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September 01, 2020 1:41pm
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Drilling for renewables in Texas

Barry Smitherman, a former chairman of both the Public Utilities Commission of Texas and the Railroad Commission, joined the Texas Power Podcast to discuss Texas' geothermal energy opportunity and the electricity market redesign that's approaching a critical date.

As if it wasn’t enough that Texas has some of the best wind resource, best solar resource, and largest shale oil and gas deposits in the world, we also have a great geothermal resource. Unlike the others resources, though, geothermal is yet to be tapped. That’s about to change.

The Texas Geothermal Alliance launched last year and has grown to nearly 50 members including major oil and gas companies, power generators, and pure play geothermal companies. For this episode of the podcast, I talked with Barry Smitherman, TxGEA’s Chairman and President. Barry’s not new to the energy world in Texas though. He’s the only Texan to ever chair both the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Railroad Commission (which regulates oil and gas). He literally has a unique perspective.

We talked about geothermal and how perfectly suited it is to a state that has drilled—get this—one million wells. As he put it, instead of finding oil and gas, you’re finding heat. And that heat is a major source of energy—renewable energy at that. And it’s an unlimited, renewable power that is both firm and dispatchable. In fact, with Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS), operators can build up steam pressure to allow a variable flow of energy. It effectively works as a form of energy storage. 

Perhaps most importantly for a state with 200,000 oil and gas workers, taking geothermal power uses the same skillsets.

Most of our discussion was about the ongoing PUC market design debates and discussions which are reaching a sort of crescendo as the PUC drives toward a January 12 decision just two days after the Texas Legislature gavels in for their biennial regular session. 

We talked about how wind energy probably saved Texas’ competitive market in the early days of competition as high natural gas prices caused consumer rates and bills to soar. 

Smitherman was responsible for the last major increase in energy efficiency in the state of Texas when the PUC increased the state’s goal by 50% in 2010. (A bill carried by the Chairman of the Senate Business & Commerce Committee in 2011 changed the metric for energy efficiency and increased the amount slightly.) We talked about that as well as other highlights and challenges of his seven years as PUC Commissioner, including three as chair.

We also talked about the new proposals for a Performance Credit Mechanism, Dispatchable Energy Credits, Berkshire Hathaway’s proposal to build new gas plants to only run in an emergency, and the use of mobil generation by fully regulated transmission and distribution utilities. 

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