Tag Archives: Texas

Meeting future water demands of Texas with groundwater desalination

Future Problem: growing water demands of Texas

As we all know, Texas is a rapidly growing state. The population is expected to increase by 82% in the next fifty years, doubling its population from 25.4 million to 46.3 million people. The Texas State Water plan predicts that the water demand will increase by 22%. Although this increase is not as enormous as the population growth (due to the decline in irrigation water demand and increased attention towards water conservation practices), it is still a colossal challenge for Texas water planners to figure how to allocate demand amongst all of its water-hungry sectors, including but not limited to irrigation, municipal, manufacturing, and mining needs. Additionally, the US has been plagued with a number of severe droughts, which further contribute to the stress on water managers planning for worst-case scenarios. It has become extremely important for Texas to re-evaluate its water supply and implement new water management strategies to meet these increasing demands.

Potential solution: desalination of brackish groundwater

One potential management strategy is the desalination of brackish groundwater, which is included in the current Texas Water Plan as a contributor to about 11% of the recommended strategies in place for 2060. Texas has a plentiful supply of groundwater, housing approximately 2.7 billion acre-feet of water volume below its soil surface. Previously, when freshwater supplies were abundant, brackish groundwater was nothing more than a futuristic, prospective resource. Today it has become one of the most important players in the global water conversation on meeting present and future water needs.


Figure 1. Brackish groundwater sources of Texas (source: Texas Water Development Board)

What exactly is brackish groundwater?

Brackish water is defined as water that is “distastefully salty” but significantly less salty than seawater. Brackish water can be found in surface water settings such as estuaries or ground water settings such as aquifers. The chart below displays the salt content for freshwater, brackish, and saline water.


Table 1. Saline content for general categories (source: NGWQ Brief)

Desalination is the process of removing these salts and dissolved solids from the brackish, saline, or seawater. Desalination is necessary if brackish groundwater is to be treated for municipal potable water use.


Although there is an abundance of brackish groundwater, there are only 46 municipal desalination facilities in Texas, and only five regional water planning regions have recommended brackish groundwater desalination as a potential water source in the 2012 Texas Water Plan. Desalination has not always been popular because of it is energy-intensive and expensive infrastructure costs. At current economics, it is much more expensive to treatment brackish groundwater than freshwater. The capital costs of a desalination facility is particularly high, and the energy required for the thermal distillation process contributes to its energy intensity. Desalinated water cost is a function of its infrastructure capital, operating & maintenance, and technology costs. Furthermore, desalination produces a solid salt concentrate, which much be properly disposed of. Disposal methods include surface water or sewer discharge, deep well injection, or evaporation ponds, and are an additional cost to the overall process. Desalinated brackish water can cost up to $3 or $4 per 1,000 gallons.

The future is in desalination


Figure 2. The mechanisms of reverse osmosis

Despite these drawbacks, the use of desalinated groundwater will undoubtedly grow in the future. The state water plan predicts desalination will provide over 300,000 acre-feet of new water by 2060. Our freshwater supplies are being stressed and slowly depleted. We will eventually reach a point where the cost of desalination catches up to the cost of freshwater, and at that point, diversification of our water supply mix will be inevitable. Additionally, the technology for brackish desalination is evolving. The newest desalinate technology, reverse osmosis, utilizes membrane processes and pressure to separate the salts from the water. This technology requires one-fourth of the energy and costs half of the price as thermal distillation of saltwater.

Thus, the price difference to treat freshwater and brackish groundwater will undoubtedly converge, especially if Texas continues to experience intense droughts due to climate change. As our freshwater reserves become more stressed, the demand for freshwater will drive the prices up, making desalination more attractive. Desalination of brackish groundwater is slowly but surely becoming a more competitive and practical alternative for meeting water demands in Texas.


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Tesla Takes on Texas

     Tesla Motors, long considered the name in electric vehicles with its Tesla Roadster, is upping the ante in Texas as it petitions the Capitol to allow for direct selling to consumers.



Inside the Tesla Motors showroom at The Domain in Austin, Texas [1]

            The nearest Tesla Motors showroom is in the Domain; however, due to legal restrictions it is little more than a glorified art gallery.  Because the company is not a franchised dealership, it is currently illegal for the company to sell from this location or to even provide any information about pricing or alternate locations to purchase vehicles [2].

