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Feature

Energy Reality Check: Part II

Green Power for Texans and Their Co-ops

For all of its promise, renewable energy has made little headway onto our nation’s or Texas’ power grids. Texas receives about 2 percent of its electricity from wind turbines. And that’s the state’s renewable powerhouse, so to speak. All other renewable sources—hydropower, biomass, geothermal and solar—account for less than 1 percent combined.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the grid manager that handles 85 percent of the state’s electricity load, strives to have a reserve power production capacity of 12.5 percent. This ensures that on our hottest days and coldest nights, or when a power plant is out of service, Texans still have power flowing. That capacity is expected to fall below 6 percent by 2012. Considering how long it takes to build new power plants, 2012 is just around the corner. And construction of transmission lines, particularly to bring wind power generated in West Texas to power-hungry major metro areas, is also in a time crunch.

In the October issue, we discussed gas, coal and nuclear power—the fuels used to generate about 97 percent of Texas’ electricity. We explained that these “base-load” fuels, the ones that supply continuous power, couldn’t be completely replaced by renewable energy. However, the promise of “green” energy is very exciting. This month our reality check focuses on renewable energy and the present distance between expectations and capabilities.

As for the cooperatives’ position on renewables, General Manager Greg Jones of Cherokee County Electric Cooperative, who is chairman of the board of Texas Electric Cooperatives (TEC), the statewide association, says, “We support achievable goals that will reduce dependence on foreign oil, foster economic opportunity and reduce our impact on the environment. That covers every renewable idea being discussed these days.”

Wind

As long as the wind is blowing, the turbines hum and electricity flows. But since the wind doesn’t blow all the time, a backup source of power such as natural gas or coal is always needed.

Texans are clamoring for more electricity from wind power. The state is, after all, big and blustery. Texas leads the nation in wind-power production with more than 2,000 turbines and an annual maximum capacity of 2,768 megawatts (MW). That’s enough electricity from wind to help serve 600,000 average homes. The operative word is “help” because wind doesn’t blow all the time. Virtually every kilowatt of wind generation must be backed up by some other type of generation (like gas or coal plants). Although 600,000 homes sounds like a lot, the state has approximately 9 million housing units in need of electricity, along with churches, town halls, offices, factories and all the public amenities citizens have grown to expect.

“The wind as a ‘fuel’ is free, but harnessing it with an electric dynamo and transmitting it to a market where it is needed can be very expensive,” says Bill Harbin, general manager of Lighthouse Electric Cooperative in windy West Texas. “An additional cost is for transmission lines to deliver the power to a market where it can be used.” He also said, “The variable output that accompanies strong gusts followed by light breezes would create challenges for grid stability. That’s because natural gas and coal-fired generators and hydroelectric plants must increase or decrease their output to keep total generation in balance with consumers’ electrical loads.”

The Public Utility Commission of Texas directed ERCOT to plan for transmission of at least 10,000 more MW of wind power by 2012.

So wind power is just part of the future energy mix. And even this source of power, seemingly the most benign and uncontroversial, has its downsides. The giant rotors endanger birds and bats. And then there’s the issue of siting. Not everyone likes to see massive turbines or high-voltage lines on the horizon.

Pros: Clean, sustainable, cheap “fuel” source.

Cons: When the wind doesn’t blow, electricity doesn’t flow. Turbine rotors kill birds and bats. Some call turbines an eyesore. Construction of more transmission lines to carry power from West Texas to major urban areas is costly.

Outlook: West Texas wind farms will continue to proliferate; plans are in the works to address transmission issues.

Tapping the Earth

Texas hydropower is mature; geothermal potential remains largely undeveloped.

The largest source of hydropower in Texas comes from the Highland Lakes, the six lakes dammed for flood control starting in the 1930s. The Lower Colorado River Authority, which controls the lakes, releases water through turbines to produce wholesale power for 1 million people, including 43 electric cooperatives and city-owned utilities. But hydropower, which provided a large portion of Texas’ electricity generation in the early days of the industry, accounts for less than half a percent of the total today.

The State Energy Conservation Office estimates that Texas has 1,000 MW of untapped potential hydropower resources. But land acquisition and environmental questions would likely make their development troublesome.

The use of wave or ocean energy to generate power is limited in the relatively placid Gulf of Mexico, and technologies for generating wave energy are still immature. But salinity-gradient solar technology is being studied at the University of Texas at El Paso. It involves using pools of salty water to absorb heat from sunlight that is effectively locked in the pool. The heat can be used for electricity production.

Geothermal energy is a promising source of electricity in Texas because it is reliable and nonpolluting. In this technology, the earth’s heat is tapped to produce steam for conversion to electricity. In fact, in February, Texas sold the state’s first geothermal lease to Ormat Technologies, which paid $55,645 for the right to explore over 11,000 acres of submerged land in the coastal counties of Jefferson, Galveston, Chambers, Calhoun, Jackson, Nueces and Kleberg.

The downside to geothermal energy is that these hot temperatures exist 4,000 to 6,000 feet below the earth’s surface, and substantial investments must be made to locate any potential geothermal pockets.

Geothermal heat pumps for home air conditioning and heating take advantage of constant soil temperatures underground.

Pros: Dams already produce nonpolluting power. Texas also has potential for wave power, saline ponds and geothermal heat.

Cons: Public opposition may prevent more development of dams. Drought dries up hydroelectricity production.

Outlook: The Gulf of Mexico is a weak candidate for wave-powered generation, but saline water deposits in West Texas may be used as solar storage.

