As an avid reader of the Lone Star Sierran and the Texas Green Report, you are well aware that there are numerous environmental problems affecting our state in 2014. Texas’ prolonged drought has many communities scrambling for water, while state leaders are hoping that setting aside $2 billion in special infrastructure fund (or praying for rain) will solve the state’s woes. The explosion of oil and gas frack wells and the associated activities like injecting wastes underground across the state is wreaking havoc on air quality, affecting water supplies and in some instances may be causing localized earthquakes. Meanwhile, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission maintain an industry-friendly approach to every aspect of environmental regulation. They seem to enable environmental degradation rather than prevent it.
We have one more to add to the list of environmental woes, but before you groan in dismay and consider moving to a state with a more enviro-friendly governor and legislature, this time we’re qualifying it with an asterisk: yes, the state has an electricity reliability crunch.* There is an ongoing discussion as to whether the state has sufficient electric capacity to handle its growing population and more extreme fluctuations in temperatures in the summer and winter months without triggering rolling blackouts and brownouts.
*The solution, however, is not to build more dirty power generation in the state or even to keep older plants around for decades. The solution is not a capacity market, a proposal floated by generators in recent years to collect additional payments from ratepayers just for being – they would like ratepayers to not only pay for the energy we use, but also for the energy that we might use. So far, state lawmakers – even ones traditionally aligned with coal, oil and gas – don’t seem to buy it.
The risk of blackouts and brownouts though is still a concern. In three recent occasions, all during instances of extreme weather – once in the winter of 2011, once in the summer of 2011 and once this past January – we came perilously close to not having sufficient capacity to meet our electricity demand. In all three cases, several generators that were scheduled to be operating had equipment failures. Pipes broke; lines froze; in one instance, it was so hot and dry that the supply of water was insufficient for the plant to operate.
In these rare cases where peak demand is close to exceeding the amount of generation available on the grid, ERCOT — Texas’ electric grid operator — relies on peak-shaving services like its “Emergency Reserve Services” (ERS) which pays high-use industrial customers to shut down their operations until the emergency had passed.
There are a number of cheaper alternatives to building traditional coal or gas plants which all accomplish the same thing – place more capacity on the grid when it is needed most. Demand response programs like ERS reduce customers usage during peak hours; energy efficiency programs help customers cut their air-conditioning usage without feeling the heat; and improving our energy storage system allows companies to store energy during non-peak (when energy prices are cheaper) and release it when the grid needs it most.
Wind energy – and now solar – are also economical alternatives and happen to provide energy when it is needed most – solar during the hot summer months, and wind during the frigid winter mornings.
Even ERCOT seems to agree that more traditional generation is not necessary. Its most recent projections would not see an issue until 2019 due to lower growth projections and expanded generation coming from wind energy. Sierra Club’s own study (to be released in early March) on this topic will show that with a few simple policy changes – namely doubling the amount of demand response and raising the state’s energy efficiency standard, Texas could meet its demand needs beyond 2023.
Rest easy, fellow Sierran. This is one problem that has a very pro-environment, pro-consumer and pro-Texas solution.