Tag Archives: Solar energy

Latest numbers from Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign show Coal Plant Retirements continuing- Is Nevada a Good Model?

The Sierra Club’s signature campaign — the Beyond Coal Campaign — reports that coal retirements are on the rise. As of May 1st, some 472 coal-burning units in the United States had retired or announced their retirement. These included 165 entire power plants, and another 33 power plants with partial retirements. All told, the retirements — when completed — represent 67,144 MWs of power, or about 20% of all coal plants. The announced retirements include 2,580 MWs of announced retirements in 2014 alone. See here for a full account of the numbers.

While much of the work in Texas has focussed on stopping new proposed coal plants, three coal plants here have been scheduled for retirement. First, one of AEP’s three units at the Welsh Power Plant in northeast Texas is scheduled for retirement next year — in part due to its inability to economically reduce emissions — while CPS Energy in San Antonio is slated to retire its two Deely Units by the end of 2018. We continue to press for additional retirements, such as the 600 MW unit partially owned by Austin Energy, and the big three coal plants owned by Luminant, currently embroiled in its bankruptcy mess.

We might be able to take some inspiration from our Sierra Club colleagues in Nevada.  Guided in part by requirements under state law to reduce emissions, NV Energy is scheduled to retire its 553-MW Reid Gardner plant in Clark County, Nev. over the next three and a half years. By the end of 2019, the utility would also eliminate its 11.3% ownership interest in the coal-fired, 2,250-MW Navajo power plant in Coconino County, Ariz. One of the ways it would replace the Reid Gardner plant is to acquire the planned 200 MW Moapa Solar Energy Center for an estimated $438.1 million as part of its broad portfolio realignment away from coal-fired generation. Sierra Club was there, calling on the planned retirement to be accompanied by investments in new clean energy resources. Note to Texas: we have good sun and wind resources and plenty of development. Let’s get those old coal plants retired!

Humans vs. Earth’s Climate: Preparing for Battle

When I first heard the phrase “climate change”, I, like many others, was undecided on the matter and really didn’t have a clue what that phrase was supposed to mean. Should I be scared? I hope the daily climate would change all the time over here in Texas. This confusion led to a trip to the internet, where ignorance is optional, and over time I read a lot about it, trying to avoid opinionated rants while relying on credible sources of information to mold my perception of the truth. I found myself studying the carbon cycle, reading those really long and uninteresting scientific papers, and watching documentaries such as Chasing Ice, where a scientist captures glaciers in motion through time lapsed photography as they recede and disappear. I really dove in. The deeper I dove the more evidence came to support the notion that earth’s climate system is changing and our planet is slowly warming in a way that will likely be detrimental if not dealt with.

the blue marble

Home Sweet Home

What a massive and complex force to have to deal with. Trying to mitigate a change in the Earth’s climate seems like a pretty daunting feet. So, how do we solve this problem? I guess the default answer would be, “to find the solution.” However, I believe “the solution” needs to be rephrased with “many solutions, collaboratively recognized and implemented worldwide.” A major part of this solution needs to face one of the most influential causes of climate change, such as our current escalated contribution of greenhouse gases (GHG’s), namely carbon dioxide and methane, to the atmosphere.

Explanation of Green House Gases (GHG’s):

GHG’s, when in higher concentration in the atmosphere, cause the atmosphere to trap more and more of the sun’s energy, resulting in the warming of our planet.

Nasa's explanation of GHG's

Nasa’s explanation of GHG’s

This process becomes worrisome when you consider that the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere has increased by more than 35% since 1975 and is at an 800,000 year high. Even more worrisome is the fact that, according to the National Research Council, “the average temperature of Earth’s surface increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit  over the past one hundred years with 1 degree of this warming occurring over just the past three decades.”

So if this is really happening, how do we stop it? Well, one could start with the major source of this greenhouse gas concentration increase, which can be attributed primarily to the growth in carbon dioxide emissions from rapid expansion of fossil fuel burning. Other attributing factors include deforestation and land use and land cover changes.

Explanation of fossil fuel burning’s role in the carbon cycle:

Previous plant and animal remains trapped within geological structures in places all over the world, along with millions of years of heat and pressure, have created reservoirs of natural gas, oil, and coal. These reservoirs, in the form of hydrocarbons (long chains of Hydrogen and Carbon), have been stored sources of Carbon for a great amount of time. When these reservoirs are extracted and undergo a combustion reaction, they produce energy in the form of heat with new chemical species being formed, such as carbon dioxide (a green house gas).

I’m fascinated by our capability to discover these remains of ancient life forms and even more so at our ability to use them to meet the present day needs of our energy-reliant society. However, with a global oil production of 83.6 million barrels a day in 2011, this Carbon which has been stored underground for an extremely long amount of time is now being released into our system at a rapid rate… so would the statement, “too much of a good thing, is a bad thing” apply here?

