Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

If Austin Goes Coal-Free, Could the Rest of Texas Follow?

Photo by Raymond Thompson/KUT News

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell speaks at Steiner Ranch in September.

Austin’s Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced his bid for re-election yesterday, and while the announcement isn’t exactly surprising, one of his new campaign promises is: an Austin powered without any coal.

“Starting immediately, I’m going to begin a dialogue with the community, with Austin Energy, with the LCRA, and with state officials, about how to make Austin coal-free — and aggressively plan a date to achieve that goal,” the mayor said during his announcement yesterday at Becker elementary school, where he went to school as a kid.

“The global energy market is changing and we need to change with it,” the mayor said. “Right now wind prices are competitive with fossil fuels, and that is critical.” Leffingwell pledged that the move from coal would be done in a way that ”keeps electric rates competitive and low for our customers.” Construction of transmission lines is underway in the Texas panhandle that will more efficiently transmit wind power to Central Texas.

What kind of response did the mayor’s coal-free pledge get? Environmental groups applauded:  “We congratulate Mayor Leffingwell on the renewal of his commitment to move Austin beyond coal,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director with the Sierra Club in Austin, and a former member of the Resource Generation Task Force.

Photo by KUT News

The Fayette Coal Power Plant in La Grange

The state’s capital has only one coal power plant as a source, the Fayette Power Project in La Grange, some sixty miles from the city. It produces 600 megawatts, or about twenty percent, of the city’s power, while the rest comes from natural gas, nuclear and wind power. The plant is operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority  (LCRA) and owned by the LCRA and Austin Energy. Neither was available for comment. [UPDATE: The LCRA responded to the mayor's proposal late Thursday afternoon. Read the response.]

The Sierra Club maintains that the Fayette plant “is a major contributor to mercury and other toxic emissions and will need additional upgrades to comply with upcoming mercury pollution safeguards.” The plant gets most of its coal from Wyoming, and the LCRA says on its website that it burns cleaner than other coals. “Burning this low-sulfur coal is one of many steps [Fayette Power Project] staff takes to minimize air and water pollution from this plant,” the LCRA states on its page for the plant. They also note that the plant is cooled by water from Lake Fayette, “a 2,400-acre reservoir that provides a variety of recreational opportunities and some of the state’s best freshwater fishing.”

Will other Texas cities follow Austin’s example? The state gets about forty percent of its power from coal plants, according to a report by Kate Galbraith in the Texas Tribune, and most of them were built in the 1970s and 1980s, so they are “newer and sturdier compared with the rest of the nation.” That is a lot of power and investment that is not easily replaced, especially when energy is already scarce. But several proposed new coal plants have met with opposition from environmental groups, who claim they have successfully stopped the construction of eight out of eleven proposed plants.

And in a separate case, the proposed White Stallion coal power plant is in a holding pattern because they can’t secure water rights from the LCRA. As water becomes scarcer and regulations tighter, the state’s energy industry may find coal a less attractive option.

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Don-Brock/1337428696 Don Brock

    It shouldn’t be that difficult to achieve since only 20% currently comes from coal.

  • Jeff Crunk

    The Fayette power station, like all coal thermal power plants, uses a staggering amount of water.  ERCOT is warning that an continuation of drought into 2012 threatens water supply for coal and nuclear generators.  Drought in 2012 could result several thousand megawatts of electrical capacity going offline.  Going coal free is a smart way for Austin to insulate itself from an inevitable energy-water collision in Texas. 

    • TexasOnMyMind

      Here’s a factoid for you, Jeff:  If you add the water used by the Fayette plant and the J.T. Dealy plant south of San Antonio, it is more water than will be used in all oil and gas industry frac jobs this year.  And Texas has 17 other coal plants in addition to those two.

      Something to think about…

      • TexasOnMyMind

        Oops.  Make that all frac jobs IN TEXAS.  Still something to think about.

  • Jeff Crunk

    The Fayette power station, like all coal thermal power plants, uses a staggering amount of water. 
    ERCOT is warning that an continuation of drought into 2012 threatens
    water supply for coal and nuclear generators.  Drought in 2012 could
    result several thousand megawatts of electrical capacity going offline.  Going coal free is a smart way for Austin to insulate itself from an inevitable energy-water collision in Texas. 

  • TexasOnMyMind

    Message to Mayor Leffingwell:  Texas is awash in an energy resource that produces far less CO2 than coal, ZERO mercury, ZERO lead and virtually no SOx, NOx and particulates.  It’s also as cheap as coal, and is the only fuel source that is scalable in the near term to replace the Fayette plant.  It’s called natural gas, and Texas produces 30% of the U.S. supply.  It’s the cheapest power source to build, and uses 70% less water than coal.

    You could replace the Fayette plan with a new natural gas combined cycle plant in less than 2 years, without government subsidy, and without fleecing Austin Energy’s rate payers.  You should look into it.

  • WannaKnow

    Help me out Jeff, I am trying to understand more.  What is a “staggering” amount? I am a numbers person.  What do they do with the water and where does it go?

    • TexasOnMyMind

      Is 8 billion gallons a year a “staggering” amount?

      • WannaKnow

        Wow!  Big Number.  What happens to the water?

        • TexasOnMyMind

          It’s used to cool the boiler, turns into steam and evaporates into the air.

        • Jeff Crunk

          Like TexasOnMyMind says, nuke and coal stations can be thought of as giant tea kettles.  Water is boiled to make steam that turns the turbines that makes the electricity.  Most of the water goes into the air.  So water that comes to the plant from surface water or from underground doesn’t go back into the local water ecology.  It’s put into the atmosphere.  It’s really a crazy thing to do in water-stressed places.

    • Jeff Crunk

      Somewhere this summer I read that Fayette uses over 5 billion gallons annually.  I’m sorry I can’t cite my source today.  However, the Union of Concerned Scientists just released a three-year collaborative study on the energy-water nexus nationally as part of the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative.  You can find it on the UCS web cite (ucsusa.org).  It has all the numbers, which I find astounding.  For example, the electric sector withdraws 143 billion gallons of freshwater per day.  Nationally this is roughly the same as that used for crop irrigation.  Coal plants typically withdraw 20 to 50 gallons of water per kilowatt hour.  This does not take into account water withdrawals throughout the production stream, mining coal, coal storage, coal disposal.  To put these numbers in familiar terms, “for a coal or nuclear plant to generate the electricity for one load of hot-water laundry (using electirc appliances), 3 to 10 times more water must be withdrawn at the plant than is used to wash the clothes.” 

      Some other numbers for Fayette, as reported in the Austin American Statesmen: The plant requires as much as 550 trains full of Wyoming coal each year.  The scrubbing slurry will use 100,000 tons of limestone annually from a New Braunfels quarry.  The numbers for waste generation are similarly large (Asher Price, “LCRA adds scrubbers to clean sulfur dioxide form plant emissions.” statesman.com  Mon, Aug. 1, 2011).

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