Morning Ed: Energy & Environment {2017.08.23.W}

[EE1] Attention J_A and Michael Cain! Is Houston missing out on the renewables revolution? Is it the next Detroit?

[EE2] States that rely on wind power are seeing huge price spikes.

[EE3] Is climate change responsible for a jump in suicides among Indian farmers?

[EE4] Trouble with hydro in India.

[EE5] Tenant agreements are allegedly being updated for “green leasing.”

[EE6] It really doesn’t do a whole lot of good to greenlight pipelines if you don’t have the staffing to process them.

[EE7] While the greens dream of a renewable future, nuclear power is drying up and that will make it harder to meet climate goals.

[EE8] Google’s efforts at green energy have hit more snags than a kite in a forest.

[EE9] Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico the dead zone is growing


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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30 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Energy & Environment {2017.08.23.W}

    • Last month ITER put out its latest schedule. The DEMO reactor — the one that will be a prototype for an actual commercial plant — is now slated to be operational in 2054. At least one of the project managers subsequently said that 2054 was “optimistic but achievable”.

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        • Might ask about the timing window for new fission plants.

          At the end of July, the two South Carolina utilities building a pair of reactors at the Summer power plant announced they were abandoning the project. Costs already incurred have been included in the rate base, and account for about 18% of the typical SC customer’s electric bill. Southern Company has announced that the latest cost estimate for the pair of reactors they’re building at the Vogtle power plant is $25B, with completion pushed off to 2023. The announcement included a thinly-veiled threat that if the Georgia PUC doesn’t include the cost overruns in the rate base, Southern might abandon the project. The NRC has issued licenses for two additional reactors at the South Texas Project, even though the STP has abandoned its nuclear plan because it’s not cost competitive with natural gas or renewables. The Blue Castle project in Utah has been unable to find a financier, or a builder, and has missed contractual payments on water rights.

          We have reached a point where only the feds, or perhaps the larger states, can afford to build fission plants.

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  1. EE1 – I was just in Houston. I saw nothing on the ground to contradict this. Things can change, though, with some sort of concerted initiative. It’s an odd place, infrastructure wise. The streets feel very stripped-down and cheaply built. And not always well-maintained, either.

    I was told a story of a recent mayor race where one candidate, who was known to be a very disreputable and unlikable sort, did quite well just by promising to fix the roads.

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      • I can believe that. Though from my outsider’s glance, it was somewhat difficult to tell the “good” parts of town from the “bad” ones.

        I think that in part this may be due to my own history. I’m used to geography associating and marking the best parts. The heights are better than the lowlands, and lakes are better than plains, etc. But there really aren’t any such things in Houston, other than the river.

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        • Houston’s entirely unplanned sprawl from hell. Always has been. There’s areas where there is, bluntly, perpetual road work. Other places are falling apart.

          As usual, it depends on who the loudest voices are. Weirdly enough, the Convention Center area — there’s a bar about a mile away I like to go to, and the roads just fall apart right around that zone. You’d think they’d keep that nice, but nope.

          If you’re out in the Woodlands, near Intercontinental Airport (or Bush airport or whatever it’s real name is now)? Really nice, huge growth. Down near Hobby? It’s a mess five or ten miles in every direction — then suddenly you hit Clear Lake and it’s nice again. Or up 45 and near Rice and it’s good.

          Parts of downtown are great, other parts are aging. It’s like an ADHD approach to urban renewal sprawled out across at least two counties…

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            • Distribution is only an indicator if the overall situation is much the same over an area.

              If, for instance, you have evenly distributed projects over a circle — but one quadrant is massively decayed and the other three are in good order, it’ll look good on a map — but isn’t.

              Houston’s no different than most cities — the money goes to the rich areas and the growing areas, and everyone else is more or less left dealing with patchwork over critical problems.

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              • Ha, you thought I meant distribution in a statistical sense. Nope!

                If you do work on the south side, you have to do work on the north side, if you do work on the east side, you have to do work on the west side. It’s a human perception problem. Yes, you have to identify the worst of the worsts, but you have to address that stuff in a distributed manner or there will be no end to the bellyachens, which in the end there is no end to the bellyachens, as people gonna bellyachen.