            During the current Legislative session, two bills have been presented (H.B. No. 3351 and S.B. No. 1659) that would allow Tesla to sell their all-electric vehicles to the public [3].  Between permitting the sale of these cars and allowing the expansion of current service centers, the number of jobs created by this legislative change would be beneficial to the state. At the moment, the chances of ever seeing a Tesla roaming the open road is rare as only 400 Texans own either a Roadster or Model S, but the company proposes that this number could jump to 2,000 new owners per year if selling restrictions were removed [2].

Sweetening the deal even further with the promise to bring more vehicle manufacturing to the state, the company may have struck a chord with the Texas ideology of self-reliance and pickup trucks.  Promised manufacturing facilities flaunt the notion of a completely electric pickup truck, but this design could be years away and might face numerous design hurdles to create a pickup comparable to its diesel or gasoline powered competitors [4].

            While the economic future of these cars is still up in the air, a direct customer sales model could be the best, and perhaps only, way to give all-electric vehicles an entry point into the general market [5]. The decision by the current session of the Legislature could help either pave the way for the practical distribution of electric cars or relegate this technology to a niche market of car enthusiasts. 

[1] http://www.teslamotors.com/thedomain

[2] http://www.teslamotors.com/advocacy_texas

[3] http://www.kvue.com/news/Tesla-Motors-CEO-asks-Texas-to-let-him-Direct-Sale-202411051.html

[4] http://cleantechnica.com/2013/04/14/tesla-motors-could-build-electric-pickup-at-new-plant-in-texas/

[5] http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-tesla-ceo-takes-dealer-fight-to-texas-says-he-can-sell-more-cars-20130410,0,1676772.story

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PUCT Moves Closer To Smart Meter Opt-Out

In December, the Texas Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the creation and distribution of opt-out rules for electric consumers who oppose smart meter installations [1].  The rules will go back for a final vote, but unfortunately it appears the PUC is moving in this direction and is not the first state to do so.  As of spring 2012 Maine, Oregon, California, Nevada, Michigan, Vermont and Arizona were also introducing opt-out programs [2].

I support utilities fighting the opt-out clause for several reasons.  Most importantly, forcing utility companies to retain use of old utility meters takes away from the societal benefits widespread smart meter deployment can provide.  In terms of outage management, increased reliability, reduced congestion, and reduced peak demand that could lead to reduced energy prices and a reduced need for new peak power plants, smart meters are an important building block of the broader grid modernization effort.

Additionally, reading some customer meters on a monthly basis drives utility companies to retain additional utility vehicles and meter readers, and maintain two accounting systems, one for manually read data and one for the automated smart meter data.  The cost of this effort depends on the alternative the utility chooses between installing an analog or digital meter, leaving the smart meter with the radio turned off, or changing the point of delivery, and includes the upfront costs of making these changes and the monthly cost of reading the meter.  Hopefully the PUC will at a minimum decide this cost will be passed to the customer who decides to opt-out so that utility funds can be used to progress further into other smart grid technology.

One of two traditional arguments against smart meters is the health concerns of the radio frequencies emitted by the meters.  The PUC has tried to communicate that meters are within the Federal Communications Commission’s standards for radio frequency devices.  As shown in Figure 1 below, not only is RF exposure from smart meters less than RF exposure from a mobile phone, it is less than natural RF exposure from other humans and the planet [2].  Certainly health reasons alone lack justification for the missed opportunities of the new smart meter infrastructure.

Comparison of RF Exposure Sources to Smart Meters

Figure 1. Comparison of RF Exposure Sources to Smart Meters [2]

The second traditional argument with respect to privacy concerns is stronger, however, the Texas Public Utility Regulatory Act (PURA) mandates the following, “All meter data, including all data generated, provided, or otherwise made available, by advanced meters and meter information networks, shall belong to a customer, including data used to calculate charges for service, historical load data, and any other proprietary customer information.”  Furthermore, the PUC has given the customer power to authorize its data release to retail electric providers [3].