I understand that the burning of fossil fuels is integral to our way of life and energy needs. The intricacy and complications of making rapid emission cuts would have great impacts for our infrastructure and societies. However, the likely effects of climate change/global warming could have even greater, more damaging, impacts on our infrastructure and societies. This is why it is necessary to confront this issue now and progress towards a greater reliance on renewable energy for our present and future energy needs.

This progression is much easier said than done and will undoubtedly be met with great opposition, especially by those involved in fossil fuel energy production (people like my mom). However, I like to perceive it as simply as one of my favorite environmental quotes, “if you get to the cliff, you can take one step forward or turn 180 degrees and take a step forward”.

For one, we’ve already discovered, engineered, and implemented many new means of capturing energy (wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass), all of which are readily available in specific regions, produce nearly no emissions, and are, except for hydroelectric, far less water intensive. We already have a large part of the solution, all we need is implementation. More positive progression was initiated this week as President Obama, leader of a nation that ranks as a close second place behind China in GHG emissions and energy consumption, made a speech that presented some bold, progressive goals: using full authority of the clean air act of 1970 to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, accelerating the implementation of more renewable energy that will “power 6 million homes by 2020”, and reducing energy waste through new energy efficiency. He also is trying to push congress to end the tax breaks for big oil companies to invest in  “the clean energy economies that will fuel our future” and is calling for initiatives to prepare for the inevitable future effects of climate change.

Implementation of these plans will take time, will require governmental initiatives to speed up the process, and will require specific measures to alleviate the negative impacts such change will have on certain individuals. An example of governmental measures to take would be to reduce the massive amount of money that is used to subsidize fossil fuel production and to allocate that money to renewable energy implementation. To alleviate this energy production shift on individuals, retiring fossil fuel companies will need to provide a just transition for its employees: examples include a large preliminary warning, new training, and good retirement packages.

It’s very exciting that the willingness and need to change has been stated by one of the world’s most influential people, but the battle has only yet to begin and many other solutions will need to be presented and implemented if we hope to come out on top. However, optimism is reborn from the depressing ashes of climate change talk as I reflect on how incredibly smart we are as a human race, how much we already know about the issue, and our amazing problem-solving abilities and can’t help but think, this is going to be a good fight.

Written by: Chase Cobb

Rally for Renewables in Austin

SIerra Club members and volunteers outside AUstin CIty Hall on Thursday June 20th.

SIerra Club members and volunteers outside Austin CIty Hall on Thursday June 20th.

Last week, members and volunteers with Sierra Club showed their support at the Rally for Renewables outside of Austin’s City Hall. The event was part of the Beyond Coal Campaign to reduce dependence upon coal burning and increase utilization of wind and solar energy. Why are dirty coal plants a continuing issue in the 21st century? The focus, or heart,  of the rally is to encourage Austin’s mayor and city council to retire the Fayette Power Project and be coal free. The emphasis here is on retire vs selling the plant off and “greenwash” the city into a state of coal free energy. Retiring the plant would ensure the end of the devastating effects the burning of coal from this plant has on our environment. Below are some quick facts to help everyone understand the importance of relieving us of our dependence upon burning coal.

Coal plants are our nation’s top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution. These emissions of toxins into our environment leads to various forms of climate change.  Various forms of pollution includes: Mercury, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, and Ash.

Toxic Mercury  is released into our atmosphere and then returns to the surface via rain and enters our streams and rivers. Prolonged exposure to Mercury can lead to numerous neurological and heart damaging conditions. An uncontrolled power plant can emit approximately 170 pounds of Mercury ash per year.

Coal plants are the leading source of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) pollution. An uncontrolled power plant can produce up to 14,000 tons of SO2 per year. SO2 accumulation in the atmosphere causes acid rain which leads to the destruction of crops, forests,  and soils, and acidifies our lakes and streams.

Nitrogen Oxide causes ground level smog. An uncontrolled plant can emit over 10,000 tons of Nitrogen Oxides per year. This pollutant is naturally found in the atmosphere, however, human activities such as agriculture, transportation, and industries have been steadily increasing the amount found in the atmosphere.

U.S. Nitrous Oxide Emissions, By Source:

In the US alone, we produce no less than 140 million tons of coal ash pollution. All of that ash has to go somewhere, and in most cases it is dumped in the backyard of these coal plants. This ash can be put into open-air pits or into man-made ponds. Unregulated dump sites can leach these pollutants into the ground and potentially into our ground water systems, by way of aquifers.

Overall, The Rally for Renewables was a success! Numerous volunteers came out to show their support for the cause. The event lasted for nearly 2 hours with many different community members making appearances. This event, just like any like it, is an important demonstration to our local governments. As citizens of this earth, we have the right to have our voices heard, just as they were last week.

