Articles Posted in Energy and the Environment

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Last year KUT produced a podcast, “The Disconnect,” chronicling the February 2021 Texas freeze and blackout. KUT has now produced Part 2: “The Disconnect: Power, Politics and the Texas Blackout,” explaining what has happened since–what has been fixed, the cost in electric bills, and the aftermath–hosted by KUT reporter Mose Buchele. An excellent look at what the legislature, regulators, gas producers and generators have and have not done to prevent future system failures.

Yesterday the Texas Railroad Commission approved new regulations requiring well, gas plant and pipeline operators to winterize their facilities. Critics are skeptical they will do the job.

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Dr. Scott Tinker will host a 12-episode TV series on energy and climate, on Austin’s PBS station, KLRU, beginning September 4 at 6 pm and streaming on PBS.org. More information can be found here.

From the press release:

Energy and climate are intertwined, two of the most important topics in the world today. Yet very little is known about them. This show aims to change that. ENERGY SWITCH brings together two renowned experts from government, NGOs, academia and industry, with differing perspectives on important energy and climate topics, such as: Could solar and wind power our future? Or could hydrogen be the dominant energy source? Should we have more or less nuclear power? How should we respond to climate change? What policies most effectively reduce emissions? How could we pay for them?

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We’ve seen much posturing and finger-pointing from politicians on who is to blame for power failures during Winter Storm Uri last February. UT’s Austin Energy Institute has issued a report: The timeline and Events of the February 2021 Texas Electric Grid Blackouts, laying out the facts on what happened. The POWER Committee of the Austin Energy Institute, chaired by Dr. Carey King, issued this report. Dr. King does research related to how energy systems interact within the economy and environment, and how policy and social systems can made decisions and trade-offs among competing factors. The report clarifies how much the reduction in natural gas supply contributed to the disaster.

Summary from the report:

Factors contributing to the electricity blackouts of February 15-18, 2021, include the following: Continue reading →

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With the recent cold snap, we’re all remembering what we were doing last February when the lights went out.

Repercussions continue. As reported by Michell Ferman at Texas Tribune, Vistra corporation is in a dispute with Energy Transfer over its bill to Vistra for $21.6 million, for gas sold to Vistra during the freeze. Energy Transfer has threatened to cut off gas supplies to Vistra if it doesn’t pay, and Vistra has asked the Texas Railroad Commission to prevent that. Ferman writes:

During last year’s winter storm — which caused the near-total collapse of the state’s power grid, left millions without power for days and caused hundreds of deaths — Vistra spent approximately $1.5 billion for natural gas, ‘twice its planned natural gas cost to fuel its entire Texas fleet for a full year,’ the filing said. Vistra paid Energy Transfer more than $600 million during the storm, ‘which is more than 96% of all amounts invoiced by [Energy Transfer].’

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According to an article in The Texas Tribune, senators on the Senate Business and Commerce Committee were frustrated that the Railroad Commission had not done more to require natural gas producers, processors and pipelines to winterize their systems. In a committee hearing on Tuesday, they castigated Commission Executive Director Wei Wang for not moving faster. They did not seem to realize that the Commission was following the timeline set out in Senate Bill 3, passed in the last regular session to address the power loss across the state last February.

As I’ve posted, the Commission has proposed a rule requiring the gas producers, processors and pipelines to designate whether they are critical infrastructure, but the statute allows the industry to opt out of that category if they want to, a loophole that seemed to surprise and frustrate the senators. Wang pointed out that the Commission’s proposed rule mirrors the language of Senate Bill 3, which seemed not to mollify the senators, who demanded immediate action from the Commission.

The statute provides that a committee will map out the state’s energy infrastructure by September 2022, after which the Commission will have 180 days to finalize weatherization rules, a timeline the senators also criticized.  As the Texas Tribune reported, “Energy experts said lawmakers have themselves to blame if they wanted the state’s natural gas infrastructure, which sends fuel to many of Texas’ largest power plants, to be weatherized quickly — or at all. ‘The Legislature left this loophole open,’ said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy and climate consultant.”

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A recent report from Deloitte provides a good perspective on the prospects for wind and solar electricity.

Some takeaways:

Costs of wind and solar are now competitive with coal and gas. “Power purchase agreement (PPA) prices for wind and solar power are also competitive with other resources. The weighted average US price for the first half of 2021 from auction and PPAs for solar PV is US$31/MWh, while for onshore wind it is US$37/MWh. This compares to a weighted average wholesale electricity price of about US$34/MWh across US markets during the same period.” It now costs less to build new solar and wind plants than to continue operating existing coal-fired plants. Wind and solar costs are projected to fall by half by 2030.

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Here’s a novel idea: use gas that would otherwise be flared to generate electricity in the field and use it to mine bitcoin. Believe it or not, it is being done. In North Dakota, Equinor and Enerplus are among the operators using the process. New companies like Crusoe Energy have sprung up to provide the in-the-field equipment. Crusoe has some 40 mobile generating units in oil shale basins and plans on increasing that number to 100. A recent conference in Houston on the subject saw 200 oil and gas execs and bitcoin miners in attendance.

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency or digital currency, created in 2009. There is no physical coin, only a balance kept on a public ledger. It can be used to purchase goods and services, for those companies that accept bitcoin as payment. Mostly, bitcoin are bought and sold as a type of investment. As of this writing, one bitcoin sells for $47,706.80. Bitcoins are not backed by any hard asset or any government.

So what is “mining” bitcoin? See explanation here. “Bitcoin mining is performed by high-powered computers that solve complex computational math problems; these problems are so complex that they cannot be solved by hand and are complicated enough to tax even incredibly powerful computers.” One with a computer that solves the problem is given a “block reward,” currently 6.25 bitcoins. The amount of electricity being used to run computers mining bitcoin is enormous; the global bitcoin industry’s consumption of electricity is causing emissions of 60 million tons/year of CO2. That’s the equivalent of about nine million cars.

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In a recent article, reporter Chris Tomlinson of the Houston Chronicle castigates Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick for testifying before a state legislative committee in March that the State’s oil and gas industry had no responsibility for the February power blackouts in Texas. Craddick testified:

Some media outlets would have you believe that natural gas producers and frozen transmission pipes caused the power shortage across the state, but I sit before you today to state that these operators were not the problem – the oil and gas industry was the solution. Any issues of frozen equipment or delays in process restoration could have been avoided had the production facilities not been shut down by power outages.

A recent report by twelve University of Texas at Austin faculty members, funded by the Public Utility Commission, contradicts Craddick:

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Article from Texas Tribune, by Erin Douglas, republished with permission:

Deep underneath the ground, fluids travel down and shoot through ancient shale formations, fracturing rock and starting the flow of oil — the essential part of hydraulic fracturing technology that’s transformed America’s oil industry.

But that’s not all that comes up out of the earth.

Salty, contaminated water — held in porous rocks formed hundreds of millions of years ago — is also drawn to the surface during oil production. Before an oil price war and the coronavirus pandemic caused prices to crash in March, Texas wells were producing more than 26 million barrels of the ancient and contaminated water a day, according to an analysis by S&P Global Platts.

In the oil patch, figuring out how to dispose of this water “is something that only gets worse,” said Rene Santos, an energy analyst for S&P Global Platts. “Every time (companies) produce, they have to do something with the water.”

Usually, it’s later injected back underground, into separate wells — a practice that has been linked to increased seismic activity. Sometimes it’s reused in another fracking well. But a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision allowing Texas to regulate the discharge of the water after it’s treated could be a first step toward new uses of the water — at least that’s what some Texas lawmakers and oil and gas producers hope. Continue reading →

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