Thursday, May 2, 2013

Anti-fracking, but Pro-development? On The Limits of Idealism

How should we think about – and what should we vote on – the proposed city-owned gas utility? Here is the language on the ballot:
“Shall the City of Denton be allowed to own, acquire, construct, maintain, and operate a gas utility in order to provide gas utility services to non-residential customers in that area of the City near the Airport Industrial Park.”

Essentially, voters have a chance to approve that the city run a combined heat and power plant (CHP) and related commercial natural gas infrastructure (including a pipeline) to foster industrial development near the airport. It seems like nearly everyone in-the-know is in favor of this one – from Richard Hayes to Kevin Roden. There’s a lot to like about it for people placed along a wide swath of the political spectrum – jobs, diversified tax base, and state-of-the-art technology that is relatively efficient and thus more environmentally friendly compared to traditional alternatives.

But this project is bound to stick in the craw of those who fall on the extremes of the political spectrum. Those on the far right might decry government meddling where the free market knows best. But I want to focus on the far, call it green, left: Why are we committing to fossil-fuel-based development given how toxic the extractive practices are and given the closing window on our chances to avert climate disaster?

Those who have been seeking stricter drilling and fracking regulations may be able to consistently support this CHP project, because their position is not necessarily an anti-fossil fuel one. But those who have called for a ban on fracking seem committed to opposing this project as well. After all, if natural gas is the problem, this proposal will sink us deeper into the problem.

So here is my question: Where are the voices in opposition to this CHP plant? Why were they so loud about fracking but silent on this?

I know plenty of folks who opposed the way City Council initially went about the project (by-passing the Charter and all). But who opposes not just the method but the goal, not just the means but the end?

This is a sticky one, because we do so utterly depend on fossil fuels to keep the economy humming along. And we depend on the economy for jobs and we depend on jobs for bread and butter. Thus, the question about the proper scope of idealism - in this case, opposition to fossil fuels. Yes, I want us to kick the fossil fuel habit...but a project like this seems so irrefutably practical and beneficial. But how can one stick to ideals if all along the way exceptions are made for practicality's sake?

It reminds me of Robert Kaplan's new piece in the Atlantic on Henry Kissinger. He defends great leaders as those who know when to violate ideals - even basic Judeo-Christian morality - when the times demand it. Indeed, he speaks of the MORALITY of this leadership...someone has got to save civilization (in Kissinger's case) or in this case, someone has got to make sure Denton provides jobs and a sustainable tax base.

Kaplan slings an arrow intended to wound us 'intellectuals':
"The rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating such morality, acted accordingly, and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries, even as they have caused great unease among generations of well-meaning intellectuals who, free of the burden of real-world bureaucratic responsibility, make choices in the abstract and treat morality as an inflexible absolute."


  1. The case supporting the CHP is not just about jobs and tax base. It is about transitioning away from fossil fuels.

    We need to transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy, and we need to do so soon. This transition has been described by experts for decades. It will start with the easiest changes and progress as technology and the will develops. Efficiency and moving to lower carbon fuels is the first step. Development of other technologies will progress that will allow them to eventually replace all carbon-based emissions, but currently almost none are ready for wide implementation.

    Denton has taken the lead in the nation on moving from fossil fuels to sustainable energy. We have the highest mix of wind energy of any city in the US. We have a pioneering methane capture system at our landfill that captures fugitive emissions of (non-fossil) methane and generates enough electricity from it to power 1,200 homes. The CHP facility is the next best step we as a community can take to move from fossil fuels to other alternatives. It is dramatically more efficient than our old gas turbine power plant, both in fuel to electricity conversion and in the additional benefits of cogeneration and district generation. Industry that comes to a Denton without CHP will be less efficient in resource consumption and capital expenditure (each facility having its own boilers and chillers and related infrastructure)and less efficient in fuel to useful energy conversion. Industry that goes somewhere other than Denton will have these same inefficiencies plus they will be buying electricity powered largely by less efficient single stage gas turbine generators.

    What about alternatives to CHP? How about a solar farm? DME solicited bids for a utility scale 20 megaWatt solar facility, but none was feasible. Solar rooftops? DME has a fund that currently covers 70-80% of the cost of putting solar panels on Denton roofs, but Denton residents are not taking full advantage of it, so it ends every year with funds unspent. Solar thermal? No viable industrial scale system exists yet. More wind? We are already putting more than twice the wind power into our grid than even the wind experts say is feasible for grid stability, and we rely on the fossil fueled utilities around us to lend us that stability until utility scale battery systems that buffer the grid become technically feasible. Biofuels? Cellulosic ethanol? Pyrolized waste? All of these need another 20 years of development, and when they come online we can retrofit our CHP to run on them.

    Building the CHP is not building a lignite coal plant. It is not tying us to old and inefficient systems. It is the most efficient option available to us today. If we wait 20 years there will be a nearer to perfect option, but a quarter of us will be dead and we will have gone 20 years more using older and less efficient means.

    Fracking is different than gas delivery. Atmos has pipelines down almost every street in Denton, with tens of thousands of customers that have been serviced for decades with few disasters or accidents. I don't have figures but I would bet that DME has as many or more accidents and deaths per decade as Atmos. I don't know if Atmos's business is inherently safer than Eagleridge's, or if the dangers of fracking are caused by lack of oversight and regulation. Unfortunately in Texas, we will probably never know because it is unlikely that there will ever be the political will to regulate safety or mandate change in the industry. Fracking has demonstrated its risks in the last decade while natural gas distribution and district heating and cooling has demonstrated its lower risks and greater efficiency for over a century. That is why I consider fracking separately from the CHP.

  2. We humans operate at the margins. A thought exercise in what a more perfect world would look like is fine, as long as it is followed by laying out a plan to get to that world. Idealists are those that can see a more perfect world and strive to reach it. Simply dreaming of a better world without taking the hard steps of moving toward it is an exercise in "pleasurable but unproductive mental activity".

    1. Devin - thanks so much for this thoughtful reply - and above. I am not sure, though, that I buy greater efficiency as a bridge to renewables. How will that work? Also, when we do things more efficiently we just plow the savings into more consumption (Jevon's paradox) so how will that solve the larger problem of sustainability?

      The point about solar power is well taken - we are looking into that now for our roof. And the wind stuff is spot on too - I am intrigued by how much wind Texas (or Denton for that matter) could sustain on the grid - I saw a figure of 24% of capacity - can it go to 90%...100%...with the right grid in place?

    2. Jevon's paradox applies much more readily to a constrained market, like coal and steam engines in 1865. Today, energy costs are a tiny fraction of most goods and energy from almost any source can be converted to other forms, so price and supply constraints of a single energy source are not nearly as limiting as they once were. TetraPak and Peterbilt will not increase their electricity consumption 20% if the price falls 20%. Natural gas prices are another example, prices have fallen to 25% of peak, but consumption has not increased 4x.

      California and Texas are good examples of energy efficiency vs lack of energy efficiency. In 1960, California had almost exactly the same per capita energy consumption as the US and Texas, at 4 MWh per person. By 1980 CA had risen to ~7 MWh per capita, while the US average rose to ~9 MWh and TX was at 12MWh. Since then, CA has hovered near 7-8 MWh while the US rose to 12 MWh and TX is >14MWh. Both states were fast growing and not saddled with old infrastructure. CA implemented and then expanded energy efficiency programs statewide starting in the early 1970's. If Texas had done the same our energy consumption might be half what it is today.

      Low carbon fuel and increased efficiency have been described as the path to renewables since at least the mid 1990's. Kyoto had them as a cornerstone to slowing emissions. Hot, Flat and Crowded featured '15 easy steps' to keep CO2 below 500ppm, and 5 of them were switching from coal to natural gas or increasing efficiency of power plants, cars, and loads.

      Regarding wind power, it's all about risk. The risk with wind generation is that the wind won't blow. This will be a very rare event, but like 1000 year floods, still days will happen. Right now backup for generators is other generators. Will a wind turbine be able to back up another wind turbine? ERCOT (TX's grid) maintains a minimum of 2 MW of spinning reserves of power (enough for the largest two generators on the grid to go offline at the same time), generators burning fuel and idling, ready to provide power within seconds, at all times. They also stagger all generator maintenance so that they have deep reserves, facilities that will take an hour or so to come online. ERCOT has said that it does not know how to estimate the risk of a still day, or the potential geographical spread of such an event. In the future if we predict that there will be still winds and 20% or 40% of our electricity generation will be offline, will we have enough reserve fossil fueled generators to turn on? In August of last year ERCOT was using over 90% of all generators in Texas. If the wind stopped blowing and took 10% of our generation away someone would have been sitting in the dark.

      One option is 'grid energy storage', huge batteries that act like generators in case of emergency, but these are only economically feasible if we have regular need for such devices.

      The DOE rates wind generation at 30% availability, meaning that a wind generator can only be expected to put out its rated power 30% of the time, and the rest of the time will be offline for maintenance or because the wind is not blowing. This number is definitely much below general output rates; wind generators can produce up to 80% of the time. However, this figure represents the risk of wind not blowing at the point in time you really need the power.

      Grids are currently managed from the supply only. Load cannot be controlled, it just consumes whatever it consumes. If loads were managed and wind were overbuilt, say 2x max grid demand in generation with some large electricity consumer that could turn off as needed (aluminum smelting? some other intense industrial process? charging electric cars?) then the large load could consume the massive excess of wind power on cool windy nights and switch off on still hot afternoons. These are all interesting ideas, but none of the possible solutions exist yet and we might be designing for the 1000 year flood that never comes.

    3. Devin - all good points and very educational, thanks. On Jevon's paradox, though, one further push back. My larger point about this is that money saved via efficiency is money plowed back into more consumption. Case in point - there was an advertizement for some fuel-efficient car and the lady who owned one said that with all the money she saved she could go on vacation in Hawaii! Yay - burn the fossil fuels in an airplane.

      So natural gas prices dropping without consumption of natural gas going up does not refute my claim - if we save on our electricity bills it is true we won't necessarily buy more gas for more electricity but we will buy something, which currently means something most likely made/transported with fossil fuels.

      So I am all for efficiency - don't get me wrong. But I don't think it is a solution. We really need to consume less or, barring that, kick the fossil habit.

      A minor thing on the climate change point - of course switching to natural gas may be even worse for the climate depending on whose estimates you believe for methane leaks!