar power plants in sunny New Jersey. Not Texas.

And Texas’ second-largest power generator, NRG Energy, is investing in the world’s largest solar thermal power plant in California. Not Texas.

Texas is No. 9 among states when it comes to the amount of sunlight that could be used to make electricity. But the state ranks 16th in the amount of solar electric generating capacity actually installed. New Jersey is No. 2; California is No. 1.

“It’s really a shame in Texas. We’ve got good sunlight. It’s really a shame that we don’t have a more aggressive solar program,” said Panda’s managing director of development, Ralph Killian.

Solar producers say Texas will fall behind economically without an aggressive push into solar energy. They blame state leaders for not providing the financial backing to attract the industry to Texas. And they hope a new legislative session beginning in January will create those incentives.

Critics say incentives are unnecessary and wasteful. They say Texans benefit from lower prices for electricity generated with other fuels.

Most of what’s in here is familiar stuff. I too hope that this Lege will do something to create incentives for more solar (and wind and other forms of renewable) energy, but I don’t actually believe it will happen. One thing in the story I did not know:

NRG negotiated with the city of Houston to build a solar plant and sell the power to the city. Talks unraveled over a law banning the city from committing to a multiple-year contract.

“That’s how the city has to do business,” said Houston spokeswoman Janice Evans. “There’s no way within the city’s annual funding that you can do a 25-year contract.”

But NRG couldn’t risk having the contract dropped one year, without enough revenue to pay for the equipment.

I’d blogged about this before, but the last word I had was that the talks had hit a snag, not that they’d completely fallen apart. Bummer. I totally understand the city’s position on this, but it sure seems like there ought to be a way around that. Maybe one way the Lege could act would be to provide some kind of insurance for clean energy developers that want to engage in this kind of long term deal with cities. I’m just thinking out loud here, I don’t know what that might look like, and besides it’s surely a non-starter in this slash and burn session to come. I’m just saying that there ought to be a way for cities to do this sort of thing, and that if there is it will need to come from a higher level of government, such as the state.

San Antonio solar farm

There’s more solar energy available in Texas now than before.

[Texas’] first solar farm, an array of 215,000 photovoltaic panels that capture sun rays and turn them into power, went on line Thursday in San Antonio. Statewide, at least six more projects are in earlier stages of development.

“We have some of the best solar radiation in the country,” said a hopeful Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, “just a ton of sun.”

Until the big plants are up and adding electricity to the consumer grid, however, that power remains primarily potential. Tapping it will be controversial as long as solar is expensive relative to energy from other sources, overwhelmingly coal and natural gas.

And even if all the projects now on the books get built, they would create a mere sliver of the electricity Texans consume every year.
Yet proponents insist solar power has a bright future here, with economic as well as environmental benefits.

Electricity generated by solar-photovoltaic technology today costs five times as much to produce as coal-fired energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Natural gas is an even cheaper source.

Solar is expensive even compared with other renewable sources, especially wind, which is narrowing the price gap with fossil fuels. And the Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2016, photovoltaic power on average will remain more than twice as expensive as wind-generated and more than three times as expensive as coal-fired.

Yet state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, contends that renewable energy, particularly solar, “is where the market is headed,” and Texas would be wise to support the fledgling industry. He sponsored legislation in 2009 that would have provided rebates for individuals adding solar panels to their homes and for companies building utility-scale solar plants.

First, 2016 is just five years out, so there’s no reason to believe that solar won’t continue to get cheaper in the long run. Technology doesn’t necessarily advance linearly, either. It also may be the case that it’s just going to cost more to generate power down the line. If we were properly pricing the externalities of coal and other greenhouse gas sources, we’d already be thinking of it in more expensive terms. So the sooner we start working on and improving cleaner sources of energy like solar, the better off we’ll be.

Marfa solar fight gets deferred

They will not be building that big solar farm out in Marfa at this time.

Citing a lack of investors, Houston-based Tessera Solar has scotched plans to erect at least 1,000 three-story mirrored satellite dishes — designed to convert the blisteringly bright desert sun into electricity — until further notice. The solar project had created a chasm in the community, dividing those who embraced the potential for new jobs and tax revenue and those who worried the silvery sun catchers would blight the barren desert landscape.

