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.
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.”
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.
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: