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Texas Smart Grid Experts Head to the White House

Texas’s smart-grid initiatives are getting some attention in Washington.

On Friday morning, a small group of Texans, including the chairman of the Public Utility Commission, Barry Smitherman, will brief White House representatives on the smart-meter rollout and related issues in the state.

“There is a lot of experimentation and research going on in Texas,” said Brewster McCracken, executive director of the Pecan Street Project, an Austin-based smart-grid project, who will attend the White House meeting. “I think it’s legitimately emerging as a hot spot for potential innovation.”

Smart meters allow some Texans to review their electricity usage in 15-minute intervals on a website. This is useful for pinpointing waste. The meters are also easy to read remotely, which is cheaper than sending someone to individual homes, although the smart meters themselves cost more than $100 apiece. Eventually smart-grid advocates hope that the technology will make it possible for appliances like refrigerators or dishwashers to coordinate their energy usage with the needs of the electrical grid.

McCracken said attendees at the Friday meeting will also include representatives from Oncor and CenterPoint Energy, two utility companies; Reliant Energy, a Houston-based electricity retailer; smart-meter makers Landis+Gyr and Itron; and Zigbee Alliance, a wireless standards company. The group is expected to meet Aneesh Chopra, the United States’ chief technology officer, and other staff from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Smart-grid initiatives have been a priority for President Barack Obama, who has called for a newer, smarter electric grid that will allow for the broader use of alternative energy and included smart-grid technology in federal stimulus funds (some of which went to projects in Texas). Chopra will fly to California next week to speak at a smart-grid conference there. California appears to be the only state to have installed more smart meters than Texas, although the technology there has run into significant opposition.

“Smart-grid technologies have great potential to save consumers money as well as provide a more reliable energy delivery system in this country, and we are often holding meetings with key stakeholders to try to move this important agenda forward,” said Adam Abrams, a White House spokesman.

Currently, there are nearly 3.3 million smart meters installed in “competitive,” or deregulated, areas of Texas, which includes about three-quarters of the state’s population, said Terry Hadley, a PUC spokesman. Some municipal utilities (like Austin Energy) and rural cooperatives (like Bastrop-based Bluebonnet), which do not operate under the deregulated system, have also launched smart-meter initiatives.

McCracken said that one of the key points to be covered at the meeting would be uniform standards for the emerging technology. That means making sure that when data on electricity usage is reported by a refrigerator with a chip or an electric car or anything else, it is presented in the same format nationwide, no matter what company is making the device.

“The big question that’s emerging for the smart grid is how does all this stuff interconnect with each other,” McCracken said.

An Oncor spokeswoman, Catherine Cuellar, said that the utility was “excited to share insights” from the deployment of its advanced technologies.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/jkUNL0.

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Texas Solar Advocates Hope for Legislative Boost

Advocates of solar power are urging passage of a bill that would add a dollar per month to homeowners’ electric bills to fund solar projects.

The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on the bill late last night. Its sponsor, state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, told the committee that solar was a good complement for Texas’ existing energy resources, and that its costs had dropped dramatically in recent years.

“Texas should be a leader in building the domestic solar industry,” he said. Solar installations could make use of the new transmission lines being built to aid wind power, he said.

Texas, although the national leader in wind power, lags far behind many states, and especially California, in solar.

Opponents of the bill warned of the still-high cost of solar. Ryan Brannan, a policy analyst with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that the bill could end up costing the state’s taxpayers about $240 million — not including administrative fees.

“If California is leading the way in this, we’ll let them have it and we’ll keep taking their citizens and their business,” he said.

The Texas Association of Manufacturers also opposes the bill due to costs.

The bill would add a $1 per month charge to home electric bills. It would also add $5 per month to the bill for a company meter, and $50 a month for each industrial meter (some manufacturers will have multiple meters, so the bill establishes a limit of $250 a month for a “single industrial account”). This was not even a “rounding error” for manufacturers, Darby said. Individuals and small companies will be able to opt out of the fee.

An array of solar companies showed up to praise the bill, which is seen as the greatest hope of the solar industry, which came close to getting an incentive bill passed last session but ultimately fell short.

Not all lawmakers were present, given the late hour. The committee chairman, Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, expressed some concerns on the costs of the bill. “I don’t really want to explain to my mother why she’s got another dollar on her bill,” he said. Some of the solar companies reiterated that costs have dropped significantly.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston — whose background is in natural gas — challenged the Texas Public Policy Foundation, saying, “Don’t we create jobs by doing this too?” The bill, he said, could help Texas to “become an energy independent state.”

Representatives of Wal-Mart and the Texas Association of Builders expressed support for the bill.

The program would last five years, after which time, its backers say, solar costs could well reach grid parity.

In the Senate, solar bills under consideration include one by State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, which would create a solar rebate program.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/hEVRjT.

kgalbraith@texastribune.org

Texas Tackles Electricity Storage

November 11, 2010 1 comment

“An electric vehicle is basically a battery with wheels.”

Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Public Utility Commission,

This weekend, I started writing a post discussing the lack of an economically viable large-scale energy storage technology that we can use in the absence of natural formations such as mountains (for pumped hydro storage) or large caverns (for compressed air energy storage). Often called the holy grail of the energy world, energy storage could enable large jumps in the sophistication of our electric grid and power generation infrastructure. In my research, I came across an article by former NY Times clean energy reporter and current writer for The Texas Tribune, Kate Galbraith, where she discusses large-scale energy storage  in her piece titled Texas Tackles Electricity Storage. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wanted to share it here.

So, without further ado…

Texas Tackles Electricity Storage

by Kate Galbraith, The Texas Tribune
November 7, 2010

Dozens of gray compartments, lined neatly in rows, inhabit a box-like concrete building on the edge of the impoverished border town of Presidio. The only sound, aside from occasional clanking, is the whirring of air-conditioners to keep the compartments cool.

