Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What Happened at the Sandy Creek Power Plant?

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/KUT

In the dark: Rancher Robert Cervenka and other locals want to know what happened near their properties.

Update: Read more about the accident at the plant here

The field behind Robert Cervenka’s ranch in the small town of Riesel, Texas is scattered with historic equipment. There are horse-drawn plows and pickup trucks from bygone eras. Want to know what a 1954 John Deer tractor looks like? He’ll be happy to oblige. Cervenka’s been ranching since he was eight years old.

And now he’s eighty-one. “At my age I don’t want to buy any new tractors or anything,” he says, chuckling.

But not everything here is antique. A few years ago, much to his chagrin, Cervenka got a brand new coal-fired power plant as a neighbor, right next door to his ranch. The Sandy Creek Power Station was set to produce 925 megawatts of electricity for this energy hungry state, enough to power an estimated 900,000 homes. The chimney from the plant rises 360 feet in the air, higher than the Taj Mahal.

Cervenka opposed it, but in the end he watched from his field as it was built, and watched as plumes of steam and smoke first rose from it last fall. “They were what’s called cooking the boilers,” he recalls. “They were heating them up and making steam and trying to blow out all the pipes and tubing that may had welders slag or tools or anything in the pipes. And then one day, all of a sudden, it quit.”

It’s still not clear exactly what happened at the plant the day it quit on Oct. 17th last year.

Tight-Lipped Owners and Regulators

Rumors are floating around Riesel like particulate emissions. The townspeople talk of an accident in which the boiler was heated with no water inside, another theory holds that the system was simply overheated. But no one will confirm exactly what happened.

LS Power, one of the companies that spearheaded the project, never returned calls for comment. The Lower Colorado River Authority, another group that has a contract for power from the plant, would only confirm that they have a minority interest in the project.

The Brazos Electric Cooperative, another partner, offered at least a few details. They said the boiler was severely damaged, but wouldn’t say more because of an “investigation.” What kind of investigation? They won’t go into detail, but Robert Cervenka, the rancher, has his own theory.

“Somebody’s gotta be upset and I imagine there’s gotta be lawsuits from here until hell freezes over about this kind of thing,” he says.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/KUT

Kent Saathoff, who’s in charge of planning and operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which oversees the grid that powers most of Texas, won’t say much either. “As far as status of specific power plants are concerned, we’re pretty limited on the information we can give out about that,” he says.

Saathoff says competitive secrets are a necessity in Texas. Why? It all comes down to the oft-confusing world of deregulated electricity markets: Plant builders enter into contracts to sell their power. If they don’t have power to sell, they might need to buy it on the open market from someone else.

“Obviously if that alternate supplier knows that they’re “over a barrel” so to speak, they can be taken advantage of,” Saathoff says. “So that’s one example of why power plant status and information is largely protected.”

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/KUT

The Sandy Creek power plant was supposed to be running by now.

What the Accident Means for the Grid

An accident at the plant means one thing for its operators, who might prefer that the information stays protected. But what does it mean for the state of Texas? Before the accident, ERCOT thought it would be getting more than 900 Megawatts of new power from the plant in 2012. That was energy that Texas couldn’t afford to lose.

“Last summer, when we had very hot weather it was the hottest summer in recorded history, and we had very high loads, we came very close to rolling outages,” Saathoff says.

After the Sandy Creek accident, the state was worried it wouldn’t have enough capacity to buffer itself in times of peak electricity use.

Geoffrey Gay, a lawyer who works on electric rates, says there wasn’t much the state could do about it. “Deregulation means that the regulators have given up their right to control the supply of power,” he says.

So there was a sigh of relief when two coal plants that were expected to be shut down announced they would stay in service as part of an ongoing battle between the state of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the episode does illustrate exactly how fragile the grid is these days in Texas.

“I would say that ERCOT officials would say, yes they dodged a bullet and they are quite relieved,” Gay says.

Photo by Jeff Heimsath/KUT

Robert Cervenka has been ranching for over seventy years.

Locals Watch With Concern

Back in Reisel, the failing of the plant might illustrate something more. Potatoes are boiling in the kitchen of Lorrain and Lewis Pulley. They have a view of the power plant through their window. And they can watch parts of it being disassembled.

“The public’s gonna pay for everything,” Lorrain Pulley says. “I don’t see any way around it.”

Like their neighbor Robert Cervenka, the Pulleys opposed the plant. But as rate payers in the Brazos Electric Cooperative, the largest generation and transmission cooperative in the state, they are also, in a sense, part owners of Sandy Creek. As such, Lorraine’s suspicion might not be far off the mark, says Geoffrey Gay. “You would anticipate that perhaps the power cost will go up a little bit for those customers who are part owners,” he says.

The Brazos Electric Cooperative now expects Sandy Creek to come online sometime in early 2013, although they say that date may change.

For weeks ahead of the accident, steam rose from the plant as part of its commissioning process. This video, taken over a month before the accident, captured some of that process:




  • Guest

    Poorly written article with a lot of wrong information.

  • Thank you for posting this. I’m an avid opponent of this plant. Please keep following this story, Mose – we don’t need black room politics when it comes to our environment.

  • looks like they had a boiler explosion

  • Guest

    So now I know what those loud explosions were that I heard not too long ago.

  • Turbine Cowboy

    This reads like it was written for a high school newspaper. I know that the environment is a touchy subject but there is rarely some devious plan to destroy it like in Bond movies. The state simply needs more power. Not because it wants more power but because not enough people are turning off their lights, air conditioners and big screen tv’s. The only way to make an impact is to sit in hot darkness a little more often.

  • Nick

    They Plan on being done in March of 2013. I just took a tour with my college to the plant on 9/20/12. We didn’t ask what happen, but we heard prior to going that some bad welds where made in the boiler. Not sure if that is true. It is a cool place to go and check out though, i would go again and yall should to. just make sure your not afraid of heights.

    • Mose Buchele

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for sharing! We’ll reach out to the company and see if they’re allowing media tours now. Also, if you have contact information about who can help arrange a tour, that would be great. You can email it to me directly. Thanks!,Mose

      • ruestes

        Come over to Mt. Moriah Rd. and hear all the noise from the plant and see if you would like to live here and listen to it all day every day and cant sleep at night!!!

  • ruestes

    Nobody knows the NOISE that this power plant puts off. sometimes it sounds like I am sitting on the runway at DFW airport waiting for the 757 to take off! It was so nice when they burned the motor up last year to have peace and quiet again in the country. We moved to Riesel in 1990 to get away from the noise and hustle and bustle of the bit city of Houston. Never did we have to endure the noise that we are having to deal with now. It is early morning right now…12:39 AM on a Thursday night/Friday morning and I cannot sleep for the roar of the Sandy Creek Power Plant!!! I live 4 miles away from it but the southeast wind blows from the plant straight to my house and brings all the noise here. They told me a couple of months ago to “get use to it” cause it was only going to get louder! Wish this plant was somewhere in their back yard so it can keep them awake at night. They dont care about all the people that this noise and other stuff affects. Why dont they come move to Riesel right next to the plant??? See how well they sleep…..

  • guest

    The article is half right. The loud noises citizens hear come from high pressure steam blown off the boiler for cleaning purpose in preparation to release the unit for power production.Although word through sources say the reason for the big delay was simply an operation error.Firing a boiler w/o adequate feedwater supply is one of the most dangerous situations you can get in while firing a boiler.Then making a costly error and sending a rush of cool water through a hot boiler causes substantial damage. And thats basically what happened, Turbine Boiler Feed Pump was left in manual starving an enormous boiler then was switched to auto basically force cooling a boiler that was already very hot.

    • Jc

      What is a Turbine Boiler Feed Pump?

      • Jeff

        It is a pump that is driven by steam. Some of the steam from the boiler is used to spin the turbine rotor which is connect to the pump.

    • Jeff

      Boiler feedwater is not cool by any means. It is pre-heated by the use of feedwater heaters.

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