Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Shawna Reding

Reporting Intern

Shawna Reding is a reporting intern at StateImpact Texas. She is currently finishing her multimedia journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin and is pursuing a business foundations certificate from McCombs School of Business.

Austin’s Rapid Bus Struggles After a Slow Start

The new line was marketed as a BRT system, but the MetroRapid buses still need tinkering to meet those requirements.

SHAWNA REDING / STATEIMPACT TEXAS

The new line was marketed as a BRT system, but the MetroRapid buses still need tinkering to meet those requirements.

Standing on Guadalupe Street in Austin facing the tower at the University of Texas, 26-year-old Emily Mandell waits at the bus stop with a scowl on her face. She’s not looking forward to this ride.

“It’s the same as sitting in traffic, but now you’re sitting in traffic stopping at a lot of places with a lot of other people,” Mandell says.

Along Guadalupe and Lavaca, two major north-south arteries through downtown Austin, long, bendy buses labeled “MetroRapid” have recently joined the chaos that is Austin traffic. The city of Austin’s transportation agency, Capital Metro, rolled out this new line in January* in an effort to get more people out of cars and using public transportation. But the rollout hasn’t gone as expected, calling into question how the agency will handle expanding transportation to meet the fast-growing city’s needs.

Now several months into the project, the line has made hardly a dent in Austin’s traffic problem. Board the fancy new buses at any given time of the day, and rows and rows of sparsely populated seats will likely wait for you. Continue Reading

Months Behind Schedule, New Water Well Finally Arriving For Spicewood Beach

 

Behind the counter of a general store just off Highway 71, Kim Clifton, the cashier, shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head when asked about the lingering drought. “We just need more rain,” she says. She rolls her head back to let out an exasperated laugh, “Bring the rain! Bring it!”

It’s something you hear all the time these days across Texas, but chances are you’ll hear it the most in Spicewood Beach, Texas, a Lake Travis community about 40 miles from Austin. Just a little over two years ago, it made headlines as the first community in Texas to run out of water during the current drought.

In early 2012, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which owns and manages the community’s water system, announced that groundwater levels were falling, leaving its well useless.


Those levels got so low LCRA began trucking in water five to six times a day as a temporary solution. Each load costs LCRA about 200 dollars.

Now, over two years later, LCRA plans to put the finishing touches on a new well system costing over a million dollars. The system was supposed to be completed last summer, but construction began just last month.

Continue Reading

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, It’s an Airborne Wind Turbine!

Imagine a blimp, like the one you might have looked up at in awe when you were a kid. Now, imagine that blimp cut into a cylindrical shape, with a wind turbine in the middle.

It’s called the Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT), and it’s what Altaeros Energies imagines will be the future of wind energy. By wrapping a helium-filled shell around a conventional three-blade turbine and letting the device into the air with strong tethers, the company says in a press video that the turbine can reach altitudes up to two thousand feet above the ground.

CEO Ben Glass says in the video this means the turbine can capture winds that “are on average five to eight times as powerful as what you get near the ground.”

In addition to producing higher yields of energy, these turbines have environmental advantages over conventional land turbines. Altaeros’ turbine is mobile, limiting its footprint on the landscape. Also unlike land turbines, the airborne turbine’s design limits its threat to birds.

Altaeros is a startup formed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010, and they’re working with the Alaska Energy Authority to launch the turbine in Alaska for 18 months, at a cost of 1.3 million dollars. Altaeros isn’t the only company looking to develop and introduce a version of an airborne wind turbine, but they will be first, with the world’s first commercial airborne wind turbine. Continue Reading

Sustainable Coffee on the Rise, But Harmful Methods More Prevalent

As global demand rises for cheap coffee, farmers from regions such as Africa shift to cost effective, yet environmentally harmful methods.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/Landov

As global demand rises for cheap coffee, farmers from regions such as Africa shift to cost effective, yet environmentally harmful methods.

For the past decade, Americans have become more concerned about where their daily caffeine boost comes from.

In fact, a new report from the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas says that farmers of specialty coffee, which is often environmentally-friendly, saw sales rise more than 75 percent from 2000 to 2008.

Shade-grown” coffee uses a traditional farming method that uses a natural canopy of forestry. Environmentalists favor this technique because it keeps the landscape relatively intact and supports native species such as migratory birds.

Mike McKim, owner of Cuvee Coffee, a roaster in the Austin area, attributes the quality of his coffee in large part to shade-grown techniques.

“The better [farmers] take care of their land, the better their coffee is, in general,” McKim says.

But beyond the U.S., consumer demand and a drop in global coffee prices is causing a global shift toward growing the cheap stuff, which is used for instant coffee. According to the report, the “proportion of land used to cultivate shade-grown coffee … has fallen by nearly 20 percent globally since 1996.”

While shade-grown coffee production is growing, non-shade-grown coffee is growing at a much faster rate. And in regions such as Africa and Asia, where coffee production on the whole is increasing, farmers are growing a lot of it.

Continue Reading

Four Years After BP Spill, Settlement Money Slowly Trickles In

NWF hopes BP settlement money is used to rehabilitate species like this pelican based on scientific research.

Bevil Knap/EPA/LANDOV

NWF hopes BP settlement money is used to rehabilitate species like this pelican based on scientific research.

In the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill, the worst in US history, the Gulf Coast is still adding up the costs of the disaster on coastal species and the ecosystem as a whole.

