Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Terrence Henry


Terrence Henry reports on energy and the environment for StateImpact Texas. His radio, print and television work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, The Texas Tribune, The History Channel and other outlets. He has previously worked at The Washington Post and The Atlantic. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University.

Copenhagen Turns to Two Wheels and Takes Off

Cyclist commuting in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Norrebro.


Cyclist commuting in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Norrebro.

Rain or shine, in the light of summer or the early afternoon darkness of winter, under heavy sleet, unrelenting winds or drifts of snow, people in Copenhagen just bike. They bike in fur coats, they bike in suits and ties. They bike old, they bike young. They wheel their kids around on a cargo bike with a wooden box carrying the children up front, taking them to and from school; this is Copenhagen’s take on a minivan. People just bike, and after arriving in the city myself, I soon found out why: it’s usually the fastest way to get around. So I rented a bike, too.

Today, 60 percent of people in the city’s core commute by bike. In the greater Copenhagen area, over 40 percent do. “We see the same numbers [of commuting by bike] all year round,” says Copenhagen Environmental and Technical Affairs Mayor Morten Kabell.

“It’s not something that’s in Copenhagen’s genes, or that we’re weirder or stranger than any other people on earth,” Kabell says. “Every city can do this.”

Copenhagen has had enormous success getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, public transit and their own two feet. But this development has less to do with Danes wanting to save the planet, and much more to do with saving their own sanity.

Continue Reading

How Denmark and Texas Became Wind Energy Kings

Standing on the shore of the Baltic sea a few miles outside of Copenhagen, Denmark, the view’s about what you’d expect. Rocky shore, grey horizon, a boat here or there. But this shore is special. Look up, and you’ll see — and hear — three giant offshore wind turbines cutting through the air. Each stands 500 feet tall, with three blades (each close to 200 feet long), spinning non-stop.

“The blades look quite thin, but don’t be cheated,” says Rune Birk Nielsen, with DONG Energy, which runs the turbines. “They each weigh about twenty tons. They are massive.” Each turbine has a capacity of 3.6 megawatts, or enough to power 3,000 Danish homes.

Nielsen guides me through the small offshore wind park — well, technically it’s offshore. The turbines aren’t actually too far from land — each is connected to the shore by a short footbridge about ten yards long.

“For us, it’s kind of a demonstration park,” Nielsen says, “where we are able to test all sorts of things.” With turbines close to shore, they’re easier to fiddle with or repair. The company can safely train their workers without sending them far out to sea, where most of the country’s offshore turbines are.

Denmark is booming when it comes to wind energy. To understand how and why, you have to go back a few decades. Continue Reading

What Spain Can Teach Texas About Solar Energy

About an hour’s drive outside of Sevilla, Spain’s old city, past grazing black-footed pigs and olive orchards, sits the Abengoa Solucar complex, and it’s truly a sight: Imagine cresting a hill and then all of the sudden seeing several large towers, over 500 feet high, with hundreds of beams of light striking them — solar rays from an army of mirrors arrayed in a circle on the ground below. They’re called heliostats.

“These heliostats are reflecting solar radiation toward the receiver that we have at the top of the tower,” says Valerio Fernandez, manager of the complex. The rays from the heliostats strike the top of the towers, like hundreds of magnifying glasses focused on one point in mid-air. The top of the tower shines so bright, you can’t look at it without sunglasses.

Once the solar radiation gets to the top of the tower, it’s used to heat up water. And it’s at this step that innovation turns to a technology that’s been around for well over a century: turbine technology. The solar radiation creates heat, that heats up water, which creates steam, which moves the tubines, which generates energy.

In the summer, there’s enough sun for 12, sometimes 13 hours of energy that can power up to 100,000 homes. And the towers can keep providing solar energy for several hours after the sun goes down, by heating and pressurizing steam for later.

Continue Reading

It Will Take an Insane Amount of Rain Before the Highland Lakes Recover

Lake Travis is heading towards its lowest levels in history if we have a dry fall.

