Austin Energy is the nation’s 9th largest community-owned public utility, serving a 440-acre that includes the Texas state capitol. This utility is known for its involvement in the Pecan Street Project, a smart grid demonstration community in Austin, as well as its extensive energy efficiency program portfolio. In fact, Austin Energy is home to the nation’s first green building program, which was founded in 1990.
Through its energy efficiency programs, this utility has avoided building the equivalent of an 800 MW power plant since 1990. Their next goal is to do this again – in half the time – avoiding another equivalent 800 MW power plant over the next decade. These savings have been realized, in part, through their green building program but also through appliance and demand response (load shifting and reduction) activities. They have attacked low-hanging fruit like inefficient refrigerators through a you call – we haul program that will pick up your old refrigerator, and pay you $50 for it. Rebate programs for insulating your attic, replacing your hot water heater or dryer, and putting in energy-efficient windows are standards with Austin Energy. And, one MW at a time, these small projects have added up to big savings for the city and its residents.
Federal greenhouse gas regulations might have died this year in the Senate, but not in Washington. It appears that the Obama administration is going ahead with new greenhouse gas emissions limits via the Clean Air Act and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under this federal clean air standard, the EPA has the ability to require pollution controls at both new and existing facilities – in this case, power plants and refineries. The President and his advisors previously laid out the Clean Air Act as a potential backstop to failure on the hill – and it looks like they weren’t bluffing.
A bold move – especially in the face of a shifting House of Representatives (Republicans will take control of the House in less than 30 days, with a new majority). The Obama administration is already preparing for a battle…
But, in the meantime, EPA has said that they will finalize rules for power plants by May 26, 2012 and for refineries by November 10, 2012.
“What in the world is pet coke?”
I was recently asked this question by a Corpus Christi resident who wanted to know my opinion on the Las Brisas Energy Center project in their hometown. This facility, a 1,320 MW power plant located in Corpus’s Inner Harbor, is designed to burn pet coke to generate electricity for the area. Technically classified as a coal plant (it uses the same technology), this facility has local residents up-in-arms as they try to decipher complex reports from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that apparently ignore the fact most folks in the area don’t know what pet coke is…
Petroleum Coke (often called “pet coke”) is essentially a solid waste stream created at oil refineries that can be burned in power plants to generate electricity. This waste stream is produced when heavy crude oil is broken down under high temperature and pressure to create gasoline (and a few other things). It has been previously used in steel and aluminum manufacturing, but can also be used to generate electricity.
When burned, pet coke has very similar environmental impacts to coal-burning power plants. Both emit about the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and have similar effects on local air quality. Both require more than 400 gallons of water per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated (the average Austin home uses 1.2 MWh per month).
In recent years, the U.S. Nuclear fleet has not grown, but the amount of electricity that it provides has. Today, plant operators are looking to get even more power out of our reactors, using new technologies that might increase the maximum power level that nuclear power plants can achieve. By “uprating” the country’s nuclear power plants, we might be able to get more from our fleet, without new construction.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the amount of electricity (kWh’s) has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with a more than 6% increase in the last decade. On average, U.S. nuclear plants run with a 90% capacity factor – meaning that they run 90% (almost 329 days) of the year. In 1980, this value was 55% (201 days per year). While it is unlikely that we will increase our capacity factors much higher than their current 90% level (the plants need maintenance downtime), there is an opportunity in increasing the amount of electricity that they can generate when they are running.
“Uprates” refer to increasing the maximum power (kilowatts – kW) that a plant can achieve. By increasing this maximum, plants can generate more electricity in the same amount of time. In other words, we can get more electricity without building new nuclear power plants.
This increase in power comes with a bonus – in many situations, license renewals for these nuclear power plants require that technology be upgraded. This requirement can make uprating a plant affordable, with relatively little extra incremental cost. According to Excelon Nuclear, this incremental cost is about half of the amount needed to build a new equivalent facility.
From May 2008 to May 2010, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved nine plant uprate applications. It expects to receive 39 more applications over the next five years, as nuclear power plants file to renew their operating licenses.
For information on the technologies used to uprate nuclear power plants, see this article, which discusses optimization and efficiency improvements that are possible with currently available technology.
“I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science also means you cannot choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.”
~Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” xi
David Wogan (friend and author of The Daily Wogan) and I co-authored a post for Scientific American’s Guest Blog. The article, published this morning, discusses Waste-to-Energy technology and the dirty image that might be keeping this technology from taking-off in the United States.
Check out the post here - and, if you have a moment, please share your thoughts and comments.
When the Department of Energy headquarters building in DC needed a new roof, they decided to make it a cooler one – using lighter-colored roofing materials and special coatings to reflect more of the sun’s heat. Combined with improved insulation in the building, this new roof will save tax-payers $2,000 each year for no additional money out-of-pocket (the roof needed to be replaced).
According to a press release from the Department of Energy, this demonstration project was “installed as part of the federal government’s commitment to lead by example in increasing energy efficiency, reducing carbon pollution and demonstrating the benefits of clean energy technologies.”
Today, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced the completion of the new roof – releasing a YouTube video that shows the new roof installation and discusses some of the benefits of installing a cool roof.
The following was a post published last Tuesday (12/7) by Mr. David M. Wogan on his blog The Daily Wogan. The post includes commentary on activity in the Texas Legislature on the topic of clean energy.
Published the day before the CleanTX Legislative Minisummit at the Texas capitol building, it is an interesting commentary for those interested in Texas politics and the state’s drive toward the development of clean, renewable, 21st century energy.
Last week Melissa Lott wrote a blog post at Scientific American about how Texas is transitioning beyond being the petroleum capital of the United States. These sentiments are echoed in the Texas Legislature including Kirk Watson, D-Austin:
“You know, stop right there for a second. Because the mere fact that there’s a conference about clean, renewable, 21st Century energy out near the edge of the Permian Basin should tell you a lot about where the world’s headed.
For a century, the energy industry has been defined by oil and other fossil fuels that have meant so much to the West Texas economy – and really, to all of the state.
But that industry is fundamentally changing. It’s moving toward renewable energy, both to solve current environmental challenges and to meet the needs of a growing state, nation, and world.”
But Texas needs to keep innovating and not rest on its laurels. Wind has been extremely successful in the state for pretty much everyone involved, but the CREZ transmission lines are facing opposition from landowners, environmentalists, and elected officials.
In 2005, the Texas Legislature designated Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (affectionally referred to as CREZ zones) to move the electrons from where the wind is (in west Texas) to where the people are (Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston). It goes to show that every energy technology has tradeoffs.
Texas is also conspicuously lacking in solar energy and biomass production (and not for lack of resources). As of 2008, solar energy doesn’t even register on the books (behind California – 416 MW of capacity – and even New Jersey at 4 MW of generating capacity). And with non-attainment looming for most of the urban centers, renewable energy (among many other things) could help the state clean up its air and water.
But even wind development has a few kinks: the CREZ transmission lines are facing opposition from landowners, environmentalists, and elected officials. In 2005, the Texas Legislature designated Competitive Renewable Electricity Zones (affectionally referred to as CREZ zones) to move the electrons from where the wind is (in west Texas) to where the people are (Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston). It goes to show that every energy technology has tradeoffs.
Looking ahead, the upcoming legislative session will be dominated by redistricting and the budget, not leaving room for much else (including energy legislation). However, Senator Watson does plan on reintroducing his solar energy bill again, and it sounds like Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, might have energy bills in the works.
Water and energy, energy and water – two resources that we might like to think of as being separate, but which are actually interdependent in a way that can cause concern regarding the long-term sustainability of this dependence.
For every kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity that is generated in the United States, water is consumed. For the average Austin household (using about 1,000 kWh per month), this will result in a monthly consumption of 426 gallons of water if that electricity comes from a coal plant and 223 gallons if it came from a natural gas plant. And that’s just consumption (aka evaporation, in the case of power plants) – a LOT more water will pass through the power plant for cooling.
How much is “a LOT”?
Throughout the U.S., “a LOT” translated to hundreds of BILLIONS of gallons of water.
According to a report released at the end of November by The Worldwatch Institute:
The production and use of energy requires both the withdrawal and consumption of water and represents one of the largest demands on fresh water in the United States. In 2005, U.S. power plant cooling systems withdrew 143 billion gallons of fresh water per day, accounting for 41 percent of domestic fresh water withdrawals. Mining and fuel extraction withdrew an additional 2 billion gallons per day. Fresh water in turn requires energy to be pumped, treated, and transported before it can be used.
This report, titled “How Energy Choices Affect Water Supplies: A Comparison of U.S. Coal and Natural Gas” was written by friend and colleague, Emily Grubert, and hery co-author Saya Kitasei. Their work discusses how our energy choices affect fresh water supplies in the United States. In this report, Grubert and Kitasei state that:
Declining water availability is already limiting energy choices. Over the past decade, concerns about water availability have halted power plant construction or operation in the U.S. states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. As state and local governments around the country plan their electricity generation mix for the coming years, they will need to consider the water dimension of their decisions.
This report discusses the effects of coal versus natural gas on U.S. fresh water supplies, but for those of us who might be includes to favor nuclear as a good alternative to these two fuel resources – a factoid.
A nuclear power plant will consume about 600 gallons of water per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated (0.6 gal/kWh). That’s 1.4 times the amount of water consumed by a coal plant (2.7 times the amount of water consumed by a natural gas plant).
To compare the economic and environmental tradeoffs of different fuels we use to generate electricity in Texas, check out the Texas Interactive Power Simulator (TIPS) website.