Archive for January, 2011

UT Energy Forum: the smart grid, in 7 minutes

January 31, 2011 3 comments

This Friday, I will be giving a 7-minute talk (TED style) on the smart grid at the inaugural UT Energy Forum. In preparation for the talk, I have been trying to figure out the best ways to communicate (clearly, succinctly) what the smart grid is and why it matters. I think I have a good plan – but will have to wait and see how folks at the conference respond to my presentation.

If you have a chance to attend the conference, consider stopping by at 2pm for my talk on the smart grid. Later, Bert Haskell – the Technology Director at the Pecan Street Project – will be speaking on the Austin-based experiment on how the smart grid could work in our lives. There will also be a long string of speakers discussing anything and everything related to energy. Definitely the place to be next Thursday and Friday.


Wind Power Running Through the Texas Hill Country

January 28, 2011 3 comments

Texas Approves $5B Worth of Transmission Line ProjectsOn February 28, 2010 at 1pm, wind power hit a record high in Texas – supplying more than one-fifth of the Lone Star State’s electricity demand. Throughout the year, an estimated 9% of the state’s electricity needs were met by the wind farms that have popped up since the first statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard was passed in 1999. Quite an accomplishment. But, as Texas continues to increase its use of the wind for its power needs, it is faced with the problem of how to move electricity around its state along its aging infrastructure.

How will the state get the West Texas wind to their East Texas cities?

The state’s answer – a $5 billion transmission build-out within the Texas electric grid to add more than 2,300 miles of new lines.

Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. with its own electricity grid. The Texas grid, overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) oversees the movement of ~85% of the state’s electricity needs every year. This grid was built over the past century, at first connecting the state’s cities to nearby power plants. Later, the Rural Electrification Act connected the Texas Hill Country (and other rural areas) to the grid. Since this time, the grid has largely been allowed to age – leaving an increasingly vulnerable grid behind.

But, faced with stranded wind turbines and increasing electricity demand, Texas has decided to invest in its grid infrastructure. Under the state’s Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) transmission line project, new high voltage transmission lines will be built to connect windy hillsides to bustling cities. And, to the dismay of landowners in the Texas hill country, some of these lines might run directly through their piece of the Texas countryside.

The Texas Hill Country is home to rolling hills, large ranches and families that have lived on the land for generations.  Its cities include Johnson City (the boyhood home of President Johnson) and Fredericksburg (the heart of the Texas wine industry and art scene). And, after last Friday’s unanimous approval of a new CREZ transmission line, it will soon be home to new high-voltage transmission lines that will bring West Texas wind east along Interstate 10.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas has approved a new transmission line that will run along Interstate 10 from Junction to Kerrville. In Kerrville, the electricity that the lines carry will be transferred to existing transmission lines that run to the heart of the state’s eastern cities. This line will be constructed by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which is also responsible for managing the state’s water resources. It is expected to be energized by 2013.

Obama’s Energy & Climate Change Advisor Is Leaving the White House

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Energy Climate Advisor, Carol Browner and President Obama

Energy and climate legislation in Washington? On the hill today, this question will leave you with crickets and dropping pens. And, in the latest blow to energy and climate since Republicans captured the majority in the House of Representatives, the White House Energy and Climate Change advisor is leaving her post.

The NY Times reported today that Carol Browner, the White House Advisor for Energy and Climate Change will be leaving her position soon. Browner will step down from her post without achieving her goal of ushering comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Does this mean that hope for federal action on this issue is gone until 2013?

Browner was chosen in 2009 to lead the newly minted White House Office of Energy and Climate Change. The former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Clinton Administration, Browner came to the advisory position with many years of experience in DC. It was believed that this experience would help her usher in the charge in DC toward passing comprehensive federal energy and climate legislation.

But, Browner will be leaving Washington with a stalled bill in the Senate and little hope on the horizon that this legislation will pass the President’s desk. It appears that regulating greenhouse gases is a big task for a divided congress in the 112th session.

The United States and the World – On Greenhouse Gases

January 23, 2011 1 comment

The United States emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as 69 other countries – 300 million people emitting the same as 1.5 billion. Since the U.S. uses about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption, this doesn’t come as a big surprise. But, it brings to light a big problem on the horizon. As developing countries continue to increase their energy use – electrifying their homes and businesses, travelling more in newly purchased cars, and producing more goods – is it possible for them to increase their standard of living without a dramatic increase in energy consumption?

Probably not.

What does this mean for the world’s energy use?

Today, the average person in the United States uses about 330 million BTUs (british thermal units) of energy each year. The world’s average is just 75 million. If the world increased its energy use to the current US level, the world’s total annual energy use would more than quadruple –  from its current 500 to more than 2,200 Quadrillion BTUs (this assumes that the world’s population does not increase.

The same story goes for the United States versus other countries on its environmental impacts from energy use. The United States uses more energy per capita and it also emits more carbon dioxide than any other country (per capita – China emits more greenhouse gases in total, but they have a much larger population). It is reasonable to say that an increase in energy use would in an increase in greenhouse emissions from these countries.

To get an idea of the scale, I took a look at a new map published on the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) website. This map shows what the US would look like if you redrew the state boundaries based on the greenhouse gas emissions of other countries. According to the NRDC, you could fit the emissions 16 countries + the entire African continent (which, if my counting skills are on-par today, includes 53 countries) into the United State’s footprint.

These countries includes the Philipines, Sweden, France, Morocco, Israel, Thailand, Argentina, India (filling Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi), Brazil, Africa (with its 53 countries), the United Kingdom, Germany, Jordan, Ireland, Malaysia, Norway, and Ecuador.

All told – this map shows that the 300 million people in the United States emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as the 1.5 billion people living in these 69 countries.

As the world continues to electrify its homes, put new cars on the road, and produce more goods in industrial facilities I wonder how the world will deal with the increase in greenhouse gas emissions….

Thanks to The Daily Wogan for introducing me to this NRDC chart.

Easy, Accurate, Clear – Calculating Solar Potential in your city

January 18, 2011 2 comments

The economics of a solar power project can be tricky – especially when you don’t have access to the information you need. While it is pretty easy to generalize – “Arizona is sunny – Seattle, not so much” – trying to calculate how much electricity you’ll be able to generate from the panels on your rooftop can be frustrating. And this problem isn’t just felt at home – as cities and counties take a harder look at their parking lots and garages as potential generation stations, knowing how much sun they have to work with becomes critical.

Last week, the American Institute of Physics published a paper on a new way to calculate, compile and graphically show the amount of solar energy potential in a specific region (for example, county or city).  The new methodology presented in this paper provides an easy way for you, or members of your city council, to determine the amount of energy that the sun beams down (called solar irradiance) in your area. You can even sort this information by time of day or year, to see how those panels are going to perform at 4pm in January versus 11am in July.

Developed by former graduate student David M. Wogan (of The Daily Wogan) and his advisors, Dr. Michael E. Webber and Dr. Alexandre K. da Silva at The University of Texas at Austin, the aim of this project was to make solar data more meaningful to people who wish to use this renewable resource. In their paper, they discuss how the methodology works (lots of data + computer program + pretty graphs) and apply it to Texas as a case study. Pretty cool.

If you would like to read the paper, you can access it for free here at The Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.

[Image was found using Creative Commons, using the search term “sunshine.”]

Court Upholds EPA’s Ability to Regulate Texas Emissions

January 13, 2011 1 comment

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and Ag. Commissioner Todd Staples announce lawsuits against the EPA late last year


The Lone Star State has been fighting the Obama administration’s plan to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act since it was first announced back in 2009 – making it clear that they did not approve of federal oversight on this particular issue.  Yesterday, in a blow for Texas Governor Rick Perry, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA had the right to issue greenhouse gas permits in Texas.