Photo courtesy of the LCRA

Lake Travis is heading towards its lowest levels in history if we have a dry fall.

Central Texas is having a pretty decent year, rain-wise. We’re sitting just below normal. And it’s been a good week, too: early Thursday, one part of Austin got over seven inches of rain.

So much rain fell over downtown Austin that the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along Lady Bird Lake looked like he was walking on water. It brought back memories of the Halloween floods last fall — back then Stevie was standing in water waist-deep. But these big rain events all have something in common: They really haven’t fallen where we need them most.

“The watershed that helps our water supplies isn’t here in Austin; it’s way up into the counties to the north of us. It’s the drainage that goes into Lakes Buchanan and Travis,” says John Hofmann, Executive Vice President of Water for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

Hofmann says while the areas around the lakes got some decent rain earlier this summer, other than that it’s been pretty dry up there. So while Lake Austin is getting doused, the creekbeds that go into the Highland Lakes can stay relatively dry. Lake Travis has risen over a foot this week, and could go up another foot today. But it’s still nearly 40 feet below where it should be, and lower than it was a month ago.

And it’s not just where the water is falling that’s preventing the lakes from recovering. It’s the condition of the ground that it’s falling on.

Continue Reading

Railroad Commission Starting to Get Serious About Manmade Quakes

Azle and Reno are the epicenter for the North Texas earthquake swarm that mobilized residents earlier this year to call on the state to respond.

Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News

Azle and Reno are the epicenter for the North Texas earthquake swarm that mobilized residents earlier this year to call on the state to respond.

The agency that regulates the Texas oil and gas industry announced new rules this week aimed at curbing manmade earthquakes tied to oil and gas drilling operations.

Texas has had hundreds of small and medium quakes over the last few years as drilling has boomed thanks to fracking and horizontal drilling. But for years the Railroad Commission maintained that the quakes weren’t really a problem. They said the science wasn’t settled, despite numerous studies. Now, after public outcry over a swarm of quakes in North Texas earlier this year, the commission is starting to do something.

“It’s kinda like when you’re in a 12-step program,” says Cyrus Reed with the Sierra Club in Austin. “You know, the first thing you need to do admit that you have a problem. And I think the Railroad Commission has done that by proposing these rules.” Continue Reading

4 Ways Texas Could Win Big Under New Climate Change Rules

A coal power plant in Fayette, Texas.

Photo by Andy Uhler/KUT News

A coal power plant in Fayette, Texas.

Earlier this year, the earth hit a frightening milestone: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached its highest level since humans have inhabited the earth. The last time there was this much carbon on the planet was nearly a million years ago.

As the heat-trapping gas proliferates, the world warms, and the climate effects domino: droughts intensify, floods increase, ice melts and seas rise. The question now isn’t whether human activity is changing the global climate; the question is what to do about it.

The Obama administration proposed new rules last month that would take a first step in curbing carbon emissions from power plants in the U.S. Their target? Coal power plants. The response to the rules from Republican leaders in Texas was predictable: Gov. Rick Perry said the regulations “will only further stifle our economy’s sluggish recovery and increase energy costs.” And Attorney General (and candidate for Governor) Greg “I  go into work to sue the Obama Administration” Abbott vowed to fight the “job-killing” rules just as he’s fought other rules from the EPA.

But Texas may want to sit the fight over the new carbon rules out: because they could be an economic windfall for the state, to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

Continue Reading

Who’s Behind Denton’s Fracking Ban? Head Texas Regulator Thinks It Could Be Russia

The Denton City Council listened to seven hours of public testimonies from more than 100 people.

Doualy Xaykaothao KERA News

The Denton City Council listened to seven hours of public testimonies from more than 100 people.