The construction was part of Tessera’s contract, now defunct, to provide solar power to CPS Energy, which supplies gas and electricity for San Antonio. “There’s no expected construction or completion date until these financial markets strengthen,” says Janette Coates, a Tessera spokeswoman. But she adds the company hasn’t given up on the project altogether. “We still plan on developing it and pursuing it,” she says.

And opponents of the project still plan on opposing it. “We’re not going to rest on our laurels,” says Melinda Beeman, an artist whose home is about a half-mile from the proposed site. Beeman, who moved to this desert spot for its tranquil beauty more than a decade ago, led the locals’ revolt against Tessera.

As I said before, I don’t know enough about this specific project to know who I’d want to root for. In general, I hope to see more of these solar farms get built, but I also want to see a better system for figuring out where they really belong, and for enabling those who would be directly affected by them to have a voice in the process.

The quest for a better solar cell

Maybe this will be a big step forward.

A research team led by [UT chemistry professor Xiaoyang] Zhu, who refers to his Center for Materials Chemistry as the XYZ Lab, has shown that it’s possible to convert much more of the sun’s energy to electricity than conventional solar cells are able to generate. The conventional cells, which are made of silicon, turn no more than about 20 percent of the energy into juice, and their maximum theoretical efficiency is only 31 percent because of technical limitations.

By using a compound called lead selenide in the form of quantum dots, also called semiconductor nanocrystals, and by routing electrons stirred up by the sunlight from the lead selenide to another compound called titanium dioxide, the researchers showed that it’s theoretically possible to harvest 66 percent of the energy.

To put it another way, the XYZ group has figured out some of the ABCs of a better solar cell. Any commercial application is years in the future because considerably more scientific and engineering work needs to be done.

The team’s findings, published recently in the scholarly journal Science, are part of a growing body of research aimed at improving the efficiency — and reducing the cost — of solar cells. The goal is to make solar energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels that contribute to global warming and to dependence on supplies in politically volatile parts of the world.

“I’m hoping by the time I retire, we have solar cells like this on the roof,” said Zhu, 46. “That would be my dream.”

And quite a nice dream that is, too. I’m not scientifically literate enough to understand all the details of this, but the basic idea of getting more bang from solar cells by reducing the amount of energy lost to heat is simple enough. I’m sure there will be more breakthroughs like this as additional research is done, and I’m sure we’ll need all of them to push forward a more widespread adoption of solar power. Best of all, this particular finding was pretty cheap:

Zhu, who received $490,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project, recently received an additional $630,000 to continue the research.

For a bit more than a million bucks we got a potentially revolutionary discovery. Whatever happens from here, that’s a pretty good return on the investment. Imagine what we could accomplish if we were serious about investing in our own future instead of playing stupid budget tricks appease the deficit peacocks. Yes, I’m a bit grumpy about this.

Pflugerville solar farm

This sounds promising.

A startup solar energy company with corporate backing from India has won tax breaks from the City of Pflugerville and is near a similar agreement with the Elgin school district to build a 60-megawatt solar plant.

The plant would be large enough to provide electricity to all the homes in Pflugerville and, if it were built today, would be the largest in the United States.

RRE Austin Solar could break ground by the end of the summer on the $230 million plant on 600 or so acres of rural land about a dozen miles east of Pflugerville.

[…]

The two Indian companies want to do strictly solar farms in the United States, [Angelos Angelou, an Austin-based consultant on the project] said, with a goal of installing enough solar farms across the country in coming years to generate 600 megawatts at any given time, assuming favorable weather conditions.

Nationwide, the installed solar photovoltaic capacity in the United States is roughly 90 megawatts, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

There’s a tax break that the startup is seeking from Travis County before it begins construction, which I figure it will probably get. What interested me in this story is that no one was quoted opposing the project. I hope it doesn’t have the same problems that the Marfa solar farm has.

The Marfa solar fight

A company wants to build a solar power plant in Marfa, and some residents there don’t like it.

In what she describes as an all-encompassing obsession, [Malinda] Beeman is fighting to preserve that lifestyle, which she and hundreds of other artists have discovered in the West Texas town of Marfa, by waging war with a company that has plans to erect at least 1,000 three-story mirrored satellite dishes — designed to harness the energy of the blisteringly bright desert sun and turn it into electrical power.

Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan and others in this tiny outpost find the opposition from the solar-fighters puzzling. Over the past two decades, creative spirits like Beeman have effectively transformed Marfa from a boarded-up dot on the map into a mecca for writers, painters and sculptors inspired by the desolate landscape. Most of the newcomers are the type you might expect to champion an investment in clean, alternative energy. “It’s astounding to me, because most of the people involved [in the opposition] are pro green power,” Agan says.

Tessera Solar, a London-based company with American headquarters in Houston, plans to install the solar power generation site — the first of its kind in Texas — on about 200 acres of land two miles east of Marfa. Power generated there will help keep the lights on and the air conditioning running some 400 miles east in San Antonio. The company plans to break ground on the project later this year. In its first phase, Tessera plans to install 1,080 of the huge mirrored discs — called SunCatchers — that will generate about 27 megawatts of power. CPS Energy, which supplies gas and electricity for San Antonio, will buy the energy from Tessera. Raul Cardenas, manager of renewable energy programs at CPS, says the initial phase will generate enough power for an average of about 4,000 homes. The project could eventually expand to include twice as many SunCatchers and take up some 600 acres, though Tessera says it’s unlikely the project would grow that large.

[…]

Agan and other longtime locals support the solar initiative; they support most anything that will bring jobs and tax revenue to an area that has long languished economically. But some residents of Antelope Hills — the rural neighborhood next door to the Tessera site — don’t view the project so positively. “The placement of this right here essentially is killing the subdivision,” Beeman says as she drives up to a freshly painted green gate that marks the private property where the solar plant will be erected. “People were going to build their little houses, they were going to add to the tax base, but now they see their property being worthless. It’s a horrible shock.”

There’s not enough information in the story for me to judge who’s “right”. Frankly, both sides may have valid points, and in the end it’ll be a simple matter of who has more juice. The one thing I do know is that if we’re going to get serious about green energy – and we clearly need to get serious about it – we’re going to see a lot more stories like this for the simple reason that as more wind and solar farms get built, more of them will be built near people who don’t want them as their neighbors. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting this in their back yard, and for all I know there is a better location for this one particular plant. But it’s not about this one plant. We did a lousy job as a society of giving people a say in where old-school, big-pollution power plants were located. We should do a better job of that with the next generation of such plants, without losing sight of the fact that we need to make it as reasonably easy as we can to get them built so we can usher out the old generation. Good luck with that.

More renewable energy coming?

If the PUC says so.

The Public Utility Commission is mulling a shot in the arm to the renewables industry, as it is to energy efficiency. Sometime after a March 31 public workshop, the commission is expected to put forward a formal proposal that could require the state to develop 500 megawatts of non-wind renewables by the end of 2014. That equates to barely 5 percent of the amount of wind capacity already on the Texas grid but represents a leap for technologies that are almost invisible in the state today. “It’s a big number,” says Michael Webber, the associate director at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas. There is less than seven megawatts of solar power in Texas right now, Webber notes.

Efforts to go big have so far fallen short. The Legislature tried to pass its own version of renewables assistance last session, and advocates got so optimistic about the dozens of bills promoting solar power that they dubbed it the “solar session.” Yet just about everything failed to pass. This not only disappointed solar installers but dashed hopes of attracting a run of solar panel factories to the state. “We’re much more likely to build a manufacturing industry for solar if we have a market for solar here,” Webber says.

The regulatory push for new renewables would use essentially the same type of incentives that have propelled wind power. Wind surged beginning in 1999, thanks to the clunkily named “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” which required Texas to get 2,000 new megawatts of electricity from renewables by 2009. Once Texas utilities and wind generators got the idea, they quickly surpassed the requirement, and the Legislature came back with a stronger goal in 2005: 5,880 megawatts by 2015. That, too, has long since been exceeded: Texas has more than 9,000 megawatts of wind already installed.

The PUC has already put forward a “strawman” proposal for promoting non-wind alternative power that would require 50 megawatts (one-tenth of the 2014 amount) to come from solar power. The “strawman” designation means that it is not yet a formal proposal but rather a placeholder that can draw early comments.

The solar option seems to have support on the PUC. “We’re going to try to do some more on sun,” Barry Smitherman, the chair of the commission, told an audience at a Renewable Energy World conference in Austin last month.

More here. The solar initiatives failed when voter ID derailed everything at the end of the session. The bills had passed in the Senate but never came to a vote in the House as the chubfest ran out the clock to kill voter ID. One hopes that these bills will get another shot in 2011, but with redistricting and the budget mess on the agenda, it’s hard to see how anything else can get enough oxygen. I hope so, but I wouldn’t count on it. This will have to do until then. More from the Statesman and from Forrest Wilder on a related matter.

Taking another step for solar power

Texas missed out in the last legislative session on a chance to take a big step forward with solar energy, but there are still some things that can be done to keep moving in that direction.

Texas already leads the nation in producing wind power, and given its sunny climate, scientists say it has the capacity to dominate solar, too.

To help make that happen, solar advocates are urging the Texas Public Utility Commission to set solar usage requirements for electric retailers.

“We actually are a perfect environment, economically and thermodynamically, as a raw resource for solar, but it hasn’t taken off,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.

“However, I think it’s about to,” said Webber, who is also associate director of UT’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.

The PUC, an agency run by three gubernatorial appointees, is considering a plan to give solar power the same kind of boost that the state gave to wind power in 1999.

The Legislature first told the PUC to boost solar power and other nonwind renewable energy sources in 2005, and the agency is now taking steps to implement those instructions.

[…]

Although Texas leads the nation by far in the potential for solar power, it trails many smaller states such as New Jersey in putting solar power in service. “New Jersey?” Webber asked in mock disbelief. “A small, cloudy state outdoes Texas?”

Texas has done well in getting wind energy going, and its renewable energy standards are at the forefront nationwide. But it does seem strange that we haven’t done more to develop solar energy. Encouraging the utilities to do more is fine, though it will be limited by the lack of a robust transmission network in the same way wind energy has been, but there are other approaches, too. Making it easier for individual homeowners to install solar panels could also accomplish a lot. That was one of the things that the major piece of solar energy-related legislation was supposed to do, but it died in the end. Unfortunately, I fear that the budget situation is going to make a similar bill impossible to pass in 2011, but I hope someone tries anyway. The longer we wait, the farther behind we fall.

Seeing gold in green

Denying climate change and the adverse effects of carbon dioxide may be official policy of our Republican leaders, but word has apparently not filtered down to the business entrepreneurs whose capitalistic opportunism those Republicans usually lionize.

“Energy is the biggest opportunity Silicon Valley has ever seen,” declared T.J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor and chairman of SunPower, a leading maker of photovoltaic panels to produce solar energy.

How big? Consider that the sum of America’s yearly utility bills, one component of the nation’s overall energy costs, exceeds $1 trillion — or nearly triple the annual global revenues of the semiconductor industry. The solar and wind energy markets, which totaled about $80 billion in 2008, are projected to nearly triple in size in 10 years, employing 2.6 million people worldwide, according to Clean Edge, a cleantech research group.

Leading venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers muses that Silicon Valley may someday be called Solar Valley, given that dozens of solar companies that have sprung up here in recent years.

But solar represents just one aspect of the cleantech revolution. Around the valley, some former e-commerce and software mavens are now busy trying to electrify the automobile industry while other techies are developing energy-efficient glass, drywall and cement. Still others are introducing cutting-edge information technology to the 20th-century electricity grid, working on biofuels and fuel cells, and pioneering new methods to recycle waste, protect air and water quality and enhance agriculture and aquaculture.

The payoff: progress toward a “low-carbon economy,” thousands of new jobs in the valley — and perhaps a new set of corporate titans.

I sure hope their optimism is well placed, because at this point they may be the only hope we’ve got for any real action on climate change.

Solar power for Houston hits a snag

Back in September, I noted a deal that the City of Houston was working on with a firm called NRG to build a solar plant that would supply some of the city’s power needs. This deal has apparently hit a snag because it is a 25-year deal.

The city generally doesn’t commit future taxpayer funds without some sort of oversight and approval, however, said spokesman Frank Michel. Future elected leaders don’t necessarily like being forced to pay for past administration’s decision should they go bad, so the city usually has a clause in long-term agreements that says they have to be reapproved on a year-by-year basis.

