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.
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.