Written by: Courtney Dunphy

ERCOT announces more gains for Renewable Energy

ERCOT recently announced that renewable energy electricity sales in 2012 in the Texas market grew by some seven percent, with a gain of more than 15 percent in total capacity of those resources. A total of at least 13,000 MWs of renewable capacity was found in Texas in 2012. The announcement continues the growth of wind energy in Texas — which now equals about nine percent of total demand — but also signals the recent investment in solar energy, which more than quadrupled its use in Texas. 

The full announcement can be found here, but here are a couple of nice little charts showing total capacity and energy of renewables in Texas. 

 

Renewable energy reported

Fuel Type

2012 (MWh)

2011 (MWh)

Increase (%)

Biomass

288,988

137,004

110

Hydro

389,196

267,113

45

Landfill gas

537,966

497,645

8

Solar

133,642

36,580

265

Wind

32,566,009

30,769,674

5

Total

33,915,802

31,708,016

7

 

 

Capacity registered in Texas REC program*

Fuel Type

2012 (MW)*

2011 (MW)

2010 (MW)

2009 (MW)

Biomass

232

132

108

40

Hydro

33

33

33

33

Landfill gas

95

92

88

80

Solar

81

70

21

1

Wind

12,667

10,961

10,265

9,915

Total

13,108*

11,288

10,515

10,069

*Does not include generation in service prior to September 1999. Totals differ due to rounding.

New Research Could Help Increase Diffusion Rate of Residential Solar

According to Dr Varun Rai, solar adopters who installed solar arrays most quickly typically looked to their community for informational support. (Photo credit: www.inhabitat.com)

According to Dr Varun Rai, solar adopters who installed solar arrays most quickly typically looked to their community for informational support. (Photo credit: http://www.inhabitat.com)

As the unmistakable signs of climate change become more apparent by the day, homeowners are putting an increasing amount of thought into their sources of power. One of the most popular alternatives to purchasing fossil fuel-based power is undoubtedly that of solar energy. In purchasing residential solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, however, there are barriers (mostly financial) that have kept the technology from diffusing as rapidly as some would like. While these financial barriers are well-studied, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are now studying how certain barriers to trustworthy information affect the adoption of residential solar systems and how, if such information were accessed more easily, the process of adoption might become less daunting for consumers while accelerating diffusion.

The Energy Systems Transformation (EST) research group, led by Dr. Varun Rai, an assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Cockrell School of Engineering, notes in a paper titled “Effective Information Channels for Reducing Costs of Environmentally-Friendly Technologies: Evidence from Residential PV Markets”, which is co-authored by Scott Robinson, that solar PV adopters face particular “uncertainties and non-monetary costs” (UNMCs) that delay the installation of their systems. These UNMCs include information search costs, uncertainties about the future performance and required maintenance of the system, and perceptions of quality, sacrifice, and opportunity cost. By analyzing household-level data that compiled the survey responses of residents who have gone through the process of adopting solar PV systems, the group was able to gain valuable insight into how the delaying effect of UNMCs might be circumvented in the future via an improvement in the organization and exchange of credible information.

Credibility, as it turns out, was found to be a key characteristic of the kind of information that facilitated the decision-making process. This was apparent in the way that those adopters whose decision times were shorter were typically those that had access to trusted information networks, such as friends, family, and neighbors who had adopted solar PV systems. Through these networks, adopters were able to utilize the knowledge that their peers had gathered from experience – which, as the data suggests, was far more compelling than the information they could gather elsewhere. Moreover, those adopters that had simply observed solar PV systems on neighboring households were found to have shorter decision times, which further supports the idea that trusted information about the functionality of residential solar, even if collected passively, is very influential in the decision-making process. Ultimately, the research suggests that an increase in the exchange of information through trusted networks (in both passive and active forms) has the potential to decrease adopter decision times by about two-thirds, which is equal to roughly six months.

So, while information about the use and installation of residential solar systems is not difficult to find, at all – the internet is chock-full of it – the key, according to Dr. Rai, is that adopters obtain information that is from local or trusted sources; preferably a combination of both.

Ultimately, these findings could change the way that government and industry approach the development of residential solar power. Rai suggests that one useful approach might be the establishment of an online communication platform that harnesses the power of local information-sharing, which could provide tremendous benefits at a relatively low cost. Furthermore, they suggest such a platform could be a federally administered hub that aggregates regional installation information, which would be useful in serving as a “one-stop shop” of knowledge for potential solar adopters.

Regardless of the strategy that is ultimately implemented, however, the research is sure to contribute to the development of residential solar power generation. This is especially important, being that current adoption levels are nowhere near market potential.

Dr. Rai’s research paper and accompanying video abstract can be found here.

Written by Diego Atencio, Beyond Coal Intern