                If there was just this mechanism where people could express their subjective value by improving the thing they want to improve.

                (That said, I would wager the groupings of the improvements on the map probably represent the worst of the area.)

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                  • Okay, let me be blunt: I do not live within the city limits of Houston, so I have no dog in this hunt. I live next to Houston, and visit regularly.

                    That distribution of jobs is tilted heavily to areas with lesser need. As in you should see a different distribution of effort, centered around the places with the oldest and most ragged infrastructure and less in places with newer and better infrastructure.

                    Now some of that is growth — parts of town that are booming see more work (and need more work), but a lot of those empty spots are areas with worn out roads and pipes in dire need of repair. People don’t want to live there, businesses don’t want to operate there, because it’s falling apart.

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                    • Yeah, I’m not looking for a dog hunt here, just that I know by nature that the work is distributed, rich-poor, whatever. Cities are more often than not in dire need. Maybe there is a degree of corruption, maybe not.

                      That is why I mentioned weeks ago most cities are likely to create a city income tax at some point in the future.

                      If you open up that income map and zoom out you see the somewhat depressed inner city and the better off doughnut around it. Only some rich splotches in the business district. Pretty typical.

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                  • There is a dead spot in the northeast corner in what appears a poor area.

                    Houston is very unevenly populated(*), there are enormous patches of almost empty land followed by heavy development further away. The dead spot you see is mostly empty. I live close by, relatively, and my bike ride goes just by it. Amazing to see. The following link will correlate with your previous map.

                    http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=85a821d13a4f4502a85f71c4aae8bae8

                    (*) Direct consequence of the very strict segregation rules that were in place until the 1960s/70s. My own 1940s neighborhood has a covenant that forbids selling or renting to non-whites, and makes a special allowance for live-in maids only – with a footnote that says that that particular covenant is not enforceable.

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            • If you look at the map you’ll notice a large amount of work just NW of Downtown. That’s areas that were developed as suburbs in the early decades of the past century (Montrose, Upper Kirby, The Heights) and whose infrastructure is now collapsing, incapable to withstand the enormous growth in the area since the 1990s.

              I’ve been to restaurants in that area that tell you not to flush used toilet paper because the street drains can’t handle it.

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              • Some of those areas are rapidly gentrifying, which I suspect is one reason they’re finally getting some love.

                I know a couple that has moved twice in that area, because he enjoys fixing stuff as a hobby. So they moved into a cheap home in an area that started getting really popular, and right as he was done fixing everything — the area blew up. He finally ended up selling for a very hefty profit and moved to the neighborhood he wanted originally, to another big fixer-up that he’s enjoying.

                (Although he does claim to regret his tile choices for a bathroom wall. He got through a full tiled wall, with very tiny tiles and a nice mosaic he and his wife designed, in a day. He posted a picture of himself at 4:00 AM finishing it because “I’m not going to bed until it’s done!”)

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              • Yeah, some cities are pretty good about using CIPs to upgrade all the utilities in a aged subdivision or area. I have trouble in smaller towns selling full upgrades because of the costs, especially since oil revenues have slowed.

                I have a unique problem in one town that has three private streets failing badly in a central business district. They are heavily used be the general public. It’s a particular brand of crazy.

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  2. EE9: I think that piece misses the issue, its not corn/bean production alone that is causing the dead zone. Its corn production on tiled farmland which is the largest contributor to nitrate and phosphorus that ends up in the rivers and then the Gulf. Link. Large parts of Illinois, Iowa and Indiana have high groundwater tables and lack slopes to carry away surface water. After the Civil War, clay tiles were installed to drain these land of the malaria-carrying swampy ground, which allowed high-levels of corn production. When corn is fertilized on tiled farmland, particularly in the Spring to promote early growth, most of the fertilizer washes quickly with the rains into the tile system and drainage ditches to the river before getting a chance to be absorbed by plants. New corn hybrids that more efficiently absorb fertilizer have recently been shown to have reduced the level of nitrates in the Illinios River by 15 percent. Link

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  3. [EE5] what people imagine: Green roofs, solar panels, composting toilets, cisterns rather than downspouts

    what we’ll get: A $200-a-month surcharge that buys carbon credits from Tesla to “offset” the power use and waste production of the building, and a sign out from claiming that the place is “net zero”

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  4. EE1, second link: I’ve always thought of Houston in recent years/decades as the big player in large-scale chemical engineering and related industries. Detroit “died” when the auto industry relocated its production. Relocating Houston’s chemical industry is a whole different thing. Eg, it was enough that Kentucky could offer lower labor costs to the auto companies, but Kentucky’s got no answer to the Port of Houston.

