Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas


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

Watch: Fracking The Eagle Ford Shale – Big Oil And Bad Air On The Texas Prairie

Fracking The Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil And Bad Air On The Texas Prairie from Weather Films on Vimeo.

A new joint investigation out this week on air quality in the Eagle Ford Shale has brought up troubling questions about the effect fracking in South Texas is having on the health of residents. Inside Climate News, The Center for Public Integrity, and the Weather Channel cooperated on the report, which took eight months.

Among the report’s findings:

  • “Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.”
  • “Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings’ house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice “[c]annot be proven to be protective.” Continue Reading

How a Photographer Captured Stevie Ray Underwater During the Halloween Floods

The floods that hit Austin in the early hours of Halloween morning killed at least five people and damaged more than 500 homes.

Some parts of the city received nearly 10 inches of rain in a 24 hour span, and Austin’s rivers, creeks, and streams rose to historic levels.

One of the lasting images from the floods was a photo of the statue of Austin legend Stevie Ray Vaughan waist-deep in water. The photographer who captured that photo, Reagan Hackleman, rushed down to Lady Bird Lake to get the photos. His images show water bursting up from manholes and the Lamar Street Bridge nearly covered by the rising river.

Hackleman spoke with StateImpact Texas’ Mose Buchele about the experience of taking the photographs, and what it was like to see the city transformed by the floods.

Looking at Pipeline Safety After the Chevron Gas Line Explosion

You might have heard that there was a national “Stand Down” yesterday – a day designated to create safety awareness at oil and gas sites in Texas and the rest of the country.

The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration has been holding these throughout the year, calling on companies to have workers stop for part of the day and focus on safety and training to help reduce accidents in the oil and gas industry. Those accidents have been on the rise, with the number of fatalities more than doubling in the last four years and reaching their highest level in a decade.

“Too many workers are dying in the oil and gas drilling industry,” Dr. David Michaels said at the event in Houston. “Employers need to ensure that jobs are planned out, everyone has adequate training in all aspects of safety and workers need to be part of the planning.”

But chances are the “Stand Down” didn’t catch your eye. Instead you probably read the many headlines about a gas pipeline explosion in Ellis County.

Thursday morning, a construction crew at a Chevon natural gas pipeline just outside the small town of Milford was “performing excavation activities,” according to the company, when a 10-inch liquified gas pipeline was ruptured. The black smoke reached all the way to Dallas, some 50 miles away.  Continue Reading

Evacuations Underway After Chevron Gas Pipeline Explodes In Milford

From KERA News:

A gas pipeline has exploded in Ellis County – and evacuations of hundreds of people are underway.

Update, 2:54 p.m.: KERA’s BJ Austin reports: Emergency crews called for the evacuation of Milford because of the thick, black, low-hanging smoke blowing that way.

Steve Fano with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth says an inversion – warm air on top of colder air – was acting like a lid.

“Basically, that was keeping the smoke relatively close the ground,” he said. “The good news is as we’ve progressed through the day that layer of warm air has kind of mixed down.  So basically what’s happens is the smoke was allowed to go further into the air and disperse more.” Continue Reading

Powered by the Sun, But Off to a Slow Start

It’s a sweltering Texas summer day in late June, and here at the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 race track in Austin, the stands are empty. Just last fall, they were filled with fans witnessing the deafening roar of cars going upward of 200 miles an hour.

But if you were to listen closely this summer day, you’d hear a barely audible zooming on the track. Peek down from the stands, and you’d see little pods zipping along the track at a brisk 45 miles an hour. They’re solar-powered cars, part of the annual Formula Sun Grand Prix competition, where several teams of college engineering students race against each other, and the constant drain of batteries.

Last year, a solar-powered yacht sailed all the way around the globe for the first time. A few weeks ago, a solar-powered plane completed a trip across the country. As oil prices and carbon emissions rise, could solar-powered transportation be a cheaper, cleaner way to get around? Continue Reading

With Gas Drilling on the Decline, Texas Shale Regions Diverge

Two years ago Texas’ booming Barnett Shale region was facing a slew of challenges that came along with increased oil and gas drilling. Heavy drilling trucks were destroying the roads, employees were getting poached from their everyday jobs to go work on the rigs, and residents of North Texas worried about what kind of impact all that drilling was having on the environment.

Those problems persist. But as the price of natural gas has declined, much of the drilling activity has moved south, to the Eagle Ford Shale region, where drillers can extract more valuable crude oil and liquids from the ground.

Continue Reading

Video: Lawmakers Say Get Ready to Pay More for Water

As Texas legislators continue to grapple with how to identify and fund water project priorities for the state, Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) makes the argument that Texans don’t value water enough. His comments came at StateImpact Texas’ panel: The Texas Water Crisis: Finding and Funding a Solution.

As a representative of a district that has struggled during the state’s dry years, Darby said, his region’s problem wasn’t as much not having enough reservoirs but that there’s not enough water in them. The large O.H. Ivie reservoir, which serves San Angelo, a city of nearly 100,000 people, is only 14 percent full. And the other reservoirs the city relies on, like Twin Buttes and O.C. Fisher, are sitting empty.

We’re “reservoir-rich, but water-poor,” Darby said. His solution? For one, he says Texans — especially those living in the very dry parts of the state — will need to value water higher, and in turn pay more for it. You can watch his remarks in the video above, produced by Filipa Rodrigues of KUT News.

The ‘Secret’ to Unlocking Renewable Energy in Texas? Battery Storage

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Texas is awash in green energy potential. Problem is, we don't have anywhere to store the renewable energy we produce.

Texas may be rich in fossil fuels like oil and gas, but it’s also awash in clean, renewable energy.

Well, at least it could be. With the most renewable energy potential in the United States, Texas is a formidable candidate to up their renewable energy usage. Wind power now supplies 8 percent of energy to the grid in Texas and it’s cheaper than ever. However, the Energy Institute’s Raymond Orbach at the University of Texas at Austin says there’s still one major roadblock. “If someone could lick the storage problem,” Orbach says, “we would really have a remarkable resource.”

The ‘storage problem’ boils down to how energy works. “You can’t turn the sun off, and you can’t tell the wind to blow,” says Orbach. It’s simply unreliable. And you have to use the energy while it’s there. Right now turbine energy created from early afternoon winds has to be used immediately, in the early afternoon. But the demand for energy peaks later in the afternoon during the hot Texas summers, when the winds have died down. Solar could fill that gap, but efforts to incentivize it’s construction haven’t gone anywhere yet in Texas, and there’s always the question of what happens when a bunch of clouds pass over.

So creating something that can store and save renewable energy like wind and solar for later would change the game entirely. Continue Reading

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