After collecting thousands of signatures from local residents, a proposal to ban the oil and gas production technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the city of Denton will end up before voters this fall. While the Denton City Council turned down an opportunity to pass the ban themselves very early this morning, the proposal could still go into effect if voters approve it in November.

It would mark the first time a Texas city has outright banned fracking, and will likely result in a lengthy legal battle. Whether or not Texas cities can have bans like the one proposed in Denton is an open question, and the ban could push Texas courts or the legislature to answer it.

The proposal was put together by a citizen environmental group called the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. Locals in favor of the ban packed City Hall last night (and well into this morning) to speak in favor of it; there were oil and gas industry voices that spoke in opposition as well.

One prominent critic of the proposed ban is Barry Smitherman, the chair of Texas’ oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission (which regulates drilling and production, but not railroads). In a letter sent to the city council ahead of the vote, Smitherman cautioned strongly against it, writing that a ban on fracking would mean a ban on drilling. “If other cities were to follow your lead, then we could potentially, one day, see a ban on drilling within all cities in Texas.”

In the letter, Smitherman implies that it isn’t locals pushing the ban. It’s Russia.

Continue Reading

Construction Begins on Largest Carbon Capture Project in the World

Carbon dioxide will be captured and piped to an oilfield

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Carbon dioxide will be captured and piped to an oilfield

Here’s a head-scratcher: Over a million of tons of carbon dioxide a year will be captured from a coal plant near Houston, Texas. Then that captured carbon will be used to get more fossil fuels out of the ground, specifically from an old oilfield that’s been in use since the 1930s. Construction has begun on the Petra Nova Project, which the U.S. Department of Energy is calling “the first commercial-scale post-combustion carbon capture retrofit project in the U.S.”

The carbon capture will take place at the NRG W.A. Parish coal plant in Fort Bend County, the largest coal plant in Texas. The carbon capture project has quadrupled since its conception, now aiming to capture 90 percent of the emissions from one of the generating units at the plant. That carbon dioxide will be compressed and sent via pipeline 80 miles away to the West Ranch Oil Field

Dave Fehling of StateImpact Texas took a look at the project in February 2012: Continue Reading

How One Austin Home Produces More Energy Than It Uses

Steve Bijansky climbs down from the attic.

Mengwen Cao for KUT News

Steve Bijansky climbs down from the attic.

As the mercury rises in Texas, so does our energy use. Air conditioners will work overtime to keep your house cool. And when that happens, the Texas grid can become stretched thin. One solution is to build more power plants to meet growing demand. Another is to simply get Texans to use less energy.

“The cheapest and cleanest electricity is the electricity you don’t use,” says Kate Zerrenner, a Project Manager in the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund that focuses on energy efficiency and the energy-water nexus.

To see how far efficiency can go, I visited one of the newest – and smallest — power plants in Austin. Forget smokestacks and huge transmission lines: this “power plant” is actually a modest three-bedroom house in the Allandale neighborhood, right off Burnet Road. It’s classified as a “Net Zero” home, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses. Or in this case, it actually produces more energy than it needs. Continue Reading

Proposals to Prevent Another Fertilizer Explosion Immediately Meet Resistance

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.


A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas last year took much more than fifteen lives. At least 262 people were injured; twenty percent of those were brain injuries. Homes and schools were destroyed. But judging from the response of some state lawmakers charged with stopping it from happening again, preventable disasters like the one in West are just something Texans are going to have to live with from time to time.

There’s been no new regulations for fertilizer plants since the disaster until this month, but there’s been a consensus for some time about how to prevent another tragedy like the one in West: require fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate in non-combustible facilities or to use sprinklers; conduct inspections of facilities; and train first responders so they know how to deal with fires that may break out at sites with ammonium nitrate.

draft bill to do just that was introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. But Republicans on his committee like Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) made clear at a hearing yesterday that they’re likely going to fight new regulations proposed to prevent another West. Flynn said new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business, and he worries that any new rules for volunteer fire departments could strain budgets.

Continue Reading

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »