27 February 2007

Why Texas *really* needs more electricity

The pages of the Houston Chronicle have been full of advertisements featuring the filthy faces of men, women, and children and bearing the slogan "Coal is Dirty." They were part of an advertising campaign against utility company TXU's proposal to build 11 new coal-fired electricity plants in Texas.

Luckily for Texans who think that clean air is important, TXU was just bought out by a larger utility firm that will only build 3 of the coal-fired plants, instead of the original 11. But that hasn't ended fears from certain quarters that Texas, whose population is set to double in the next fifteen years, won't have enough electricity to serve all those new Texans.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I walked through my neighborhood a little after 6pm. The sun was setting, and it was about 70 degrees. There was a light wind from the north, and none of the humidity that usually characterizes Houston. It was a beautiful evening. At home I had left my windows open and my house fan humming. I've been pleased by this weather because I haven't had to run my gas-powered furnace or my electric-powered air conditioner in about a week. My utility bills will be small next month! Of course, as I walked, I heard the sounds of birds settling down for the evening and the hum of air conditioners.

Air conditioners? Huh? In this beautiful weather?

As I walked yesterday evening, I noticed that about 3 out of five houses were running air conditioners. Many of these houses didn't even have screens on their windows, indicating that invariably some form of climate control is running in those houses, even when the weather is gorgeous.

I suggest that perhaps Texans need to learn something about conservation *before* any utility firm builds new electrical plants, whether it be three coal-fired plants or 11.


At Tuesday, February 27, 2007 2:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it's not just Texans that need to think before they turn on the heat or the a/c. We notice the same thing when we walk around our Pennsylvania neighborhood! Mammamoo

At Wednesday, February 28, 2007 11:05:00 AM, Anonymous Mike Davidson said...

I must confess that I have a bit of a problem with the 'Coal is Dirty' slogan. It is just that, a slogan. The truth is is that coal burning technology has progressed to the point that new plants are not significant producers of particular matter, nitrogen oxides, and acid-rain-producing sulphur dioxide. 'Coal is Dirty' is a nice rhetorical tool, but it also represents an evasion of the more significant, and, frankly, more accurate arguments against building new coal-fired plants.

You have identified one of those arguments - conservation versus the wasteful consumption of energy. But we must also throw into the mix the immense environmental degradation caused by coal mining, and the tons of carbon dioxide gas (perfectly clean to breath, but, of course, the primary greenhouse gas) which will be pumped into the air by coal-burning. There is technology available to sequester CO2, but at this point utilities have no incentive to pursue it - that strikes me as one of the most important upcoming battles.

[I would harp on renewable energy as well were it not for the fact that fellow 'friends of the environment' from the Appalachian Mountain Club to the Kennedys have managed to block just about every significant wind farm proposal because it might ruin a view. . .]

Mike Davidson

At Wednesday, February 28, 2007 3:06:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Good point, Mike.

I should have noted that the 11 proposed plants would have used older coal-burning technology initially. The permits for the plants indicated that TXU would upgrade the plants at some undetermined time in the future.

They also planned to burn Texas lignite, which is considerably dirtier than some other American coals.

And, in the latest development, the Texas legislature is planning on fighting the dissolution of TXU, so we might be right back where we started by the end of the session.

On the other hand, last year Texas did surpass California as the state with the most wind farms. :) (My power is 100% wind.)

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 9:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rebecca - don't you pay a premium to have wind powered electricity? Also did you see the criticism of Al Gore's utility bills that have floated around the "right wing" blogosphere? He has opted for a green solution which is more expensive than "traditional" power He is being criticized for not practicing what he preaches because he pays so much for power!
You Know Who!

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 11:02:00 AM, Anonymous mike davidson said...

Except, anonymous, that it ain't that simple. It is true that Gore purchases the more expensive renewable energy. It is also true that Gore is a wasteful consumer of energy; the AP investigative report indicates 191,000 kilowatt-hours last year as opposed to 15,600 kilowatt-hours for a 'typical Nashville household'. The wingnuts have a valid point on this one.

