This Week in Texas Energy: Will Next Week’s Solar Eclipse Turn the Lights Out in Texas?
Warren Buffett’s Oncor deal is in trouble, Trump explores replacing Rick Perry in the Energy Department, and an Exxon plant has been pumping toxins into an African American neighborhood in Beaumont.
There Goes The Sun
The stargazers among us are likely pretty pumped for next week’s solar eclipse, a rare cosmic event when the moon blocks out the sun. But while you’re running to the store to cop special solar eclipse glasses and deciding which local watch party to get totally eclipsed at, you might also want to consider the effect the eclipse might have on the energy grid here in Texas. The much-hyped eclipse will wipe out about 600 megawatts worth of electricity generation from Texas’s burgeoning solar power industry, according to officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the Texas grid. According to the Dallas Morning News, ERCOT describes a megawatt as the amount of electricity needed to power 200 homes during peak demand, which amounts to enough energy to power 120,000 Texas homes during peak demand. Additionally, there will likely be a slight jump in energy use because the darkness caused by the eclipse will trigger automated lighting. But there’s nothing to worry about, because the impact is expected to be extremely small. According to the Morning News, solar energy accounts for less than one percent of electricity consumed by Texans, and even in parts of the state where the eclipse is expected to be especially dramatic, the event won’t be half as strong of an impact on the energy grid as, say, a day of heavy cloud cover. “That is not very much,” ERCOT spokesman Robbie Searcy told the Morning News. “We can prepare for that and compensate for it during the course of the eclipse just like we would during a normal operating day.” The next time a solar eclipse comes around, however, might be a different story. According to Gizmodo, on April 8, 2024, Texas is expected to take the biggest energy blow, due to both the expected growth of the solar industry here and the path of the eclipse that day, which will cut right through Texas. “By that time, our reliance on solar energy will likely be much greater than it is today, placing even more strain on the grid,” Gizmodo writes.
Oncor or Bust
Warren Buffett’s brazen attempt to take over Oncor, the largest utility provider in Texas, is facing perhaps its biggest challenge yet. The billionaire’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, announced in July its $9 billion bid to buy Oncor’s parent company, Energy Future Holdings, a somewhat risky proposal given Oncor’s problems with bankruptcy and the blocking of several prior sales by state regulators. Though Berkshire Hathaway claims it has the support of the state, there may now be something else blocking the deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. has snatched up a piece of debt that would allow the hedge fund to block Buffett’s purchase of Oncor. Elliott has been acquiring debt of Energy Future Holdings in recent months—the fund apparently already owned a major position in the biggest block of debt, and argued it could possibly block any deal. But, according to the Journal, the recent purchase of a different class from Fidelity Investments “closes a potential loophole” Buffett could have used to force a deal through. Still, Berkshire Hathaway seems unfazed. As the Journal notes, these guys are used to getting deals done fast, and they don’t usually get in bidding wars. On Wednesday, Berkshire Hathaway said in a statement that its support from Texas regulators “sets our offer apart from any other bid,” adding that they are standing firm on its original $9 billion offer.
Amid whispers earlier this month that former Dancing With The Stars contestant and ex-Texas governor Rick Perry might be a favorite to fill the open spot as head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there were reports this week that President Donald Trump is exploring a potential new face to take over Perry’s current role as Energy Secretary. Citing four anonymous sources, Bloomberg first reported over the weekend that some White House and Republican officials are looking at the idea of inserting West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin as the leader of the Energy Department. Apparently the potential move would have more to do with advancing Trump’s legislative agenda than anything else. “If Manchin were offered and accepted the position, that would allow West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice—newly minted Republican—to appoint a GOP successor and bring the party a vote closer in the Senate to being able to repeal Obamacare,” Bloomberg writes. It’s unclear what would happen to Perry in this scenario, but as of right now he’s not going anywhere. Trump hasn’t settled on a successor for Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security yet, and Perry seems pretty happy as Energy Secretary anyway.
The Intercept has a troubling story about an Exxon refinery that has been poisoning the air in an African American neighborhood in Beaumont for nearly two decades. Reporter Sharon Lerner wrote of residents in the Charlton-Pollard part of town who are forced to cover their mouths and noses and run inside to avoid the sickening smell that descends upon their homes from the nearby plant, followed by symptoms that include an “intense sudden headache, tearing eyes, a runny nose, and congestion that made it difficult to sleep.” The refinery processes “sour crude,” oil that contains high amounts of sulfur, and flare events from burning smokestacks regularly “erupt into smelly belches of fire.” The plant is regularly in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act, and although residents filed a complaint seventeen years ago, their concerns fell mostly on deaf ears, and they received no response until May, when the EPA issued a letter declaring the case resolved, implementing some small changes. Meanwhile, there will likely be an increase in emissions due to a planned expansion of the refinery, and the Trump administration is continuing to roll back environmental regulations, so the residents of Charlton-Pollard probably aren’t going to get any relief anytime soon.