This $25 million contraption is the largest battery system in the United States — locals have dubbed it “BOB,” for Big Ole Battery. It began operating earlier this year, and it is the latest mark of the state’s interest in a nascent but rapidly evolving industry: the storage of electricity.

Storage is often referred to as the holy grail of energy technology, because it can modernize the grid by more efficiently matching people’s demand for power with the generation of electricity. A variety of early-stage technologies, from the Presidio battery (which can power the town for up to eight hours in the event of an outage) to super-conducting magnets to caverns that would store and release air compressed by electricity, are being studied around the state.

Texas is especially keen on storage because of the proliferation of wind turbines in West Texas. The machines generate the most power at night, when people are sleeping — so if their power could be stored for use during the day, it would significantly increase the usefulness of wind power, which currently accounts for about 6 percent of the state’s electricity generation.

“Storage has been an elusive goal of our industry for a long time,” says Barry Smitherman, the chairman of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates the operations of the state’s electric grid. “I think there’s a lot of great R&D being done in this area.”

The Presidio project does not back up the wind power, although future versions of the battery system could be used for such purposes. Instead, the 4-megawatt sodium-sulfur battery is supposed to help provide a steadier electricity supply for the town, which sits on the end of a 60-mile transmission line built in 1948. The line — still with many of the original wooden poles — often gets struck by lightening, causing frequent outages. A transmission line company, Electric Transmission Texas, plans to replace the line by 2012, but it installed the battery to keep the lights on in the meantime, as well as after the new line gets built.

The concept of electricity storage has been around for a long time. Decades ago, rural, off-grid ranchers could buy batteries to back up their small wind turbines (some old glass ones are on display at the American Wind Power Center in Lubbock). But they stored only enough electricity to power (partly) a single home — far less than the Presidio battery.

Additional battery projects, and potential projects, are sprinkled around Texas. AES Energy, a power company, began operating a 1-megawatt battery, a quarter of the capacity of Presidio’s, near its petroleum coke-fired power plant in the Houston area earlier this year. The company’s goal is to test how the technology will work with the grid system.

Duke Energy, a North Carolina-based electric company, expects final word around year’s end on whether it will receive the bulk of a $22 million federal grant to build batteries near a wind farm in Ector and Winkler counties. Yet another project, a multiyear study of a zinc-flow battery concept by the San Antonio utility CPS Energy, got canceled last year after the manufacturer of the not-yet-commercial technology “had some challenges,” says Lisa Lewis, a CPS Energy spokeswoman.

Other types of energy-storage experiments are also underway around the state. In August, a consortium including the University of Houston was awarded a $4.2 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop an energy storage system from superconducting magnets.

The wind-power arm of Shell and the power-generation company Luminant have been looking into the concept of “compressed air storage” to back up power from a wind farm in the Panhandle. Excess power — such as wind power generated at night — would compress air and pump it into a salt cavern or other suitable underground formation; the air could later be burned with natural gas and expand, generating electricity. So far, this technology has mainly been put to work in Alabama and Germany, but Allan Koenig, a Luminant spokesman, says the project “is moving,” although it is still in the development stage.

The main trouble with storage is that it’s expensive. The Presidio battery and accompanying substation cost $25 million to build, which amounts to about $6,000 for every resident of Presidio. Put another way, that is about $1 for every Texan.

Steven Stengel, a spokesman for NextEra Energy Resources, a major renewable energy developer, says that, generally speaking, the economics of battery storage — without significant grants or state or federal aid — are very difficult to make work for his company. NextEra is not currently planning investments in any storage projects, he says.

The plunge in natural gas prices over the past few years has also harmed storage economics.

Calvin Crowder, the president of Electric Transmission Texas, likens the enormous Presidio battery, which occupies an area the size of a big house, to the first digital computer built in Iowa in the 1930s. Subsequent computer technologies, he says, became “cheaper and more compact” — and the same should happen with batteries. The Presidio battery, which was made in Japan, required two dozen semi trucks to transport it from the port of Long Beach to Texas.

Who should pay for storage projects, and the associated matter of how they should be classified within the electric grid system, are important and complex policy questions that must soon be grappled with by the state. In July, the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, convened the first meeting of a power storage working group; it will hold its fourth meeting on Nov. 8.

In the case of the Presidio battery, the Public Utility Commission in effect classified the battery as a form of transmission rather than power generation, meaning the cost will be shouldered by all rate-payers on the Texas grid.

Right now, Smitherman says, the commission is looking at each project on a case-by-case basis. He cautions against reading too much into the Presidio decision. But storage, he says, is “probably a longer-term policy issue that we need to tee up for discussion and resolution.”

Robert J. King, the president of Good Company Associates, an Austin-based energy-efficiency and renewables consulting firm, which has convened the Texas Energy Storage Alliance, says that uncertainty over how storage will be classified — and related questions about whether the range of benefits it provides could be captured — is making companies less likely to invest.

Another technology that holds some hope for storage is electric cars. Texas will see the arrival of hundreds or thousands of the vehicles in the next few months. The cars are expected to charge primarily at night, taking advantage of the night-time windiness. In theory, the electricity they have taken in could be sent back out to the grid in times of high need — especially late summer afternoons.

“An electric vehicle,” Smitherman says, “is basically a battery with wheels.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://trib.it/cgVOl3.

Smarter Grids in Texas

Kate Galbraith wrote a piece for today’s Texas Tribune on the smart grid concepts and how they’re being implemented in Texas. The article can be found here. In this piece, she mentions the Pecan Street Project, which I’ve previously written about and a project in San Marcos (just south of Austin).