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Aug 022011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Are we hot enough yet?

As Texas boils over into another month that’s likely to break more heat records, I’m thinking about how much we need green power in this state and country. Not only would it bring jobs, it would bring stability, especially if we relied on a diverse menu of renewable power — solar, wind, hydro, off-shore wind and perhaps even wave power.

Texas fields turn crisp under unabated heat and drought.

The relentless drought and heat wave we’re experiencing in Texas may just be a glimpse of future weather extremes and it’s already stressing out Texas’ electrical power system.

Here’s what’s happening: Yesterday the state’s grid operator appealed to residents to conserve electricity, especially between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., to help avert an overload.

The grid which serves the majority of the state hit peak capacity after losing one large generation unit yesterday. And that causes jitters — and rising prices — throughout the system.

If the system hits peak again, a distinct possibility today with forecasts calling for 104 to 110 degrees across the state, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) could have to buy power from neighboring grids or take emergency steps by dropping power to some industrial users. After those measures, come rolling blackouts, according to an article in the Texas Tribune.

If Texas gets to that point, it would have the distinction of having had timed blackouts during both a cold snap (in February) and a heat wave (August) within seven months. And there’s nothing to say this wouldn’t be a new norm. Weather extremes are a hallmark of climate change.

It’s true that North Texas has historically managed to have both sticky hot summers and a slap of serious cold every few winters. But I’ll venture out on a limb and say the heat is getting hotter; the cold snaps more weirdly timed. Wichita Falls just enjoyed its hottest July ever, breaking all records.

One positive here in the frying pan is that Texas’ windmills continue to perform during all this, providing a steady supplement of green power. They’re not subject to sudden price jolts, like natural gas and other non-renewable fuels. That’s a huge benefit of renewable power, it’s, ah.., renewable. So those planned new power lines to help connect West Texas with the state’s urban centers are a pretty good idea. Let’s bring more stabilizing green power to where it’s needed.

But the wind is strongest at night, and that’s not crunch time during hot summer days. Electricity overloads almost always occur in the late afternoon, when it’s hottest outside, and people are home, cooking, washing clothes and blasting the AC.

So we need solar power to complement wind (or wind to complement solar). Electricity from solar power is perfectly suited for a heat wave, being strongest during peak demand hours. And Texas doesn’t have just a little sun power. It’s ranked as having the highest solar power potential among all states. And once again, West Texas is king here. It sees more rays than anywhere else in the state and will be a prime target for big commercial solar projects.

Imagine weathering this heat wave in a cool house powered mainly by your own infrastructure; knowing that when those AC fans came on, you were not running up an electricity bill the size of Cowboys Stadium.

But alas, residential rooftop arrays are no more affordable in Texas than anywhere else, even though they’d work better here than in cloudier places. The cost of a home solar array remains out of reach for most Texans. There’s still a 30 percent federal tax deduction available to homeowners putting up solar panels. That will last through 2016 if it’s not squashed in the DC mashup over the debt deficit.

But the present difficult economy means that even with tax help few residents can afford solar panels.

Some power providers have stepped in with pilot or trial solar programs. But they’ve been limited. And the U.S. federal government has been only nominally supportive of renewables. Congress has declined to pass renewable targets for the nation (keeping the US out of step with Europe, China, Japan, India and countless other nations), and it has offered only limited subsidies to clean power. (A report just out today shows that subsidies for renewable energy have fallen in the last three years to far below the amount given to mature fossil fuel industries, and yet, renewable power continues to add production. How will its fossil fuel competitors stamp it out? Stay tuned.)

Here in Texas, Austin Energy may well be the state leader in helping residents add solar power. They recently sweetened their local rebate on solar panels, raising it to $3 per watt from $2.50. The extra incentive is available through September 2011.

While we wait for better solar prices and packages, we consumers can help keep our electricity bills in check by following some of the conservation tips put out by ERCOT and the EPA.

  • Run the AC at 78. (So many people think that 72 or 75 is a normal indoor temperature, but 78 is more than sufficient to keep people cool, and it’s closes the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperature. At 110, say, it’s still 22 degrees cooler.)
  • If you’re still hot, use a fan. A floor fan or a ceiling fan can make you feel a few degrees cooler, and that may be enough to allow you to keep the central AC at 78.
  • Use a microwave to cook instead of the oven, which heats up the house.
  • Wash clothes and dishes later in the evening when the demand for AC has eased, and wind power can pitch in.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network