The second part of the privacy concern applies to cyber security.  Fortunately, the first version of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) smart grid guidelines and standards has been released [4].  Monitoring adherence to these guidelines is difficult, however, utilities have strong incentive to ensure the security of their new computerized systems and protect their investment.  Thus for me, promoting improvements in security is better accomplished by supporting utilities in their efforts to create a smarter grid rather than obstructing them with opt-out rules.

For those that share my opinion, there may fortunately be a legal strategy for utilities to prevent the new opt-out clause.  In a feasibility study conducted by Oncor at the request of the Commission, it was identified that “Texas law does not allow a regulatory agency to amend or rescind a final, non-appealable order,” which could apply to the original non-appealable Commission order that approved meter deployment to all customers in their service area  [5].

[1] The Dallas Morning News. “Public Utility Commission approves writing rules for Texas smart meter opt-out.” http://www.dallasnews.com/business/headlines/20121214-public-utility-commission-approves-writing-rules-for-texas-smart-meter-opt-out.ece

[2] Black & Veatch. “The Opt-Out Challenge.” March/April 2012. Electric Light & Power. http://bv.com/docs/articles/the-opt-out-challenge.pdf

[3] Public Utility Regulatory Act, Title II Texas Utilities Code. September 01, 2011. pg 121. http://www.puc.texas.gov/agency/rulesnlaws/statutes/Pura11.pdf

[4] U.S. Government Accountability Office. “Electricity Grid Modernization, Progress Being Made on Cybersecurity Guidelines, but Key Challenges Remain to be Addressed.” January 2011. GAO-11-117.

[5] Public Utility Commission Interchange.  “PUC Proceedings to Evaluate the Feasibility of Instituting a Smart Meter Opt-out Program.” 40190-326. http://interchange.puc.state.tx.us/WebApp/Interchange/Documents/40190_326_728872.PDF


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Texas Wind Farm Diaries

Wind is making quite a big stir in the energy world these days. It seems everyone is talking about, and that eventually leads those discussions to Texas, where a large percentage of American wind energy is being built and generated! Just yesterday the [1] American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) issued a press release announcing wind energy was the top source for new generation in 2012! The wind energy installed over 13,000 MW of electric generating capacity! The cumulative total reached over 60,000 MW, which has the potential to power around 15,000 homes. Be looking for the final report in April, which will discuss the new capacity built in the 2012. Some reasons for the rapid expansion of wind energy in the U.S. have been pointed out, including the [2]  looming expiration of the Production Tax Credit at the end of 2012. This credit was renewed on January 1, 2013. Even in light of this “renewed” production tax credit, there are predictions that the [3] wind energy will still have a difficult time this coming year.  Only time will tell when it comes to the future of wind energy! This AWEA also discussed the U.S. states that are leading in wind energy installations, please see the list below [1].

Top states for new capacity installations in 2012 include:”

1. Texas (1,826 MW)
2. California (1,656 MW)
3. Kansas (1,440 MW)
4. Oklahoma (1,127 MW)
5. Illinois (823 MW)
       6. Iowa (814 MW)
7. Oregon (640 MW)
8. Michigan (611 MW)
9. Pennsylvania (550 MW)
10. Colorado (496 MW)

Of course Texas leads the new installed capacity factor, but do not mistake these numbers with capacity already built prior to 2012. Texas wind energy is most intriguing to me because I had the golden opportunity to visit the west Texas area (specifically Sweetwater) to get a first hand look at the wind farms. The [4] Roscoe wind farm, the wind farm I got the pleasure to experience is quite an interesting place in the middle of  “no where,” as urban Texans might say. I received a first hand tour from Mr. Cliff Etheredge, a wind farm expert! He is quite a fellow and gives an amazing breakdown of wind energy on his tours. He was recently interviewed in the [6] Switch Energy Project and documentary discussing Texas wind energy and the wind farms near Sweetwater (some of the same places I visited are shown in the interview!). Have a look at what Texas wind energy is all about [6]:



[1] American Wind Energy Association. “Wind Energy Top Source for New Generation in 2012.” Press Release.  2013. http://www.awea.org/newsroom/pressreleases/officialyearendnumbersreleased.cfm