During this appeal, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (a Republican) argued that the EPA does not have the right to take over a state’s own greenhouse gas regulation programs. According to Abbott, the EPA should give Texas time to establish its own permitting structure, before stepping in with federal oversight. Even more fundamentally, Abbott does not believe that the EPA has a right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately for Abbott, it looks like the U.S. Court of Appeals does not agree.

Environmentalists are grumbling at Texas’ series of appeals aimed at blocking the EPA’s regulatory capabilities. In response to the most recent ruling, EENews reported the following reaction from the Environmental Defense Fund:

“The state government in Texas has now filed three cases in the federal courts to block EPA’s greenhouse gas pollution reduction policies, and it has been rejected three times,” said Steve Cochran, vice president of climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund. “If Texas put half the effort into carrying out greenhouse gas pollution control measures that it put into fighting them, EPA would not need to be involved.”

In a way, I agree.

And Texas might too – there are rumblings that the state might try to implement the EPA’s rules itself, in order to avoid federal oversight of the state’s activities. According to Terry Clawson at Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ):

[TCEQ] has neither the authority nor the intention of interpreting, ignoring, or amending its laws in order to compel the permitting of greenhouse gas emissions.

The TCEQ is disappointed in this decision, but confident we will ultimately prevail in our insistence that the EPA must follow its own rules and federal law…Environmental regulations must have some environmental benefit, and not just expand the power of the federal government.

Bottom line – Unless this issue is sorted out during the current legislative session (Texas’s legislature only meets once every two years), it appears that the EPA will soon be issuing new permits in the Lone Star State.

What does this mean for Texas?

Yesterday’s ruling means that, unless Congress takes action to prevent the EPA from issuing rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions, state’s will find themselves subject to a series of new regulations (issued Jan. 2). In Texas, this translates to (approx.) 167 facilities receiving greenhouse gas permits that could, over time, limit their ability to emit these gases during their operations. Included in these facilities are power plants and petroleum refineries, a backbone in the Texas economy.

Combined with earlier rulings in cases of Texas v the EPA, Washington appears to have the ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars, light trucks and stationary pollution sources (like power plants and refineries). As a first step in this process, these facilities would have to certify that they are using the best available technology for limiting emissions if they wish to maintain their operating permit.

(The NY Time Greenwire provided background on this topic last week in a very nice article on January 5, 2011.)

EPA is a primary target in new Congress

January 10, 2011 3 comments

Congress is back in session – with a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives (Democrats maintain the Senate majority) – and things are already heating up on the energy and environment front. A primary target… the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and more specifically the agency’s ability t regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The intensity of this attack, combined with its multi-pronged design calls into question the true goal (media spotlight or real change?) but are a clear sign that this issue is still a point of contention in Washington.

During the first full day  in session, House members ran to the microphone to introduce three bills aimed at limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. They also shut down the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was established in 2006 by former House Speaker (now House Majority Leader), Nancy Pelosi. It appears that federal energy and climate actions are heading toward an uphill battle.

The three bills take distinct approaches to limiting EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas (specifically, carbon dioxide) emissions.

The first, introduced by  Marsha Blackburn (a Republican from Tennessee) seeks to eliminate EPA’s ability to regulate these emissions under the Clean Air Act (against the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that said the EPA should be allowed to regulate these emissions). Blackburn has historically been vocal about her opinions regarding the EPA’s ability to regulate these gases.

The second bill, introduced by Ted Poe (a Republican from Texas) seeks to block funding from any government agency associated with a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program. This could effectively tie the hands of any government organization that was tasked with administering a cap-and-trade program.

The third bill, introduced by Shelly Moore Capito (Republican from West Virginia) would delay any action by the EPA on the regulation of greenhouse gases by 2 years.

We will have to wait and see if any of these bills will be able to grab hold in the new session. But, it is clear that this issue with be a point of contention and much discussion over the next two years.