When It Comes to Climate Change, Texas Is an Impediment — and a Leader

The Lone Star State is pushing against federal efforts to cut carbon emissions, while simultaneously building itself up as an example of a leader in clean power and other greenhouse gas-reducing systems.

Here is the U.S., trying to tell the world that it plans on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in a big way. And there, in the background, is Texas — the country’s biggest carbon emitter and oil producer, sticking out like a sore thumb.

But look more closely, and Texas is actually poised to serve as an example for building less carbon-reliant systems in the future.

Ahead of the 21st Conference of Parties summit in December, countries around the world have taken enormous steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China has announced the creation of a national cap-and-trade market. India has begun pushing for green energy and set tree planting goals. Ethiopia wants to make its economy carbon neutral.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put forward a Clean Power Plan
requiring states to cut carbon emissions. The plan calls for states to move toward cleaner power, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions from the electricity sector to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But nearly half the states have sued the agency over the plan, charging that the federal government doesn’t have the authority to force state compliance.

One of those states is Texas, which happens to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels than any other state, according to the EPA.

But it doesn’t just lead the nation in carbon emissions — the Lone Star State is very, very far ahead of the rest of the country. According to the most recent state-by-state report from the EPA, Texas put more than 712 million metric tons of CO2 in the air in 2013 by its burning of fossil fuels alone — that doesn’t count agriculture and landfill emissions, for instance.

To put that in perspective, the second leading state on the list, California, put 371 million metric tons into the air by the same measure — a little more than half of Texas’ emissions. According to the data, Texas’ fossil fuel burning accounts for more carbon emissions than the 19 lowest emitting states combined: Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Maine, Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, Connecticut, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Mississippi, Maryland and Utah.

Texas is home to a traditionally conservative leadership, a host of government agencies that have fought federal environmental regulations at every turn, and is the epicenter of the nation’s oil and gas industry.

With all that history, Texas is a square peg set against the round hole of the national climate plan. And yet many see hope that, despite all of it, Texas is already on a track toward polluting less. Elena Craft, a senior health scientist in the Environmental Defense Fund’s Austin office, pointed to a report from her organization that estimated Texas, on its current course, would be 88 percent of the way toward reaching the requirements of the Clean Power Plan by 2030.

That’s because reducing greenhouse gas emissions — particularly when it comes to the state’s energy sector — isn’t just about being environmentally conscious. It also provides tangible benefits the state is beginning to realize.

“Texas is going to come along, but it’s not because of a proactive effort or because of environmental stewardship on [the state leadership’s] part,” Craft said. “It’s because it’s smart business.”

Renewable energy

For all the state’s resistance to the Clean Power Plan, Texas actually stands out as a national leader in one area: wind energy. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that Texas produces more electricity from wind turbines than any other state.

Again, the gap between Texas and every other state is huge: In 2014, the state produced almost two and a half times the amount of power from wind as the second state on the list. It accounted for about 22 percent of the country’s total wind power generation last year.

Craft said she sees the large-scale development of wind energy in Texas largely as a mechanism of the market. In her eyes, Texans seem to be thinking more and more of renewable energy as a business opportunity — concerns about air pollution being incidental in that equation.

“My hope is that we’re going to continue to see, and I think we are seeing, that … various parts of the state — places like San Antonio, places like Austin, that have made huge investments in renewable energy — will continue to drive that trend," she said, "so that the ‘business-as-usual’ is not so much a fossil fuel model as it is a clean energy model."

It also makes sense because as temperatures rise, Texas is facing climate challenges that demand less use of water. Many traditional types of power generation rely on steam to turn turbines, so wind power and other renewables that don’t use up water are looking more attractive.

“By 2060, the Texas Water Development Board projects Texas’ electricity sector will require an additional 1.1 million acre-feet of water — or enough water to fill Lake Travis — every year,” a report from the Environmental Defense Fund reads. “By continuing to grow Texas’ clean energy resources consistent with the goals of the Clean Power Plan, Texas could completely eliminate that additional need, which means more water for homes, agriculture and businesses.”

The state’s wind generation capacity has grown to such a size that at times, the amount of electricity available far outpaces what customers are using. Especially in the western part of the state, where a lot the wind farms are concentrated, nighttime wind power generation can result in negative electricity prices.

Lately, the state has been upgrading its infrastructure to allow for more of that wind power to be transmitted to the most populous eastern hubs, like Dallas. That’s where one utility, TXU Energy, has a program allowing for free electricity use during the nighttime and early morning hours.

But there are some hurdles in the way of the state’s wind power development too. One of them, according to Walt Baum of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, is that the state doesn’t have a “capacity market.” That means that no party in the power system can pay for somebody else to store power.

“Texas has an energy-only market,” said Baum, executive vice president of the association. “So you only get paid if you sell your energy onto the grid.”

But storage capacity is an important piece of any renewable energy portfolio, he said.

“The more renewables that are added to the system, [the more] you need to ensure that you’ve got a healthy percentage of what we call ‘dispatchable generation’ that can be turned on and off quickly as needed," Baum said. "Right now, current technology wind and solar … really fluctuate with weather conditions."

If the state had more storage capacity — essentially batteries — it could distribute the amount of power available to the grid across time and better weather renewable energy generation fluctuations throughout the day.

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, installing batteries in homes and businesses can do a lot for the grid. It can reduce peak energy demand, making blackouts less likely and helping the grid get back online faster when there is an outage. Businesses such as hotels might be able to altogether avoid buying peak-hour energy — which is more expensive — by storing renewable energy at the time of generation and using it later, according to an analysis from the institute.

Energy efficiency

The state is also working to use its power more efficiently. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently highlighted Texas in its 2015 energy policy scorecard as being one of the most improved states in the nation.

That was largely because of the state’s increased focus on compliance for its building energy efficiency standards, along with its work to adopt the latest standards. Working with the South-central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, Texas regulators have begun compliance training to ensure that buildings are meeting standards for energy efficiency.

Part of the state’s energy efficiency efforts are its rising use of combined heat and power, according to the report. Combined heat and power is a process where heat created during electricity generation — which would otherwise go wasted — is used for other purposes, such as on-site heating. In 2014, Texas added 525 megawatts of CHP capacity, more than any other state.

ACEEE acknowledged in the report that Texas could stand to improve its investments in electricity and natural gas efficiency, ranking the state 36th and 40th in the U.S. in those areas.

Coal and carbon capture

In most states outside of the northeastern U.S., coal burned to produce electricity is a big piece of the greenhouse gas emission pie. According to the EIA, Texas uses more coal for power than any other state — this despite the state’s abundance of natural gas, which is actually the biggest piece of its electricity generation portfolio.

Once more, it’s not just that Texas leads the nation in coal consumption, it leads by miles. Texas’ electricity sector consumed 102.5 million tons of coal in 2013 according to the EIA, nearly double the second state on the list. The entire country’s coal consumption for electricity that year was about 858 million tons. Texas accounted for about 12 percent of that, despite making up 8 percent of the country’s population.

But it’s also the nation’s biggest producer of another fossil fuel: oil. And, as one power company is trying to demonstrate, combining the systems that produce the two fossil fuels could actually help keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

Technology being installed at a coal-fired plant southwest of Houston aims to capture carbon emissions from the plant before they enter the atmosphere and then pump them underground into an oil well. The additional pressure from the captured carbon would then push oil up out of the ground, dramatically increasing crude production.

“We expect to be increasing the production of oil at the field … from roughly about 500 barrels a day to an average of 15,000 barrels a day,” said David Knox, senior director of wholesale and new business communications for smart energy firm NRG.

The system includes a mechanism to remove any excess carbon from the oil and put it back into the ground so it doesn’t leak out, Knox said.

And even though the system puts more fossil fuels onto the market in the form of increased oil production, Knox believes market forces will prevent that from translating into more greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we were increasing demand so you were burning more oil as a result of this, it would be a carbon problem,” he said. “But all we’re doing is displacing foreign oil and increasing domestic oil.”

The system would capture about 90 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions, preventing 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere each year. Meanwhile, NRG’s partnership with the oil field owners means it will get a piece of the profits from increased production.

“It’s looking at making it the right business decision for the environment and for business,” he said.

The demonstration project should be up and running by the end of 2016. But as of right now, there’s a bit of a problem with the system — it doesn’t quite pay for itself. That’s because the project's economics depend on selling oil that comes out of the field, and right now the price of oil is down. Profits from crude need to offset the cost of installing the carbon capture infrastructure in order for such projects to look attractive from a business perspective, but it wouldn’t do that if it came online today.

In the future, rising oil prices could make the project more business-friendly.

“This can be extremely valuable for the world’s carbon footprint if you can make it a business model,” Knox said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.