[2] Colman, Zach. “Facing Expiring Tax Credit, Wind Industry Posts Record Year.” The Hill. 2013. http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/280175-facing-expiring-tax-credit-wind-industry-posts-record-year

[3] Wernau, Jill. ” Illinois 5th in Wind Power Installations in 2012.” Chicago Tribune. 2013. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-01-30/business/chi-illinois-5th-in-wind-power-installations-in-2012-20130130_1_wind-power-awea-new-wind

[4] E.ON. “The Roscoe Wind Complex.” 2013. http://eoncrna.com/contentProjectsRoscoe.html

[5] Switch Energy Project. 2012. http://www.switchenergyproject.com/index.php

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Texas Trade Up Appliance Rebate Program

On Wednesday, the Texas Trade Up Appliance Rebate Program will begin to dole out $23 million in rebates for the purchase of energy efficient appliances. Texans can upgrade their old, energy-wasting refrigerators and clothes washers for new Energy Star appliances. (Eligible appliances include: refrigerators, freezers, room air conditioners, clothes washers, dishwashers, central air conditioners, air-source heat pumps, and hot water heaters.) The Texas Trade Up website outlines the steps consumers will need to take to receive their rebates and even provides information regarding municipal rebate programs.

The State Energy Conservation Office, which oversees the program, established clear program objectives for this round of federal funding and has worked hard to promote the rebates, even creating a TXPowerfulSmart Twitter page to keep Texans informed. Because homes in Texas make up 14% of Texas’ energy demand, the much-needed rebate program falls in line with The Home Energy Efficiency Report. The report notes, “With 8.1 million occupied housing units, even small gains in energy efficiency will create a sizable impact. Energy efficiency, therefore, becomes an energy resource.” While the program is expected to use its funds quickly, there is always a place where policy implementation meets daily life. The program’s start was recently pushed back – from April 5 to April 7 – so that Texans could celebrate the Easter holiday. Fox Houston outlines the program’s changes.


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Oil Prices and the Texas Economy: a crude measure of success?

On Thursday March 25th, Texas House Representative Mark Strama addressed Professor Webber’s ETP class. In discussing the role that Texas plays in the United States’ energy policy, he stated that there was a strong positive correlation between the price of oil and the strength of the Texas economy.  In the spirit of the Austin-American Statesman’s recent column ‘Politifact Texas’, which measures politicians’ statements using a “Truth-O-Meter”, I decided to research Representative Strama’s claim about the Texas economy and oil prices.

The chart attached to this post compares the fluctuations in price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude with the unemployment percentage rate in Texas since January of 1976. West Texas Intermediate is the light sweet crude barrel benchmark that is used in the NYMEX pricing of oil futures contracts. Although there are many measures of Texas’s economic performance, the unemployment rate seems the most relevant to Representative Strama’s discussion as an egalitarian measure of the strength of the economy. An unemployed person cannot contribute income tax and is a consumer of welfare dollars. I gathered data from reputable sources and plotted the two variables on a month-by-month basis.

WTI and Texas Unemployment correlation 

Before I compiled the chart comparing the two variables over time I expected that they would be roughly mirror images of each other (a high oil price gives rise to a low unemployment rate) in the context of Representative Strama’s comments. However, the chart did not stack up with this expectation. The main features of the chart are the volatility in oil prices, with a low of near $12 a barrel in the late 1990’s followed by a general rise in oil prices, culminating in the $147 peak of summer 2008. There are also several ‘spikes’ in Texas unemployment rate in 1982, 1986, 2001 and 2008. There are many periods in which a declining oil price coincides with a declining trend in unemployment, and in the early 1980’s the high oil price ran alongside periods of increasing job losses for Texas.

To enrich the chart, I added markers showing the U.S. recessions (source: FRED, the St. Louis Fed database) . When these were added, the timing of Texas’s unemployment periods became clearer. In all instances where there was a general U.S. recession, Texas unemployment rose, in some cases dramatically e.g. in 2001 and 2008-9. Although this is an unremarkable finding, it indicates that the Texas economy is not as ‘decoupled’ from the Union as supporters of Texas secession might have you believe.

