Energy

The wind energy industry is dependent on something even more unpredictable than wind: Congress. Hidden in the turmoil over the "fiscal cliff" compromise was a tax credit for wind energy.

Uncertainty over the credit had lingered long before the last-minute political push, causing the industry to put off further long-term planning. So while the now-approved tax credit revives prospects for an industry facing tens of thousands of layoffs, don't expect to see many new turbines coming up soon.

Growing Uncertainty

Natural gas may have reshaped the domestic energy market in 2012, lowering energy prices and marginalizing the coal industry, but America's shale boom hasn't undermined renewables.

In fact, while analysts were paying attention to fracking this year, a record number of solar panels were being slapped on roofs — enough to produce 3.2 gigawatts of electricity.

Callie Richmond for Texas Tribune

Subjects like solar panels and smart-grid technologies become a topic of discussion at plenty of Austin happy hours. But when dozens of people gathered at a lakeside bar earlier this month, the talk drifted toward oil prices, shale plays and hydraulic fracturing.

“When you think Austin, you don’t think oil and gas,” said David Tovar, a geoscience technician at Three Rivers, an oil and gas company based in Austin, as he held a pint of Texas brew. The native Texan ended up at Three Rivers after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a geological sciences degree.

Despite its “Keep Austin Weird” slogan and passion for clean energy, Austin is increasingly attracting oil and gas companies like Three Rivers, a small firm founded in 2009 that focuses on oil development in West Texas and New Mexico, aided by the high oil prices of recent years. Austin’s oil industry, about 4,000 workers strong, is still dwarfed by Houston and Dallas. But the city’s entrepreneurial bent and reputation as an attractive place to live, along with the top-tier petroleum engineering program at UT, have trumped the fact that Austin is far from the oilfields.

http://www.flickr.com/ixtlilton

The ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) has released its 2012 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard. According to their findings, Texas didn't do so well.

The report ranks the 50 states and the District of Columbia according to their policies and programs regarding the use of energy in buildings, transportation, and industry. This year, Texas is ranked #33

flickr.com/pyxopotamus

Effective today, Austin's electric bills will be increasing an average of seven percent. Austin Energy is increasing its rates and updating it's electric rate structure this October. The Austin City Council approved the increase in June.

The good news is that it's getting colder, so the average user won't see much of an increase. Austin Energy estimates average users will only increase $3-$29 during the non-summer months.

The company has also reduced the time frame of their summer rate from six months to four months. However during the summer months (June to September), average users could see increases of $13 to  $44.

pecanstreet.org

The Pecan Street Project – a demonstration “smart grid” energy system in the emerging Mueller development – was featured on the PBS NewsHour.

Charles Upshaw, a mechanical engineering graduate student working on the project, told StateImpact Texas the initiative is ”a collaboration between the University of Texas, the City of Austin, Austin Energy and a bunch of companies. In order to really test, and have a real world kind of experiment with high density residential solar, they have offered additional incentives to the [Mueller homeowners] on top of the Austin energy rebate and the federal rebate, so the people in Mueller have an opportunity to get solar really cheaply.”

KUT News

A temporary schedule change for Austin ISD schools and offices goes into effect today. AISD says the change is an effort to cut energy usage this summer.

Starting today and running through July 27, AISD offices will be closed on Fridays. Employees will work 10-hour days Monday through Thursday. Office hours will be 7 a.m to 6 p.m.

Schools and offices will be completely closed the week of July 2.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates Texas' power grid, has said it hopes to avert blackouts this summer. That statement may soon be tested, however, as ERCOT is urging users to conserve electricity from 3-7 p.m. today, due to "continued extreme heat creating tight capacity." Austin has predicted highs in the triple digits all this week.

There's a boom in natural gas production in the United States, a boom so big the market is having trouble absorbing it all.

The unusually warm weather this winter is one reason for the excess, since it reduced the need for people to burn gas to heat their homes. A bigger reason, however, is the huge increase in gas production made possible by new methods of coaxing gas out of shale rock formations.

Photo courtesy National Weather Service

Caution Urged in Storm’s Aftermath

Storms pummeled the Austin area overnight. Mayor Lee Leffingwell has issued a statement “calling on Central Texans to be cautious and patient after storms moved through our city last night:”

Photo by Teresa Vieira for KUT News

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took aim at the Obama administration this morning, with a call for the president to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would end at the Texas Gulf Coast.

Chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue claimed in his annual “State of American Business” address that “This project has passed every environmental test. There is no legitimate reason—none at all—to subject it to further delay.”

But the National Resources Defense Council says the Chamber is waging a “disinformation campaign” on the pipeline’s behalf.

The largest solar farm in Texas is now pumping power to homes across Austin. The $100 million facility was switched on last month and city officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony today.

The solar farm is located about 20 miles east of Austin in Webbervile. Its footprint covers 380 acres, which is about the size of Zilker Park. And it has 127,000 solar panels that slowly shift to follow the sun’s path.

The solar farm can generate up to 30 megawatts, enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes. The energy is being dispersed throughout Austin Energy’s grid. While the solar array can't provide power all the time, it could provide big benefits during the hot, sunny days of summer. 

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has warned that Texas could have a hard time meeting energy demand if the summer of 2012 is the summer of 2011, when the state was brought to the brink of rolling blackouts. And ERCOT chief Trip Doggett couldn’t say the Webberville solar farm would be able to solve those challenges.

In a report released Thursday, the state's electric grid operator indicated that next summer could see a repeat of the rolling blackout threats that plagued Texas past summer. The reason: rising demand for electricity and some power plants going offline.

"If we stay in the current cycle of hot and dry summers, we will be very tight on capacity next summer and have a repeat of this year's emergency procedures and conservation appeals," Trip Doggett, chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), said in a statement.

If crazy weather — like the deep freeze in February that caused large numbers of power plants to break down — hits again this winter, outages could also result then, the report said. But Doggett put the risk of this happening in the wintertime as "very low."

The 2012 presidential election could be close, with President Obama needing support from every segment of his political base to win re-election.

So the president's move (made through the State Department) to delay his controversial decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until beyond Election Day 2012 isn't really a shocker. The White House, for the record, denies that politics played a role in the decision.

Illustration courtesy of Texas Tribune

A Department of Energy subcommittee is recommending steps for restoring  public trust in the natural gas extraction process known as hyrdaulic fracturing or "fracking," an important part of the Obama Administration's energy policy.

Over the last few years, public concern over the process has grown with the release of documentaries like Gasland and reports of possible connections between fracking and contaminated ground water. You can watch the trailer to Gasland here to get a sense of the film's story arc and tone:

Yesterday, a group of 28 scientists representing 22 universities sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, "expressing concern over the lack of impartiality on the Natural Gas Subcommittee."  The group criticized what they called "advocacy based science" and pointed out that six of the seven members of the subcommittee "have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry."

The group called for greater impartiality and asked that "at a minimum" subcommittee chairman John Deutch, an MIT professor and former CIA director,  leave the subcommittee and be replaced by "a person with no financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry."

Photo by Jessie Wang for KUT News

Update at 5:40 p.m. The worst of today's energy emergency appears to be over. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has canceled the Level 2B Energy Emergency Alert. However, ERCOT is still at 2A, and is urging people to conserve electricity until 7 p.m.

Earlier: The state's energy regulator said in a Tweet moments ago that there is now a "high probability" of rolling blackouts across the state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas escalated the Energy Emergency Alert to Level 2B, meaning energy reserves are below 1,750 megawatts and continuing to decline.

ERCOT declared Level 2A at around 2:30 p.m., which triggered large factories, mostly along the Gulf Coast, to power down their operations in a bid to preserve energy reserves. It's the first time since rolling blackouts in February that ERCOT had initiated a Level 2A alert.

Oppressive heat is helping to push Texas’ power grid to maximum capacity. Now the state’s grid operator has declared an Energy Emergency Level 2, which triggers some factories to power down voluntarily.

But with the peak hour of energy consumption still ahead – 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. -- you may be interested to know about Austin Energy’s Customer Outage Portal, should rolling blackouts occur.

Photo from Austin Energy. Map enhanced by Torrie Hardcastle for KUT News

Update: Austin Energy has released an updated version of this map. You can find it and an explanation here.

Earlier: Texas is currently in Energy Emergency Alert Level 2 as the electricity grid struggles to power air conditioning amid sweltering temperatures. Level 3 would require energy companies like Austin Energy to begin rolling blackouts like those we experienced if February.

After the energy crisis this winter, Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis gave a presentation on the power emergency. The presentation included a map delineating areas of the city connected to so-called "load shed" circuits. These are the circuits that are the first to get turned off in the event of rolling blackouts.

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

You don’t see many plug-in vehicles on the roads these days. But Austin Energy expects one in ten cars in Central Texas to be electric by the year 2020.

That’s why it announced today more than 100 new charging stations at 53 locations across Austin.

The rise of fracking as a method for extracting natural gas from shale rock has triggered demand for a key ingredient in the process: silica sand. In parts of the upper Midwest, there's been a rush to mine this increasingly valuable product.

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