Michel said he doesn’t believe state law prohibits the city from making long-term commitments, “But it’s a precedent the mayor does not want to set.”

But NRG isn’t so comfortable with that uncertainty.

“NRG is unable to finance this project without the certainty of future payments under a power purchase agreement,” said NRG spokesman David Knox in an e-mail. In other words (not Knox’s) no company wants to build a $40 million project with just a single-year’s payment guaranteed.

Both sides say they want to do the project with each other, but this disagreement appears to be pretty fundamental to both sides.

Bummer. I hope they can work it out, but we’ll see.

Solar power for Houston

The city of Houston will go solar for some of its energy needs.

Under a 25-year proposed agreement being announced today, the city of Houston will buy power for its buildings from the plant, which will be the largest solar plant in Texas when it’s completed in July. Its 10-megawatt capacity — which will be online only during daylight hours — will provide up to 1.5 percent of the city government’s power needs.

NRG, which won the contract to build the plant through a bidding process, will front the $40 million to build the plant on 70 acres of land at the site of the existing T.H. Wharton power plant near Texas 249 and North Beltway 8. The plant will use thin-film photovoltaic solar panels manufactured by First Solar Inc.

The city will pay 8.2 cents per kilowatt hour for the first year of the contract, but that can change over time and will be based on a combination of factors. For example, the contract prices solar power at 19.8 cents per kilowatt hour, but what the city pays will incorporate lower-price natural gas power when the sun isn’t shining.

[…]

CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned utility, signed a deal this summer for a 14 MW solar plant to be finished by the end of next year.

Austin Energy signed a deal with a solar power plant developer this month to build a 30 megawatt plant. That facility should be up by December 2010 , a spokesman said.

And Southern California Edison is planning two large solar projects with a combined 550 MW outside of Los Angeles for startup in 2015.

But the projects are not without controversy. Solar-generated power costs more than other kinds despite the free fuel source. In Austin some businesses and residents expressed concern over estimates that getting more power from renewables, including wind and solar, could increase bills by 22 percent by 2020.

I love me some green energy, but if cost is an issue it’s going to be a political negative for these initiatives. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too hard to overcome as the technology improves and becomes more widespread, and Andrew Burleson has some ideas on how to make the best use of solar power:

As solar technology improves, however, building-integrated solar installations will make more and more sense in the Southwest, because they can provide a big additional spike of energy right when our energy demand is spiking – when it gets really hot in the summer. These systems are much cheaper if their purpose is only to absorb the afternoon demand spike – no batteries are needed for that.

Right now the biggest thing holding back solar tech is the cost of the cells. As that cost goes down it will quickly become practical for businesses to amortize the capital cost of the solar cells in the construction of their buildings, and then be protected from the huge energy bills we all pay in the summer months.

This is the great thing about distributed solar. If we use it right it provides extra boosts of power when they’re needed most. This means we can run a more fuel efficient central plant with less total capacity required. The reduction in energy demand spikes would also help stabilize fuel prices, which benefits everyone. That, to me, is the most concrete long-term justification for solar investment. The sooner we can truly stabilize our energy supply, the better of we’ll all be.

Recall also that the city of Houston can make it easier for people to install solar cells in their homes. Matt Yglesias also notes that Germany, not exactly someplace one associates with sunshine, is a leading user of solar energy. We can do more, and over time we will need to do more. No time like now to get started.

Brown’s energy plan

Completing our trifecta of Mayoral policy examinations, we come now to Peter Brown’s energy plan. As with other policy matters, Brown goes into more detail than the others – David Ortez recently wrote that Brown is “winning the policy campaign”, and I think that’s a fair assessment. I’m just going to comment on a couple of points in Brown’s plan, which you should read in full for yourself.

MAKE THEM DELIVER

When Houston residents pay for something, it better be delivered. As Mayor, Peter Brown will stand up to local utility companies, demanding that they adhere to existing contractual obligations under the terms of their current franchise. Utility companies should be responsible for demonstrating compliance with the maintenance, grid-hardening, and energy-efficient investments they’re supposed to be making. No more double billing, no more corporate bailouts. Peter Brown will make sure we get what we pay for, and don’t have to pay for it twice.

