Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Sheyda Aboii

  • Email: TX_sheyda@fake.com

Why Most Texans Haven’t Turned to Graywater Recycling

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Graywater recycling hasn't really caught on in Texas, mostly due to costs and permitting issues.

If water was gold, graywater recycling might be a watershed. But even in these drier times, a graywater recycling system remains a bit beyond the average homeowner’s budget and Texas’ water options. Graywater recycling captures water from showers, bathtubs, and washing machines for later use in landscaping and lawn irrigation.

While some subdivisions and cities in the state already give you the option to construct dual-plumbing in houses built from scratch, the burden remains with the homeowner to install the full system to start recycling. Dual-plumbing allows homeowners to receive two sources of water via two separate plumbing systems. One delivers fresh, potable water while the other delivers recycled water.

Long-time reclaimed water specialist Don Vandertulip tells StateImpact Texas that the dividends aren’t always enough to outweigh installation and maintenance costs, which can reach as high as several thousand dollars. (Vandertulip has been involved in reclaimed water projects since 1978 and is currently active in numerous conservation organizations including the WateReuse Association, Water Environment Federation, and the American Water Works Association (AWWA).)

Why Your Water Might Cost More the Second Time Around

Unlike commercial reclaim systems, graywater systems typically serve a single home. They’re permitted at either the city or county level and they’re maintained by their private owners. For simple systems, fancy engineering firms stay out of the picture. Continue Reading

How a Mild Winter (Among Other Things) Decreased CO2 Emissions

Last winter’s poor performance, along with other factors, has created an unexpected positive. The June monthly Energy Review by the U.S. Energy Information Administration says that carbon dioxide emissions from energy use for the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest they’ve been in two decades.

High demand for heat from fossil fuels usually pushes carbon dioxide emissions to their highest during the first quarter of the year. But as discussed in a Today in Energy article, several factors prevented this from occurring:

  • A mild winter that reduced household heating demand and therefore energy use
  • A decline in coal-fired electricity generation, due largely to historically low natural gas prices
  • Reduced gasoline demand

During the first quarter, U.S. CO2 emissions totaled 1,340 million metric tons – a figure down 8 percent from 2011. Between natural gas, coal and petroleum, coal represented the largest decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. Coal emissions were down by 18 percent (387 million tons) as utilities increasingly chose to use cheaper natural gas resources over coal.

Sheyda Aboii is an intern with StateImpact Texas.

Why Most Smart Irrigation Controllers Failed the Drought Test


Nine 'smart' irrigation controllers were tested during the 2011 drought.

A new report by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service says that only a few smart irrigation systems worked right during the drought.

What’s a smart irrigation system? Normal sprinkler systems require their owners to manually set irrigation schedules. But, smart irrigation controllers use an array of sensors to determine just how much water is needed and when, conserving water.

Ideally, the sensors on smart controllers measure water loss due to evaporation, rainfall, temperature, solar radiation, and even relative humidity. The system should then use these measurements to determine just how parched the landscape is and when is best to apply irrigation.

But many of the controllers failed to meet plant water requirements over a testing period of 152 sweltering days.

The reason? Dr. Guy Fipps, an AgriLife Extension irrigation engineer, suggests that some controllers were simply unable to adapt. Continue Reading

In the Great Energy Race, Coal Takes Another Hit

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-860, “Annual Electric Generator Report.” Note: Capacity values represent net summer capacity.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced that natural gas energy production finally tied with energy generated from coal in April. Now, that group is projecting that energy from coal-fired plants will likely contract in the next five years.

Between 2012 and 2016, almost 27 gigawatts of energy production from 175 coal-fired generators are expected to be lost – an amount that accounts for 8.5% of total coal-fired energy generation in 2011.

These losses are more than four times greater than the losses experienced during the last five-year period. And 2012, by all accounts, should be the largest one-year decline in coal power generation thus far with a total loss of 9 gigawatts.

According to the report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, several factors have contributed to coal’s decline: Continue Reading

Why a Bunch of Kids Are Suing the TCEQ

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An oil refinery blow off stack in Texas City, Texas.

Last week, a Travis County district judge ruled in favor of a bunch of kids suing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Three environmentally-minded minors and a young adult argued that Texas’ air should be protected under the public trust doctrine much like Texas’ water, and the Judge agreed.

In 2011, the youths drafted a petition alongside Kids Versus Global Warming, Our Children’s Trust, and other environmental groups in a national campaign to improve air quality in 49 states and the District of Columbia. In Texas, they requested that the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) adopt a plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions to reduce climate change by making air part of the public trust. (The public trust doctrine says that certain resources should be protected by the government for public use.) When the TCEQ turned them down, saying that the proposed rules were a misreading of the public trust doctrine and would stifle business and industry in Texas, the kids sued.

Some of the children behind the suit are quite young. When the lawsuit was first brought against the TCEQ last July, one was in her mid-twenties, another was a teenager, and the other two were three and five. But Adam Abrams, an attorney at the Texas Environmental Law Center representing the minors, brushes this fact aside, claiming that the minors aren’t simply suing at the behest of their parents, Brigid Shea and Karin Ascot, who are prominent environmentalists.

“They’re not acting as proxies for their parents,” Abrams said in an interview with StateImpact Texas. “The parents are essentially asserting the rights of the children … If anything, the parents are just acting on behalf of the children and asserting the childrens’ right to a healthy, liveable planet.”  Continue Reading

Why Earthquakes Are Shaking North Texas: Scientists Investigate Links to Disposal Wells

StateImpact Texas

A hydraulic fracking operation in the Barnett Shale.

Update, November 2013: Quakes have now struck in a different area outside of Fort Worth near the town of Azle and Eagle Mountain Lake. You can read about that series of quakes (and see them mapped) here. 

Yet another earthquake has rattled North Texas. Early Tuesday morning, the city of Keene, 25 miles south of Fort Worth, experienced what the U.S. Geological Survey says was a 2.4 magnitude earthquake.

Earthquake events have been on the rise in an area that hasn’t really seen a whole lot of quakes in the past. That was before disposal wells were constructed nearby, used to dispose of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” (For an in-depth look at disposal wells, check out this report from ProPublica.)

“We’ve been looking at the question of whether the number of earthquakes occurring across the mid-continent has changed in recent years. And we find that there is a statistically significant increase in the rate just over the past several years. And many of these are in areas where we know there is a lot of energy activity,” U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Bill Ellsworth tells StateImpact Texas.

(Update: Read about the Dec. 12 quake outside of Fort Worth here.)

In less than a month, the Johnson County area has been shaken by at least seven different quake events. Continue Reading

In the Great Energy Race, Natural Gas Finally Ties with Coal

Graph by U.S. Energy Information Administration

Natural Gas energy production has finally tied coal.

For the first time, natural gas has tied with coal. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that energy generation from natural gas-fired plants became “virtually equal” to energy generation from coal-fired plants in April.

Preliminary data shows that each fuel provides 32 percent of total energy generation, with natural gas generating 95.9 million megawatt hours – a figure just slightly less than that of coal, at 96 million megawatt hours.

According to the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook, natural gas production has increased. The reason? More drilling in “shale plays with high concentrations of natural gas” and “recent technological advances.” Texas has seen its fair share of this development with increased drilling in the Eagle Ford and Barnett Shale.

And the EIA projects that over the next 25 years, electricity generation from coal will fall to 38 percent – the result of increased competition from natural gas and renewable energy, along with the impact of new environmental regulations.

Sheyda Aboii is an intern with StateImpact Texas.

At House Hearing, Water Issues Dominate

Photo by THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP/Getty Images

When water became scarce in Texas last year, scrutiny quickly fell on the state’s burgeoning energy industry. Proposed new coal plants had trouble getting water permits. And hydraulic fracturing drillers faced accusations of groundwater contamination and excessive water use.

But at the House joint hearing on energy and natural resources held last Wednesday, industry leaders gave representatives their side of the story.

At the hearing, Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter defended the gas industry and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking).

“Even if we didn’t use another drop of water for drilling operations, water is still going to be an issue because of the drought and our state’s tremendous population growth. I want to be very clear. Hydraulic fracturing should not be the scapegoat for the water shortage in Texas,” said Porter. Continue Reading

What Texas Can Do About Oil and Gas-Related Earthquakes

Still image taken from video posted to Flikr Creative Commons by Waifer X. http://www.flickr.com/photos/waiferx/2658307394/

A seismograph measures feet stomping nearby at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum in Hawaii

Three earthquakes in six days. Those were the surprising numbers that greeted Texans on Monday morning. What’s becoming less surprising is the notion that they could have been man-made.  All three of the quakes (two near Dallas, one around San Antonio) happened near areas with extensive oil and gas excavation.

A scientific consensus is forming around the notion that wastewater disposal wells, a common byproduct of oil and gas drilling, are causing quakes. As that understanding grows, the debate has moved from what is causing the quakes to what policymakers should do about it. Continue Reading

Why Some Longhorns Won’t Be Riding Dirty (Buses) Anymore

The wheels on the bus go round and round … but water is the only exhaust.

That’s what researchers at the Center for Electromechanics (CEM) at the University of Texas at Austin have to say about their new Hydrogen Hybrid Bus. The new bus will be featured as part of UT’s shuttle system and will alternate between the Forty Acres and Intramural Fields routes.

“The advantage is, frankly, that it uses less hydrogen. We take advantage of batteries to provide most of the propulsion power. And the fuel cell just recharges the batteries,” said Robert Hebner, director of CEM in an interview with StateImpact Texas. Continue Reading

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