Heat, Water, Power: weak climate bill precedes nuke-cost announcement

Greg Harman

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Last week, the Texas Public Utility Commission hoisted the yellow flag â?? sort of a National Threat Assessment for electricity users â?? urging folks to forgo unnecessary appliance-assisted tasks.

We've been peaking, in case you didn't know. Waves of angry sunage have been bustin' thermometers across South Texas.

So, on yet another triple-digit day, I rang up the PUC. What did it mean? If I ran my washer during peak demand hours (if I owned a washer and ran it, that is) would I black out Alamo City?

Not hardly, I was reassured. There is still a 12-percent “buffer” of extra power available statewide, I was told. In fact, we're in better shape that we were a year ago. The yellow-flag encouragement to conserve wasn't so much to avoid power disruption, but to limit possible “strain” on the power grid.

It was as if the warning was simply bureaucrats at work. Worrywarts and busybodies and too many highlighting markers.

Cranking up the AC, I felt better â?? at least until I flipped on the news. Transdimensional pranksters had sparked an outage of one of CPS Energy's coal plants, forcing the utility to buy higher-priced power from out of the area. This wasn't the “cheap and reliable” power I had grown used to. Worse, it was coming to my bill at month's end.

Well, there's plenty more of that on the way.

Whether we're talking about San Antonio's push for more nuclear power or of the U.S. Congress wrasslin' over global warming, our future has been written in one key way: the era of cheap energy is over.

Estimates on twin new nukes for a possibly 50-50 venture between the City of San Antonio and NRG Energy range between NRG's $10 billion and the anti-nukers' $17 billion to $22 billion figures. CPS, announcing their preferred figure an hour from now, will be under a certain amount of pressure to concur with their partners at NRG.

But even those that labor over concerns about the impact of uranium mining on groundwater supplies, the long-term costs and feasibility of nuke waste containment, and critical-impact radioactive rainfall, know the renewable path will bring those higher costs along, just as surely.

As a score of young climate heroes demonstrated against nukes on the sidewalk outside CPS Energy downtown last week, I asked organizer Diana Lopez of the Southwest Workers Union if she would she likewise protest if the city adopted a renewables-only approach since that will bring on bigger bills, too.

“I think over the long run nuclear is more expensive and there is more at risk with the South Texas mining and the waste,” she said.

There is no avoiding higher energy costs to come as we transition to low- and no-carbon options. And those battling in Washington have had their own ideological hurdles to clear, as well.

To be frank, the climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday will not save us. Even if every nation on Earth adopted similar legislation, we'd be in for seriously rough water.

To get a bill passed, legislators made compromises that have so weakened the bill's intention that it cannot achieve its desired end: the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would slow now-careening global warming.

MIT researchers reported recently that the effects of global warming are coming twice as fast as was projected only a couple years ago by the IPCC. That temps could reach nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit this century if dramatic action is not taken.

U.S. Representative Llloyd Doggett opposed the bill for those reasons. It simply didn't go far enough.

He was one of the enlightened dissenters until an 11th-hour perspective shift caused him to plug his nose, overlook the giveaways to Big Coal and others, and help squeak through the American Clean Energy & Security Act at a vote of 219-212.

What made him change?

Here are his comments from the House floor on Friday.

First, I've been listening to the debateâ?¦ listening to the Flat Earth Society, the climate denials, some of the most inane arguments that I have heard â?¦ refusing to act on this vital national security challenge.

Second, I believe there's still some hope to make improvements to this bill once it gets out of the House. Better to have a seat at the table to try to influence the change that is needed in this legislation.

And third, I'm convinced that unless we act today, the Senate will not act. And unless we act in this Congress, we will not get the international agreements we need to address this serious challenge.

So, the long-winded oratory of Minority Leader John Boehner and others brought on the change of heart. Elected leaders who were incapable of debating points of global warming, broad or fine, served as a wake-up call. We can only blame intentional ignorance, at this point.

And the dissenters who worried the bill went too far? In the interests of abbreviating this post, I'll leave them to Paul Krugman. Keyword: traitor.

ACES is meant to reduce greenhouse emissions 80 percent by 2050, but by giving away 85 percent of the pollution credits, rather than sell them off at auction, that goal is highly unlikely to be reached.