In the National Wildlife Federation’s updated annual report on the status of the Gulf Coast, the foundation lists several criminal and civil cases brought against BP and Transocean. Some have resulted in settlements of up to $2.5 billion and some are still pending.

Lacey McCormick, a representative for NWF, says the organization is concerned that money could be misspent as it slowly trickles in.

“Our concern with the RESTORE Act dollars in particular is that we need to make sure that this money is used to restore the Gulf of Mexico and is not spent on pet projects that will not help — and may even harm — the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico,” McCormick says.  Continue Reading

Here’s What The Galveston Bay Oil Spill Looks Like

Responders are scrambling to contain the slimy mess left by an oil spill in Galveston Bay.

After a barge carrying tar-like heavy fuel collided with a vessel in the Houston Ship Channel on Saturday, cargo exports and imports have been put on hold. That’s raised concerns about the impact on Texas’ oil-dependent economy. The Coast Guard says parts of the channel have been re-opened to limited traffic, but the spill is also expected to have an environmental toll.

Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel report that the spill occurred at a particularly bad time for Gulf wildlife – birds, specifically. As of Tuesday morning, the department says eight birds have been captured for treatment, and 10 birds have been found dead covered in the oil. Continue Reading

Now You Can Track Groundwater Levels in Texas

The Texas Water Development Board now shares groundwater levels in an interactive map on its website.

Graphic courtesty of TWDB

The Texas Water Development Board now shares groundwater levels in an interactive map on its website.

Texans don’t need statistics to tell them what the drought is like – they can feel it in their bones.

Residents, manufacturers and farmers all depend on both reservoirs and groundwater in Texas, but up until recently only surface reservoir levels were public in Texas. The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) updates those reservoir levels on their online archive daily in an easily accessible format.

Now concerned Texans easily access information about groundwater levels through the TWDB site as well. Groundwater and surface water levels are now both being shared with the public by the TWDB and can be viewed in an interactive map.

Texas voters approved Proposition 6 in November, which sets up a system to finance projects in the state water plan.

Invasive Zebra Mussels May Have Finally Met Their Match

Texas Parks and Wildlife's Todd Robinson holds a rock covered with zebra mussels in Lake Texoma, Texas. The mollusk can stick to nearly anything, posing problems for power plants and fishing boats.

Max Faulkner/MCT/LANDOV

Texas Parks and Wildlife's Todd Robinson holds a rock covered with zebra mussels in Lake Texoma, Texas. The mollusk can stick to nearly anything, posing problems for power plants and fishing boats.

At first glance, zebra mussels appear harmless, perhaps even cute. But the tiny creatures are anything but cute for Texas lakes.

Originally from Eurasia, zebra mussels made their first appearance in North America in the Great Lakes in the early nineties. The mussels have since made their way to Texas, and over the years, this invasive species has proliferated in the state, killing off alarming numbers of native species and clogging pipes used for power plants, drinking water, manufacturing and boating. Now they may have finally met their match, in the form of microscopic bacteria.

Currently, zebra mussels are combated with several strategies, including chlorine and metal-based solutions, filtering systems and hot water. But none have proven capable of wiping them out.

“There is not one silver bullet that is effective in killing the mussels in all situations that won’t harm other species and keep our waters safe,” says Brian Van Zee, from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Now Texas is looking into an up-and-coming pesticide that attacks zebra mussels and zebra mussels alone. Continue Reading

What Do Plane Flights and Wind Farms Have in Common? Turbulence

Texas leads the nation in wind energy production.

Jill Johnson/LANDOV

Texas leads the nation in wind energy production.

Turbulence is a menace to more than just airplane passengers. As wind power grows in Texas and beyond, its impact on wind turbines is becoming a challenge for energy generation.

In a recent study released by the University of Texas at San Antonio, mechanical engineering professor Kiran Bhaganagar found that placing  turbines too closely together in a wind farm causes a wake effect that reduces productivity. In some cases it turbines can lose up to 90 percent of the power they are capable of producing.

Turbulence, a term that gained its reputation by shaking up airplane rides, is known in the science world as a bumpy effect caused by air with conflicting velocities.

On any given wind farm, Bhaganagar says, turbulent wind gains momentum and has an increasingly negative impact as it moves down the line of turbines.

Continue Reading

To Adapt to Climate Change in Texas, No ‘One Size Fits All’ Solution

A car tire lays exposed in the dried lake bottom at Lake Abillene near Abilene, Texas.

EPA/LARRY W. SMITH /LANDOV

A car tire lays exposed in the dried lake bottom at Lake Abillene near Abilene, Texas.

Texas is a state so huge that it experiences several different climate conditions, from the subtropical Eastern half (think swamps and hurricanes) to the semiarid West (desert and snow in the winter). As such, the state must wear a variety of hats as it navigates a changing climate.

A new study from Arizona State University says that because every region has a different climate, every region experiences climate change differently. So in combating climate change, each region must come up with a different strategy.

Matei Georgescu, one of the scientists who worked on the study, says that “local decisions can play a role” in decreasing effects of urban expansion to make conditions more livable. And Texas is no exception.

As cities burst at the seams from surges in population, those cities become pollution hubs that Georgescu says will “result in about one to two degrees Celcius warming” that will spread beyond city limits. Continue Reading

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