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Clashing Over How to Boost Clean Energy

Paul Robbins has become something of an institution in Austin as a full-time, volunteer watchdog of the city’s municipally-owned utility, Austin Energy. Recently I wrote about how he forced AE to make changes to its discount program for low-income customers. This week I’d like to focus on another fight he has waged, often putting him at odds with fellow environmentalists.

Robbins, who calls himself an “environmental and consumer advocate,” got engaged in politics in the 1970’s as part of the anti-nuclear movement. But he scoffs at the demands made of Austin Energy by many of the city’s environmentalists, saying that their campaign for 100% renewable energy in the near future is unrealistic.

“I have tried in as politely a way as possible to say that solar and wind is great, but it will only get you so far,” he told me recently.

Simply put, he says, many in the environmental movement don’t appreciate the challenges posed to make renewable sources dispatchable. Right now, intermittent wind and solar power is plentiful, but the technology necessary to make it available whenever you need it is still very expensive. Utilities are nowhere near capable of providing the battery storage that would be necessary to support a resilient grid fueled just by renewables.

Last summer, green-clad activists flooded City Hall, urging City Council to set ambitious renewable goals for AE, including making the utility 100% renewable-based by 2030. Council approved compromise proposal that some environmental groups criticized as too modest. It set a goal for 65% renewable generation by 2027.

Robbins didn’t mind that City Council supported the compromise. That’s because AE is just one utility among many that generate power to the Texas grid. Austin ratepayers are therefore not dependent on AE’s generation.

“If you view the Texas grid (ERCOT) by itself, then yes, Austin can accomplish 65% (even 100%), because dispatchable energy from other utilities selling into the grid can balance intermittent wind and PVs,” says Robbins.

But Robbins is frustrated by what he sees as delusion among some environmental activists, who he says are generally “well-meaning people.”

“I can’t fault them for vilifying oil and gas companies,” he says. “Those companies are killing the world. But I can fault them for misleading themselves about what it would take to have a grid based entirely on renewable energy.”

In a recent presentation to the city’s Electric Utility Commission (made up of citizen appointees that make policy recommendations to City Council), Robbins encouraged people to reassess their expectations about renewables taking over in a few short years.

He highlighted the example of Denmark, which generated 41% of its electricity from intermittent wind and solar cells in 2016. However, explained Robbins, “The country balances its intermittent power every minute of the day as part of the Scandinavian grid.  Combined, the region only received about 16% of its electricity from wind and solar.”

So what Robbins suggest? He wants AE to start seriously considering ways to ramp up dispatchable renewable power. One of the problems in Texas, he explains, is that ERCOT does not have major interconnections to other grids in the U.S., which makes it very challenging to import renewable power from elsewhere in the country.  Nor does it have the potential for much more hydroelectricity, or for geothermal energy, that exist in other states or countries.

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However, Robbins has a few ideas, some well tested, others unusual, that Austin might want to consider for dispatchable renewable energy.

He sees a future in Texas for Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), which can store heat harvested with fields of focusing mirrors next to the generators allowing them to run through the night.  “Just 6/10ths of 1% of the land area in Texas (about 1,700 square miles) could provide all of its total 2016 electric consumption,” he notes.

No CSP plant has been built in Texas yet, but the price “could fall by 50% in a decade with serious efforts at economies of scale.”  Robbins also referenced a recent bid in the Australian power market for CSP at 6¢ per kwh wholesale, which is within striking distance of the cost of a new gas plant on Texas.

Robbins also wants to see Austin increase its use of Thermal Energy Storage, which uses nighttime or surplus renewable energy to store cold water, hot water, and ice next to buildings.  This technology is employed worldwide, but Robbins said Austin has barely scratched its potential. He suggested that thermal storage should be mandated for new buildings and grocery stores. “It’s much cheaper than electric batteries, and will likely remain so,” he says.

Another unusual idea: Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). As he explains, “It uses intermittent or low cost power to produce compressed air in a geologic formation.  When the stored energy is needed, the compressed air is heated in a combustion turbine. Since pressurized air needs less heat than unpressurized air to create electricity, the turbines are much more efficient.  However, they still need natural gas or some other heat source. This would create carbon emissions, albeit greatly reduced amounts of them.”

Robbins also says Austin is passing up on a lot of existing hydropower storage from the nearby Highland Lakes. There is 295 MW of capacity there that is rarely being used.

Another option that Robbins says could eventually account for about 4% of ERCOT’s load: biogas from animal feeding operations and landfills. It would be the cheapest biomass option available in Texas.

Robbins defended his ideas against critics who believe the grid can operate solely on intermittent power.  “I have not lost the goal of seeing an electric grid in Texas that operates completely on clean energy. I want to see it work in the real world.  I want to see Austin Energy as the Charter member of a partnership to build the first CSP and CAES plants in Texas.”

You can read more of Robbins’ ideas about challenges to clean energy development at his website, the Austin Environmental Directory.

 

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