Ultimately, I believe that Representative Strama over-simplifies the relationship between oil prices and the Texas economy. Texas has come a long way since the Spindletop gusher of 1900, and it has a diversified economy with strong technology, retail, aerospace and healthcare sectors. Many of these sectors are adversely affected by high oil prices due to the increased transportation costs it brings or the increased manufacturing costs associated with petroleum-based raw materials. The factors behind the latest economic recession that has affected millions of Texans are less to do with a collapse in oil prices as they are general economic instability caused by the implosion of the banking sector which caused trillions of dollars of paper losses and a corresponding loss in investor and consumer confidence. On the basis of my research, I rate Representative Strama’s comments as “Barely True”, although I would be interested to see if any readers can support his viewpoint through their own research.


West Texas Intermediate spot price from Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones and Company.

Texas unemployment data from Texas Labor Market Information, Texas Workforce Commission.

U.S. recession data from FRED, St. Louis Federal Reserve Database.


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What a Nodal Market Means for Texas and ERCOT

What a Nodal Wholesale Market Means for Texas and ERCOT 

First, before I get into Texas’ electricity market, let me first explain a little bit about the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization responsible for the management of this market.  ERCOT evolved from the Texas Interconnected System in 1970 and is considered an Independent System Operator (ISO).  ISOs were originally formed through the direction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and charged with coordinating and managing the electrical power system to ensure reliable and efficient operation of the electrical power system within a region or an individual state.  Power generation companies within ERCOT generates the majority of the electricity load in Texas (approximately 85%) and currently have about 80 GW of generation capacity that provides electricity for over 22 million customers and represents an annual market of about $34 billion[1].  

In 2003 the Public Utility Commission of Texas asked ERCOT to create a nodal wholesale market in order to improve market and operating efficiencies (i.e., reduce local transmission congestion costs) by using more rapid and detailed pricing and scheduling  (i.e., better price signals for locating generation and transmission) of energy services.  The current price tag for development of the nodal market is about $538 million. Additionally, ERCOT will also develop a day-ahead energy market, which should also increase the overall efficiency of the market[2].

The Current Market – Zonal

The current zonal-based market determines the price of electricity (paid to the generators) every 15 minutes, this price is also known as the market-clearing price because it the price that balances the supply and demand of electricity.  In the zonal market the grid is organized into congestion management zones.  These zones are meant to increase the reliability of the system because often the generation of electricity takes place far from the point of consumption, which can cause congestion of the transmission lines (i.e., they cannot carried all the power being generated) and reduce the reliability of the system.  To avoid congestion ERCOT can “balance” the source of generation – thereby reducing congestion, but only between zones and not within zones.  This balancing of generation may actually require the cheaper generator to curtail their production, which then increases the price of electricity paid by the end user.  Nodal markets are able to address congestion within a zone – this means that the price of electricity should decrease while the reliability increases[3]

The Nodal Market

Unlike the current zonal market, the nodal market calculates transmission costs from the point of generation from several thousand delivery points or nodes across Texas.  Nodal pricing should help provide a more detailed and accurate picture of transmission and generation, which will enable the market to better reveal areas of more expensive electricity (e.g., congestion) and thereby reduce costs and encourage more efficient transmission solutions or dispatch (i.e., using the least expensive generator).  The nodal system will also improve market and operating efficiencies by increasing the rate that the market-clearing price is calculated – reducing the time from 15 to 5 minutes[4]

A principal reason for transitioning to the nodal market is to saving money.  A cost-benefit analysis by the PUCT calculated that electricity consumers would save $5.6 billion during the first 10 years of operations due to increased market efficiencies.  Since the Texas electricity market began the process of deregulation there have been some difficulties during the transitions, but the nodal system should help ensure that ERCOT continues to provide cost-effective and reliable electricity market[5].  

[1] http://www.puc.state.tx.us/about/commissioners/nelson/present/pp/NodalMarket_082109.pdf

[2] http://nodal.ercot.com/about/news/2010/0129c.html

[3] http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/energy/app1/

[4] http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/energy/app1/

[5] http://www.puc.state.tx.us/about/commissioners/nelson/present/pp/NodalMarket_082109.pdf

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