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    • I was about to post something like that — Houston’s port is a major factor. Chemicals and feedstock have got to travel, and Houston is both well suited for that travel but also knee deep in chemical engineers and large scale capacity.

      On top of that, it’s well positioned to handle renewable energy as soon as the dinosaurs get off their asses. We’re well suited for wind, wave, and solar — and Texas has pretty sizeable tax breaks for renewables. (Wind in particular is taking off).

      The big chemical and refining interests aren’t really moving to take advantage of it, but solar and wind are growing steadily in Texas — even in Houston.

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      • Well, isn’t what’s at stake whether Houston will be a leader or a “me too”? Especially since Austin seems like they are spinning up pretty hard, and might suck up all the money and talent.

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        • (Sorry, I was in meetings and then inside a plane most of yesterday)

          EE1 The article you linked is interesting, but it misses what Houston is, energy wise.

          First of all, as others have mentioned, Houston is a hub for the physical trading of oil, gas, and all kind of oil/gas petrochemical derivatives. This is what most Houston people mean when they say they work in energy, that they work in moving and transforming hydrocarbons. That’s were the bulk of the energy sector economic activity is. For geographical reasons, that’s not going to change any decade soon.

          As a consequence of the above, Houston is also a hub for the financial and back office activities related to the oil and gas industries. Scores of lawyers, investment bankers, engineering and environmental firms, specialized accountants, equipment manufacturers, plant construction companies, etc. are located here to support every aspect of the physical handling of products. And their expertise spills over to related industries such as utilities (Go, utilities!!!!)

          People like me and my company, the electrical utilities industry, locate in Houston to take advantage of the presence of this specialized support. Every big law firm in town has an energy practice, every Big Four accounting firm has an energy practice, every investment bank has an energy team, every engineering and environmental consultant has an energy department. All this brings the money tgat wants to invest in energy into Houston. You can’t throw a stone in downtown or the Galleria without hitting some private equity fund, big or small, focused on energy investments.

          Some better, faster, commenters have pointed out that scientific/engineering research in Houston focus on chemical/refining processes. This research is in huge campuses owned and run by the large industry players (Exxon, Slumberger, Chevron, Halliburton, all come to mind), not by universities, though, as mentioned, the University of Houston devotes substantial efforts to the development of better batteries (I was an advisor on the commercial applications in utilities of one such project).

          The article, though interesting, plays a sleight of hand by going Energy > Electrical Generation > Renewables Power Generation > Renewables Power Generation Research and pointing out that Houston doesn’t have the latter so it’s at risk of losing the first. I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

          (And yes, my firm is currently building three renewable energy plants: two solar and one wind. Enlightenment is indeed coming to Houston)

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        • In terms of Houston? It doesn’t matter. It has so many advantages that playing “me too” doesn’t lose them much. Being a leader would gain them more, I fully agree (although Houston has a lot more going on in that area that you’d think).

          But there’s not that much downside — the amount of infrastructure (physical and intellectual and financial) Houston has, and it’s location, means that they’re going to remain a Goliath for chemical engineering (hydrocarbons and otherwise) and they’re well positioned to take advantage of renewables even if they aren’t a leader and instead or just bringing mature technologies to bear.

          Austin is shaping up as a tech hub — Houston’s never really been in that game (well, aside from the engineering and technologies stuff associated with NASA, which is a big game and isn’t going anywhere). Austin literally can’t replace Houston on the chemical (no port, for one) and energy side, and they’re not even trying. They (and SA) are aiming to be the Silicon Valley of Texas.

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