One Year After Texas Blackouts: More on the Way?

With Projected Energy Shortages, Advocates Points to Efficiency as the Only Strategy Fast Enough to Keep Lights On

AUSTIN – On the anniversary of rolling blackouts that hit Texas one year ago today, a group of consumer and environmental advocates warned that the state could see more blackouts if emergency measures aren’t taken to reduce demand for electricity. The group pointed to HB 3693 (Straus), which requires utilities and state and local governments to make greater investments in energy efficiency, as legislation critical to “keeping the lights on.”

For more than a year, TXU and other energy giants in Texas have been pushing applications for dirty coal plants touting the need for more energy generation to insure electric grid reliability.  Texas' peak electricity demand-which occurs, for example, when consumers crank up air conditioners during extreme heat-is growing faster than the state's population. State energy leaders are concerned about whether the state will have sufficient generation to meet peak demand by 2009.  However, none of the proposed power plants will be on line in time to mitigate the anticipated reserve shortfall.  So how is Texas going to keep the lights on?  And better yet, can we keep the lights on while reducing consumer costs?

“We can avoid future blackouts by setting stronger energy-efficiency standards for buildings and commercial appliances, requiring utilities to meet growing energy needs through energy-efficiency improvements instead of new power plants, expanding energy-efficiency programs, and educating the public about the benefits of conserving energy,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

On April 17, 2006, power companies throughout Texas imposed blackouts because of an electricity shortage during unseasonably hot weather. According to ERCOT, the agency which operates Texas’ electric grid, demand for electricity will exceed safe levels of supply in 2009, which could trigger blackouts like those last year. While some utilities have proposed building dirty coal or nuclear plants to meet Texas’ growing energy needs, none of the proposed plants will be built in time to meet the 2009 shortage. Energy efficiency measures, on the other hand, can be implemented within weeks, and are much cheaper and cleaner than fossil fuel power plants.

“Energy efficiency standards are a win-win-win policy,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas.  “We can reduce our energy at half the cost of coal plants, in a fraction of the time and with none of the pollution.”

Faced with rolling blackouts during its 2001 energy crisis, California embarked on an ambitious energy-saving strategy that shaved more than 6 percent off the state’s electricity consumption within a single year.  Since then, on a per capita basis, energy used in California has been flat for the last 30 years.  In the rest of the country, per capita energy use has grown 50 percent. The California government introduced these standards, stimulated innovation and the result was they got stronger companies, more efficient buildings, lower energy usage, and more comfortable consumers. 

A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that a combination of energy efficiency and onsite renewable energy resources, coupled with expanded demand response programs, can meet Texas’ growing electricity needs and save consumers money at the same time.

Several bills currently making their way through the Texas legislature could save 80% or more of the growth in demand in electricity with:

·         Stronger building codes, use efficient lighting, retrofit programs

·         Re-lamping and other retrofit programs

·         Using electronic controls

·         More efficient appliances

·         Spending money on weatherization for low-income Texans

·         More efficiency from utilities

"Energy efficiency is the most affordable energy resource in Texas," said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. "While 18% efficiency savings may seem challenging, Texas is already finding energy efficiency resources at less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to the expected cost of power from new plants of 5 to10 cents. Texas can procure more of these low-cost resources to meet future energy needs, addressing the question of where the state will get power to meet its growing demand."

HB 3693 by Representative Joe Straus of San Antonio would double Texas’ existing Energy Efficiency Improvement Program (EEIP) from the current 10% of load growth to 20% of load growth. It would also tighten building energy codes and implement an energy-efficient state and municipal buildings and appliances program.

“HB 3693 is critical to Texas’ energy future,” said Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Energy efficiency is the best way we meet our short-term energy needs and reduce pollution and electric bills at the same time.”