Texans debate air quality amid coal expansion

Texans debate air quality amid coal expansion

Texans may consume more electricity than other Americans, but they’re suddenly debating the wisdom of doubling the number of coal-fired power plants in the state — plants critics say will worsen air quality and increase health risks.

The threat of more smog-forming emissions from 12,000 new megawatts of coal-fired generation on the books for Texas has sparked a robust debate involving citizens, business groups and big-city mayors at recent air-permit hearings around the state. Even the prospect of new jobs, additional tax revenue and cheaper electricity have not been sufficient to quell anxiety about increased pollution.

“If we can’t stop these plants, we can make sure they are as clean as possible,” said Robert Cervenka, who lives in Riesel, Texas, within a mile of a proposed 858-MW coal plant. It will replace a 1950s era power plant which Cervenka blames for asthma problems in his family.

After a decade of building natural gas-fired plants that drew little opposition on environmental grounds, companies are rushing to permit more than 120 new coal-fired plants across the United States because coal is cheaper to burn than gas.

A spike in gas prices after hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted Gulf of Mexico gas production in 2005 accelerated the trend. Even at current prices, which have dropped by half, coal is cheaper.

Illinois, Texas and Florida are seeing the most interest in coal-plant development because of rising electric demand. Texas will need additional generation as early as 2008 to avoid blackouts.

Some of the most vocal opposition to the Texas coal rush has been heard in McLennan County, about 95 miles south of Dallas. Companies want to build four new coal generators in the county, which is home to Baylor University and
President George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch.

Ten of 17 proposed coal units are located in five central Texas counties.

The concentration of plants in one area of the state has raised concern among residents, business owners and elected officials who normally support new investment, said Jim Vaughan, president of the Waco Chamber of Commerce. The number of coal plants in Texas would double if all new plants are built. “That’s got people saying we need to know more about this,” he said.

Vaughan said his members worry that ever-rising power prices will hurt economic growth, but they also fear more coal plants will worsen polluted air, boost mercury levels in lakes and add to global warming.

Environmentalists are heartened by the chorus of concern. “When you hear the chamber of commerce president talk about global warming, it’s clear the tipping point has been reached,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen.

Escalating the debate is a plan by Dallas-based TXU Corp. to build 11 new coal units totaling 9,000 MW, including three units in McLennan County.

A permit was granted earlier this year to LS Power for an 800-MW coal plant in the county. Other power companies, including NRG Energy and PNM Resources, also are moving quickly to build coal plants as natural gas prices rising above $5 made coal generation highly profitable in the state’s deregulated market.


Opponents want TXU and others to consider using coal-gasification and other technology to limit pollution.

“Everyone is really concerned about the environment,” Waco Mayor Virginia DuPuy said at one of two McLennan County public hearings held last week which attracted more than 300 people.

DuPuy urged the state agency that issues permits to require TXU to stagger plant construction to match the state’s rising demand for power. “Give the new technology time to develop,” said DuPuy. “We’ve got to err on the side of health.”

While several utilities have proposed construction of coal-gasification plants, the majority would use eastern U.S. coal which has a much higher carbon content and is therefore more efficient than the western U.S. coal or lignite TXU wants to burn, said Steve Jenkins of URS Corp., an engineering firm that designs plants and has consulted with TXU.

“To use low-quality coal, you’d have to burn significantly more coal,” Jenkins said. “Such a plant would be much more expensive than one designed for eastern coal.”

Opponents are skeptical of TXU’s commitment to spend $2 billion to retrofit its existing 5,800 MW of coal generation to offset emissions from the new plants and lower its overall emissions by 20 percent.

TXU has yet to offer specifics of its emission-reduction plan while it negotiates with vendors, said TXU spokeswoman Kim Morgan. “We know we can do it,” she said.

Detractors also are skeptical of TXU’s promise that more coal-fired generation will serve to lower consumer prices by reducing the state’s reliance on higher-priced natural gas. Gas fuels 70 percent of Texas generation.

Since retail competition began in Texas in 2002, electricity prices charged by TXU’s retail unit in North Texas have risen 82 percent to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, based on higher gas. The cheapest residential rate offered by a competing retailer is 13.3 cents.

That hurts consumers because Texans typically use 40 percent more electricity in a year than the national average, mostly for air conditioning, according to Energy Information Administration data.

Mike McCall, chief executive of TXU’s wholesale generation unit, said cheaper coal generation will replace aging gas-fired units and “significantly lower the cost of baseload generation to the grid.”

Rancher Paul Rolke, a critic of TXU’s proposal to build two lignite-fired units in Robertson County, said the lower-cost plants will only enrich TXU’s bottom line. Rolke said he would oppose the current plant design even if he believed his monthly power bill would drop.

“We are not going to give a pass on 50 years of pollution,” Rolke said.

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