One thing I find myself asking over and over again as I look over various policy statements from candidates is “How much of this is something they can do themselves, and how much would require coordination with or the cooperation of some other governmental entity?” I’m really not sure how to answer this question here, though my impression is that this is more of a state issue than a municipal one. And as always with these policy papers, it’s about the what they want to do and not the how they plan to do it, so there’s no help there. I feel confident that this is something that can be made an issue and a prioirity by Houston’s Mayor, and there probably are some things that could be accomplished by fiat or city ordinance, but more than that I couldn’t say.

Still, even if everything Brown proposes here requires the Lege or a state regulatory agency to accomplish, a Mayor Brown can still bring attention to these issues, and can pledge to work with or put pressure on whoever can get them done. Which suggests to me that how effective a Mayor may be in getting other elected officials or agencies to do things he or she wants to do is something that perhaps ought to be given more priority in how we decide who to elect. Perhaps the endorsements that a Mayoral candidate gets from other elected officials is a possible indicator of this, and should be given some weight as a means to guide one’s voting decision. Just a thought.

A BETTER DEAL FOR HOUSTON

As it is, we pay too much. Electricity in Austin and San Antonio is nearly half the price of ours. The City should use its leverage and drive a harder bargain, protecting Houston consumers and getting them a better deal. And we should explore creative ways to lower monthly electric bills, like an opt-in program that would allow residents – especially seniors and those on low or fixed incomes – to buy their electricity from the City and enjoy the discounted bulk rates the City already receives.

The question of why Houston’s electric rates are higher than those of Austin and San Antonio deserves more exploration. For that, I refer you to this 2006 Observer story about electrical deregulation in Texas:

What makes the Texas experiment with deregulation especially interesting is that a “control group” has survived—the municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives. Nobody disputes that higher electric rates are partly due to the near-tripling in cost of natural gas, the fuel for 46 percent of Texas power generation. But the rates of still-regulated city-owned utilities and electric cooperatives, which also use natural gas power plants, are substantially cheaper almost across the board. A ratepayer in Austin—who must buy power from the city-owned Austin Energy—spends a little less than $95 each month for 1,000 kwh of electricity. In San Antonio, it’s about $72. Austin and San Antonio have the advantage of owning their own power plants, but the statewide average bill for customers served by municipally owned utilities is a little over $100 and is $97 for cooperatives, according to the PUC.

The cheapest service plan—one negotiated by the City of Houston—in the entire deregulated market is about 35 percent more expensive. What accounts for this difference? “[T]he energy being sold in the deregulated service areas didn’t cost any more to produce than in the regulated areas,” says Biedrzycki of Texas ROSE. “The difference is in the way the pricing is established.” In the deregulated market, economists and industry experts say, expensive natural gas-fueled plants generally act on the “margin” to set the wholesale price that retail power companies must pay for all power generation. Even though it’s currently much less expensive to create electricity from coal and nuclear generators, costly natural gas plants control the market price.

“[O]wners of nuclear and coal plants have no incentive to charge anything less than the gas-based market price [to retailers],” as the Association of Electric Companies of Texas explained in a presentation to lawmakers recently.

Again, one wonders what the Mayor can do on his or her own about this, and what would require legislative intervention. Regardless, one presumes that Brown or any of the other candidates would prefer not to rely on coal-fired plants to get a better deal for Houston consumers. Brown does talk about making a bigger investment in renewable energy in his plan. I hope we’ll see something like this as part of it.

EMPOWER HOUSTON TO HELP

Peter Brown will use the latest technologies to allow residents to instantly alert the City of poorly maintained infrastructure – including downed lines and poor maintenance – to keep our grid working and electricity flowing. Streamlined notification processes using smartphone applications enable quick and easy reporting to city departments, allowing residents to quickly collect and share photographic evidence of disrepair or neglect. We can also connect with residents via their existing social networks like Facebook and Twitter to enhance communication between residents and City departments.

I highlight this to show Brown’s commitment to better service through smartphones. Of which I definitely approve.

Overall, I like Brown’s ideas, and think that more attention should be paid to stuff like this. For all the talk we always get about “finding efficiencies” in government, this is exactly the sort of place that we should be looking for them. Of course, some of these things require an up-front investment, which may not pay off within the six years of a Mayor’s term in office. That doesn’t mean they’re not wise or necessary, but it does tend to warp the political dynamic of implementing them.