Biomass

The state has lots of room to grow this energy source, which could provide plenty of fuel for electricity production. Converting crops to energy enjoys wide political support.

Anyone who has a compost heap understands the concept of biomass. One can feel the heat as yard and table scraps “cook” to form mulch or soil amendments. Similarly, methane gas generated from animal waste or captured from landfills is an up-and-coming source of biopower electricity but does not account for many megawatts in Texas at present.

Biomass can be used to create fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Corn-based ethanol in particular seems to be riding a wave of popularity, spurred by political support from corn-producing states. Unfortunately, the growing use of corn for fuel has already increased the cost of some foods. As the joke goes, it is already eating America’s lunch.

Here at home, Texas A&M University is experimenting with fuel made from grain sorghum. Texas foresters are recycling wood waste for energy, and sugar producers are making energy from sugar cane. Other states are studying poplar trees, switchgrass and cornstalks as potential fuel sources.

Pros: Crop wastes, methane and other raw materials can be used to make fuels or electricity.

Cons: Food costs rise when grain is converted to energy; water and land are diverted to new uses; burning organic matter releases carbon dioxide.

Outlook: Because Texas has so much land under cultivation, it may be able to accommodate farming for both food and biomass fuel sources; crops with high energy potential are being bred.

Solar

The technology to turn sunlight into electricity has been around for years. It has many upsides but can be an expensive proposition. Like wind, solar requires a backup source of power.

The Texas climate lends itself to photovoltaic (solar cell) technologies for harnessing the power of sunlight to create electricity. But like wind power, large-scale solar power is subject to the laws of nature. Solar potential depends on the time of day and angle of the sun. Large amounts of it can’t be stored, so it can’t be used for a guaranteed day-in, day-out source of electricity. And though the price of equipment has come down in recent years, the energy produced still costs several times that of utility-supplied energy.

The most frequent use of solar power in rural Texas is to pump water to remote stock tanks, where stringing electric lines is relatively costly. Solar equipment can also be used for swimming pool heating and water heaters. Photovoltaic systems are most commonly installed on the roofs of homes, garages, carports, greenhouses and other structures. But they can also be installed vertically against a wall of a home, as part of an awning or near the ground as a freestanding structure.

Pros: Time-tested technology; sunshine is abundant, nonpolluting.

Cons: High upfront costs; power dependent on level of sunshine.

Outlook: Costs are coming down; new ideas include flexible photovoltaic panels, concentrating heat to make steam for turbines.


Energy management and conservation

New technologies can help consumers wield their power more wisely.

Renewable energy’s role in providing electricity will grow because the public is demanding it, utilities see advantage in it, and government is mandating it. Nationally, electric cooperatives are participating in a group called 25×25, which aims to use renewable sources for 25 percent of electricity by 2025. The group is encouraging federal energy policy that provides incentives rather than mandates for such a goal. Cooperatives are also looking at a strategy put together by the Electric Power Research Institute to bring CO2 pollution back to 1990 levels by 2020.

Renewable energy technologies are in various stages of development. As we learned last month, renewables cannot replace generation from traditional fuel sources such as natural gas and coal. But the technologies can supplement available supplies of traditional fuels. If the cost of traditional fuels continues to increase as expected, renewable alternatives should also become more cost effective.

The electric cooperatives’ jobs are to manage energy resources efficiently, press for technological improvements and supply a steady source of reliable, affordable electricity. Unfortunately, the definition of “affordable” is changing as traditional fuel sources become more expensive. That’s why conservation by consumers is the most important renewable of all.

Fortunately, cooperatives are leaders in demand-side management, a practice that offers great potential for co-op/consumer partnerships.

Market prices for wholesale power are, in some cases, set a day in advance, usually on an hour-by-hour or even on a quarter-hour basis. Traditional electrical meters measure total consumption and provide no information as to when the energy was consumed. Rates are usually blended for a single monthly bill. New “smart” meters measure time-of-day use. This sort of pricing has been in place on large loads—factories, for example—at many co-ops. Some Texas co-ops are now replacing all their standard dial meters with residential smart meters as well. With that capability, co-ops impose varying prices for consumption. They can be based on the time of day and the season to reflect the market price of wholesale energy.

Smart metering enables cooperatives and their members to work in partnership to lessen costly peak loads. Smart meters can also give consumers information on their electricity usage patterns, helping them to adjust some practices—for example, running the dishwasher or clothes dryer during off-peak times to use electricity when the rates are lower.

In the future, more cooperatives will offer rate incentives to members in exchange for the right to shut appliances off at peak times or during emergency situations when the system is straining under a heavy load. Turning the water heater or the A/C off for a few minutes across a service area may avert the need for an expensive “peaking” plant to be pulled into service. The more we avoid building or using peaking plants, the more reasonable the cost of electricity will be.

“Conservation must become second nature to all of us,” says Ray Beavers, CEO of United Cooperative Services and vice chairman of the board of TEC. “Cooperatives can help member-consumers find ways to trim electricity costs. And the good news is, co-ops and their members have an advantage over for-profit electricity suppliers because our mutual goal is reliable and reasonably priced electricity. In partnership with consumers, Texas cooperatives have a hopeful handle on our energy future.”

Pros: An area where YOU can make a difference; reduces the need to invest in costly new generating plants; minimizes CO2 emissions; and saves you money.

Cons: May involve personal sacrifice and changes in both personal and work habits related to energy usage.

Outlook: Technological advances will make appliances even more efficient and utilities better able to manage supply and demand in partnership with consumers.

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Kaye Northcott is retired editor of Texas Co-op Power.