This story was originally published by New Republic and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including the number of chemical plants, refineries, and other industrial facilities. So when one of the worst storms in American history hit the heart of Texas’ petrochemical industry, it also triggered one of the biggest mass shutdowns the area has even seen. At least 25 plants have either shut down or experienced production issues due to Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented severe weather and flooding, according to industry publication ICIS. But those closures are not only disrupting markets; they’re also causing enormous releases of toxic pollutants that pose a threat to human health.
Take Chevron Phillips Chemical plant in Sweeny, Texas. When it shut down due to Hurricane Harvey, it released into the atmosphere more than 100,000 pounds of carbon monoxide; 22,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide, 32,000 pounds of ethylene, and 11,000 pounds of propane, according to a report the company submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). A couple thousand pounds of 1,3-butadiene, benzene, and butane were released as well. All of these releases were far more than what was legally allowed.
Chevron reported similarly huge amounts of air pollution above legal limits due to the shutdown of its chemical plant in Cedar Bayou. 28,000 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen. 56,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide gases, which react to form smog and acid rain. From just one “miscellaneous” source at the facility, a combined 40,000 pounds of various chemicals were released — and that source had no legal authority to release anything at all.
Smaller emissions events were also submitted to TCEQ. In preparation for Harvey, the Equistar plant in Corpus Christi released 5,000 pounds of both carbon monoxide and ethylene. The shutdown of Chevron’s Pasadena Plastics Complex caused some excess releases, mostly of carbon monoxide and isobutane. Javelina Gas Processing facility went far above its relatively low pollution limits for its shutdown, reporting releases of 10,000 pounds of carbon monoxide and 4,000 pounds of butanes, among other things. One Pasadena refinery released a bit of particulate matter.
Between Aug. 23 — the day it became clear Harvey would threaten Texas — and Aug. 29, industrial plants reported 74 excess air pollution release events to TCEQ, or nearly 60 percent more than the previous week. Those releases have so far totaled more than 1 million pounds of emissions above legal limits, according to Air Alliance Houston, an environmental nonprofit that crunched the numbers.
This chart shows excess air pollutant emissions from the Chevron Phillips Chemical plant in Sweeny, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey. TCEQ
The reason this is happening is simple: Petrochemical plant shutdowns are a major cause of abnormal emission events. The short-term impacts of these events can be “substantial,” according to a 2012 report from the Environmental Integrity Project, because “upsets or sudden shutdowns can release large plumes of sulfur dioxide or toxic chemicals in just a few hours, exposing downwind communities to peak levels of pollution that are much more likely to trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory systems.”
Air Alliance Houston’s Executive Director Bakeyah Nelson is concerned about how these shutdowns will affect nearby communities already suffering from Harvey. “The excess amount of air pollution puts communities in close proximity to these plants at risk, especially people with chronic health conditions,” she said. She also noted that communities closest to these sites in Houston — and in general — are disproportionately low-income and minority. Some residents have already been complaining of “unbearable” petrochemical-like smells.
But so far, TCEQ has not indicated these events have triggered health impacts. Its website offers no guidance for air pollution events from the storm, and TCEQ Media Relations Manager Andrea Miller told me the agency or local emergency officials would contact residents if an immediate health threat were to occur. What’s more, Miller said companies were probably reporting higher emissions that what actually occurred, “since underreporting can result in higher penalties.”
It’s unclear, however, how TCEQ would check many of the companies’ reports, since the agency turned off all its air quality monitors in the Houston area before Harvey hit. Miller confirmed as much on Monday, saying devices were either turned off or removed “to protect against damage or loss of these sensitive and expensive instruments.” Most of the plants impacted by Harvey are in the Houston area, as this ICIS map below shows.
A map of industrial facilities in Texas that have either closed, reduced operations, or otherwise scaled back because of Hurricane Harvey. ICIS
None of this is to say that companies could have done much of anything this week to stop the release of these chemicals. Indeed, there is no way to avoid large releases of air pollutants when refineries and chemical plants shut down, and there was no way these companies could have avoided shutting down their facilities faced with such a destructive storm. In their reports to TCEQ, companies generally say they are operating within safety and good air pollution control practices. And fortunately, as one meteorologist pointed out to me on Twitter, the continued rainfall in Texas is likely improving the situation, preventing pollutants from remaining stagnant in the air as it destroys everything else.
The real problem lies in the sheer number of facilities having to shut down or decrease operations at the exact same time — meaning they’ll also all eventually have to start back up. And emissions-wise, starting back up is just as bad as shutting down. That’s evident in the TCEQ emissions reports; rebooting the Formosa Plastics plant two hours outside Houston will be an enormous emissions event. In Corpus Christi, the Flint Hills Resources plant reported releases of 15,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide — a particularly harmful chemical — for its start-up. Most of this, too, is unavoidable, said Neil Carman, the clean air program director at Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “Plants aren’t like cars or trucks where you just push a button and its starts,” he said. “These are huge refineries and petrochemical plants, so it takes a number of hours to heat up their units.”
When these plants restart, it’s less likely that the communities nearby will have the rain to save them. (And it seems a cruel irony to wish for rain that’s already caused so much damage.) But Nelson says the real problem is that the plants are allowed to operate so close to residential areas in the first place. Houston’s lack of zoning regulations have been front-and-center in discussions about why Harvey has been so terrible for the city, and that’s no different in the discussion about air pollution. “When the city gets back on its feet, it’s a good time to revisit the dialogue about where facilities are allowed to be located, and what precautionary measures can be taken in the future for communities in close proximity to these facilities,” Nelson said. Unfortunately, like so many other problems with Harvey, the discussion may come too late for the most vulnerable.
A Beacon in the Smog®
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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.
By Amelia Urry on Sep 22, 2017
When Hurricane Irma scraped its way up the Florida peninsula, it left the state’s electrical grid in pieces. Between 7 million and 10 million people lost power during the storm — as much as half of the state — and some vulnerable residents lost their lives in the sweltering days that followed. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of electrical workers from around the country rushed to the Sunshine State to repair damaged substations, utility poles, and transmission lines.
But in Palm Coast, on Florida’s eastern seaboard, midway between Daytona and St. Augustine, Jim Walden never lost power. As he and his wife listened to debris clattering off their roof, 24 solar panels and 10 kilowatt hours of battery storage kept their lights on and their refrigerator cool. Over the ensuing days, as electric utilities struggled to return power to Florida’s storm-wracked communities, the only thing Walden and his wife missed was their air conditioner (which would have drained their batteries too quickly).
“It worked flawlessly,” Walden says of his solar-plus-storage system. “We had plenty of power for the fans to keep us cool and the lights when you walk into the bathroom at night. The wife would even run her hairdryer off of it.”
Walden’s setup — which draws power from the sun during the day and dispenses it at night, with or without the help of the grid — is an illustration of how we might reimagine our electrical system to be more modular, resilient, and renewable-powered. We’ve already been struggling with the question of how to build (or rebuild) our grids to better accommodate solar- and wind-generated energy. But this month’s run of record-making Atlantic hurricanes has made finding an answer — one that will help us better weather the storms of the coming century — even more urgent.
Questions about reliability have dogged renewable energy from the beginning. Simply put, when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not getting any energy from those sources. Our grid, by contrast, is set up to provide constant, unwavering power around the clock. We’re only just starting to address the challenge of reconciling these two basic facts in one functional system. (Hint: The solution involves batteries). But according to a Department of Energy report, wind and solar power have not made the U.S. power grid less reliable, even as the amount of renewable energy loaded onto it has shot up.
But the grid is getting less reliable overall. Thanks to perpetual delays in updating old infrastructure, the United States sees more power outages per year than any other developed country — costing an annual $150 billion in lost productivity.
And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Even as Florida’s lights turn back on, the Atlantic keeps serving up hurricanes like Maria, which left all of Puerto Rico in darkness that could last as long as six months. Overall, the average number of annual weather-related power outages doubled from 2003 to 2012, a Climate Central report found.
One basic improvement the United States could make to its power grid is moving power lines from above-ground utility poles to protected underground conduits. This is how Germany rebuilt its grid after World War II, and now it suffers very few outages, says Blake Richetta, the U.S. VP for German clean-energy company sonnenBatterie. The country has fewer than 12 minutes of blackout per customer per year, compared to the 244 minutes that plague Americans.
But moving America’s 300,000 miles of transmission lines underground would be an epic investment of time and labor — just the sort of massive infrastructure project we’ve been putting off.
Florida utilities did invest in some storm-hardening of their power infrastructure in the past decade, replacing wooden poles with concrete ones and placing them closer together as a response to hurricane damage in 2004 and 2005. The state’s largest investor-owned utility, Florida Power & Light, spent $3 billion on improvements over the last decade, including an $800-million smart-grid project completed in 2013 with backing from the Department of Energy. The initiative involved deploying more than 4.5 million smart meters, sensors, and flood monitors, all networked together to give the utility real-time information on how power is moving around the grid.
Those moves helped lessen the damage Irma caused, according to Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy. During the hurricane, several power substations were able to shut down when flooding monitors indicated equipment was at risk, saving the utility several days of work and possibly millions in equipment repair.
Still, Silagy’s company had to deploy around 20,000 workers in camps across the state to patch power plants and transmission lines in the days after the storm. And a utility spokesperson told ABC News that parts of the electrical grid on Florida’s west coast will require a “wholesale rebuild.”
“This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration, arguably the longest and most complex in U.S. history,” VP of Communication Rob Gould said.
Clearly, Florida — and the rest of the country — still needs to do much more. And according to Jim Walden, it’s going to require a change in attitude for many Americans.
“It’s amazing to me that we live in the Sunshine State, and it’s hard to get people interested in solar power whatsoever,” he explains.
Walden himself got interested because he wanted to save money on his electric bill. Later, with the help of a $7,500 federal tax incentive, he installed his own battery storage to become more self-sufficient, especially during power outages.
The solutions to our collective energy troubles, however, will also need to be collective. One way that could look is scaling up from individual battery-powered homes to networked storage hubs that could act as regional power sources, flexibly responding to the changing demands of the grid.
As one urban resilience expert, Thaddeus Miller, told ProPublica, increasing the defenses of our cities and systems will require deeper changes than any we’ve embraced so far. “Fundamentally, we must abandon the idea that there is a specific standard to which we can control nature,” he said.
That means, for instance, changing the way we think about resilient infrastructure. Rather than working to prevent flooding at all times with high-investment levees and reservoirs, we could work to build facilities that are better at weathering flooding without being totally compromised. These “safe-to-fail” approaches would leave less of a mess after a storm blows through.
Because storms are going to blow through places like Florida, and they’re likely going to get stronger.
“We lose electricity quite often here, believe it or not — there are thunderstorms that can come up and knock power out,” Walden says. “Just to have electricity during those times is a great comfort.”
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