Still, having the deal in hand, as Doggett states, puts us in better position to lead the international community into a new Kyoto Protocol when we gather in December.

The trick now will be to restore the intent of the bill while moving it through the Senate.

Here in San Antonio, we have the same conversation taking place on a regional level.

CPS Energy officials are pursuing nuclear as a “baseload” power option that is also â?? more than convenient given our current warming reality â?? low-carbon.

Still, while nuclear costs continue to track a course into our warming atmosphere, critics of the plan are quick to point out solar is the only significant power source seeing its costs drop, rapidly.

Then there is the issue of water.

If San Antonio ever performs an honest cost-benefit analysis of our power options, we may find that carbon isn't the only risk to be avoided.

Just think: STP expansion would evaporate 37,000 acre-feet of water per year â?? 12 billion gallons. It would rinse-and-release far more than that.

Contrast that with the 27 megawatts of solar we just contracted for out of West Texas, said to about the same amount of water as two typical homes, or about 100,000 gallons per year.

The reality of expanding the Comanche Peak nuke complex in North Texas caught the attention of the none-to-radical Waco Tribute-Herald, which editorialized on Thursday:

Central Texans should be both heartened and just a little scared about Trib staff writer J.B. Smith's report on the Waco-based Brazos River Authority's plan to provide gargantuan amounts of water from the Brazos River Basin to serve two nuclear reactors that Luminant wants to build in Glen Rose. They would use 55 million gallons a day â?? far more than the city of Waco uses daily.

The BRA, which stands to make millions, tells us that it has plenty of water, enough to meet the needs of an expanded Comanche Peak power plant and all downstream users.

But others worry about Texas-sized droughts, such as the scorcher that devastated us for seven years back in the 1950s. They fear the BRA could wind up compromising itself and much of Texas if its long-range projections about climate, industrialization and population growth are wrong.

We find hope in our state leaders' faith in nuclear power. Many of us long ago got over fears about nuclear power at Comanche Peak, including worries that cattle in Central Texas might begin glowing come sundown.

But a Texas water shortage can torpedo business, manufacturing and, yes, our state's cattle industry. Even if you talk with those climatologists who don't buy into global warming, they'll tell you our state is naturally prone to droughts, such as the one we're in right now.

In the power and warming debates, activists often speak of saving the planet. But it's not the planet we're fighting for.

The planet has cycled through innumerable periods of icing and warming. While all of our wonders are baked from her surface in the coming years, she won't even be fazed.

No. This is about saving ourselves.

I suspect if the willfully ignorant on climate science understood that, they'd be taking a different approach to contemporary Washington politics.

Freelance writer Laura Paskus posted some thoughts on the subject last week, blogging at Democracy for New Mexico.

She closed her entry this way:

As a nation, we are facing an emergencyâ??and yet the climate change legislation pending before Congress is woefully inadequate to greet that new world with much beyond empty rhetoric and delayed promises. Throw in a few boondoggles, concessions to the energy industry and the pet projects supported by lawmakers bowing to industry influence, and it's obvious that the current Waxman-Markey bill serves as a great disservice to the generations ahead who will suffer diminished water resources, agricultural challenges, rising sea levels and increases in diseases transmitted by insects and rodents.

This spring, storms blew tons of Utah's red soil into western Colorado. As winds picked up in the afternoons, people would emerge from their homes to look up at the coral sky. Twice I stood beneath red mud spattering down from the sky in rainstorms.

Until it melted off, the snowpack on the mountains visible from my front porch was tinted red. That dust hastened an early snowmelt and turned the river that runs through town a murky shade of red.

Such signs do not portend well for the future, and I wonder if my own daughterâ??three years old nowâ??will grow up believing Colorado's mountain snows were always red in the spring. Given her curious nature, I know she will challenge me when I say it wasn't always soâ??and I imagine she will also ask why we did nothing, even when the signs of change were so obvious before us.

To echo Hechler's words from decades ago: It is time to stop sitting it out on the sidelines.

Here in South Texas, we obviously wouldn't have any red snow to explain, it would be the move north as we searched for a land with water.

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