A new set of eyes on Houston smokestacks

parish_coal_heat_signature Cold: The stack for Unit 8 at W.A. Parish, on the far left, appears cool in the image captured from EPA Solutions’ camera. The unit was offline.

parish_coal_heating_up Warming up: Unit 8 starts to show a glimmer of life Wednesday.

parish_coal_heating_up_more Getting warmer.

parish_coal_heating_up_whole_lot_more Now you’re hot! Unit 8 gets back up to speed Thursday.

Houston Mayor Bill White is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to do more than just rely on self reporting from the industry when it comes to emissions from chemical plants and other industrial facilities, saying the standards are flawed and the data unreliable. A product developed by one Houston company for a different reason might be able to help .
EPA Solutions, a small start-up, has been demonstrating a system that uses infrared cameras trained on the massive W.A. Parish power plant in Fort Bend County as a way to let energy traders know how much energy a particular plant is putting on the market. Companies aren’t required to report such data, but if an energy trader was able to find out that a particular unit just went down they might be able to make trades to take advantage of a pending energy shortfall.
Tom Vo, CEO of the company, said he’s trying to compete with products traders use such as Genscape, which uses a network of wireless devices to measure the output from power plants based on electromagnetic fields. While Genscape needs to be able to place its devices on power line rights-of-way, Vo says he simply needs a location with a clear line of sight on a power plant. Infrared cameras and other devices can then capture images that the company’s software analyzes to determine the output. The image and data is refreshed every few minutes.
The equipment aimed at the massive 3,800-megawatt coal and natural gas-fired Parish plant is on a pole mounted at a home nearby. Vo said the equipment can also be mounted on cell phone towers, which the company did when it tested earlier versions of the system in New England.
We took a look at the product’s web-based interface this week and were able to watch as Unit 8 — a 650 megawatt capacity coal unit which went down at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, July 6 according to Vo — came back online Wednesday. NRG Energy said it doesn’t comment on particular unit outages, but there’s no doubt the unit was down and came back up as we watched it online. Friday afternoon that unit appeared to go off again, however. No word why.
Energy traders around town say they’ve seen the demo and are continuing to evaluate it. Vo, an alum of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Management, said the system can also be used to monitor emissions from refineries and chemical plants.