Mike Davidson

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 11:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but if ALL energy was "green," or "renewable," then it would just be a matter of personal budgeting regarding how much money someone wanted to spend on energy. I don't think Gore should be criticized for having a bigger house or more computers or ten refrigerators if he wants them and can afford them. The point is more about the fact that all energy should come from sustainable sources. Mammamoo

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Yes, I do pay a premium for green electricity. I pay almost double per kilowatt hour. This really hurts in the summertime, when even though I leave my air conditioning on 82 during the day and about 78 at night, my bills can top $200.00 per month.

Though my electricity is technically 100% wind, this means that I'm paying to help generate wind power in Texas and feed it into the grid, but that my electricity comes from the grid. Since only 1% of Texas's grid is actually generating by solar and wind sources, I'm still *using* coal-fired power most of the time. The premium I pay though goes towards constructing more wind plants in Texas, and I hope that in the next ten years Texas's grid will be more like 10-15% wind (an optimistic figure).

I'm willing to bet that Gore's power sources and his house are pretty green friendly. I'm also wondering if the same people who "exposed" Gore are the same ones who "exposed" Edwards's big house.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 1:26:00 PM, Anonymous mike davidson said...

"Though my electricity is technically 100% wind, this means that I'm paying to help generate wind power in Texas and feed it into the grid, but that my electricity comes from the grid. Since only 1% of Texas's grid is actually generating by solar and wind sources, I'm still *using* coal-fired power most of the time."

This is precisely why I am not willing to give Gore a pass on this, and why, Mammamoo (Mrs. Goetz I presume? 8-) your if is so big, and so far away. What percentage of Gore's 191,000 kilowatt-hours was, in fact, produced by fossil-fuel consumption rather than the combination of solar, wind, and methane (from waste treatment recovery)? [see http://www.tva.gov/greenpowerswitch/]

This is unfortunately not a question that can be directly answered, as the TVA makes its green power production figures public, [http://www.tva.gov/greenpowerswitch/updates.htm],
but does not publish the corresponding volume of consumers who have signed up for their 'Green Power Switch' program. However things are balanced, we are left with one of two conclusions, that Gore's 175,000 extra kilowatt-hours represent substantially either:
1. Kilowatt-hours produced by fossil fuels, or;
2. Kilowatt-hours produced by renewable sources which would have otherwise been consumed by a customer who utilizes fossil fuel sources.

The partial defense to this is that Gore's higher power bills, like Rebecca's, subsidize the production of further sources of renewable power.

The broader point I am making is that I do not think that wealth is an excuse for exorbitant power consumption. To put a historical spin on this, the argument put forward by Gore's defenders correlates well with the justifications for the sale of indulgences in the late medieval church.

Then: Its ok to sin so long as you purchase sufficient indulgences.

Now: Its ok to have a gross carbon footprint so long as you purchase sufficient carbon offsets.

Mike Davidson

At Friday, March 02, 2007 1:36:00 PM, Blogger Kelly in Kansas said...

While some always have some form of air on, some keep the windows closed because of allergies and other pollutants that they have to keep out in order to breath.


kelly in kansas

At Friday, March 02, 2007 3:58:00 PM, Blogger Clio Bluestocking said...

Living in Houston (as I did for twentymmmph years), you really notice a lot of things like this, most especially in the summer, when the air turns brown and the heat makes you wonder how anyone at all could question the veracity of global warming. You'll notice the aversion to improving public transportation, but a complete willingness to widen the highway to something like 12 lanes across. You'll notice the high rates of asthma among the people you meet. You will, as kelly in kansas wrote, note that people keep the air on because the processed air might be healthier than the actual air. It is all a huge a vicious circle, which, of course, makes you wonder how any politician from the area could not commit him/herself to environmentalism. Trust me, your option for green electricity is a very new, and shocking, improvement there!

P.S. Your notice about Schlesinger, Jr.'s death in History Network News was very sweet and intelligent. We should all be so lucky to have such a notice and such a career.

At Thursday, March 15, 2007 3:03:00 PM, Blogger History Geek said...

Fellow Texan here. Even my work as the A/C on alreadly, I swear I'm the only one that thinks 'hey maybe I should open a window instead'.

I open my doors and windows every chance I get in my condo.


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