That wraps up this week’s look at Mayoral policy positions. I’m sure we’ll get more of these as we pass the tradiational Labor Day start of the campaign season. I’ll do my best to do more of these analyses as we do get them. Let me know what you think.

A new way to bring solar power to the people

This is very cool.

One of the major obstacles preventing many homeowners from installing solar panels on their roofs is, well, it’s expensive. At least in the short term. True, the panels may pay for themselves over the course of several years, especially if they reduce the amount of electricity you need to buy from the utility (or, much rarer, if you can sell excess power back to the grid). But the upfront costs can be formidable for many people.

Two years ago, however, the city of Berkeley figured out an easy financing trick to get around this problem—the city itself just issues a bond to pay for the upfront costs of installing the panels, and the homeowner then repays the government over the course of 20 years via a small line item on the property-tax bill. (This way, if the home is sold, the costs of the panels get passed on to the new owner getting the benefits.)

It’s a small policy tweak, but quite sensible. No mandates, no regulations, just offering homeowners an extra option if they choose. So it’s not surprising to hear that, as Kate Galbraith reports today, the idea’s been proliferating like crazy: This year alone, eight states have followed California’s lead by giving their municipalities permission for this sort of financing, including Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin. (Apparently, a lot of cities need permission from the states before they can mess with property-tax bills.)

Yes, Texas – HB1937, which passed the House by an 87-51 margin and the Senate 30-1. The text of the bill indicates that the state has given municipalities the authority to do this, the technical details of which are summarized here.

“Property tax financing” allows property owners to borrow money to pay for energy improvements. The amount borrowed is repaid through an increased property tax assessment over a period of years. Texas enacted legislation in May 2009 that authorizes municipalities to offer property tax financing for energy improvements. Contact your city or town to find out if financing is available for renewable energy and/or energy efficiency through special property tax assessments.

To participate, a municipality must develop a plan that includes the boundaries of the financing district, arrangements for financing the program, and the time and place for a public hearing regarding the proposed program. Municipal programs must specify the following:

  • Eligible renewable-energy systems and energy-efficient technologies;
  • A method for ranking requests from property owners for financing through contractual assessments if requests exceed the authorization amount;
  • Specification of whether the property owner may purchase the equipment directly or contract for the installation;
  • The maximum aggregate dollar amount of contractual assessments;
  • A map of the boundaries within which contractual assessments will be offered;
  • A draft contract specifying the terms to be agreed upon by the municipality and a property owner;
  • A method for ensuring that property owners who request financing have the financial ability to fulfill financial obligations; and
  • A plan for raising the capital required to pay for work performed, which could include amounts to be advanced by the municipality, the sale of bonds, any reserve funds, and the costs incidental to financing, administration, and collection of the contractual assessment program.

An assessment imposed, interest or penalties on the assessment constitute a lien against the lot until the assessment, interest or penalty is paid.

The law doesn’t take effect till September, and it’s not at all clear to me how one would go about pursuing this. I’m not even sure who in, say, the city of Houston one would contact to inquire about it. I may ask around and see what I can learn. In the meantime, if you have any knowledge of how this would work, please leave a comment. Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.

Solar on the special agenda?

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said Tuesday that he’s put in a request for several measures, including a bill to improve accountability at member-owned utilities, to be part of an upcoming special legislative session.

Fraser said he understands the governor’s office is hoping for a quick “get-in, get-out” special session of about three days to push through sunset bills to keep several key state agencies operating.

But the special session could go beyond that plan.

[…]

[M]embers are submitting requests in the case the call is expanded, especially in light of the chubbing at the end of the session that killed several measures.

Among those, the co-op bill and a solar energy initiative bill could be on the list, he said.

“Yes, I have made the request,” Fraser said Tuesday.

On the one hand, I’d love to see these measures, which had passed without major opposition – SB545, the solar bill, passed the Senate on a 25-5 vote, and was passed out of the House committee on a 7-1 vote – get another chance. As Citizen Sarah notes, this may be our last chance to keep Texas from losing out on big opportunities in the solar market to other states. On the other hand, the farther away we get from the original, announced concept of a “get in, get out” session, the more likely that crap like voter ID will be resurrected. I don’t know how to evaluate that possibility right now, but I’m wary of it.