Texas Power Plant Crisis: Pollute or Conserve?

BY ON September 1, 2011

Power lines across a colorful sunset sky

ERCOT, or The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is the organization responsible for managing the state’s electrical grid and assuring that most everyone in Texas has enough power. It is anticipating a power crisis as Texas continues to experience record heat and drought conditions this summer. So they’ve have requested two companies fire-up some of their old mothballed power plants in order avoid dreaded and costly rolling blackouts.

We consumers will most certainly pay for these revived power plants—with our rates and our health. ERCOT is not responding to an emergency as yet. But with the increased electricity demand, and the scorching heat (which keeps electrical plant water from cooling over night as usual), ERCOT expects a crisis is in our near future. The four mothballed plants are located in the Houston and Dallas areas (two plants each), and are operated by NRG Energy and Garland Power & Light. These companies anticipate their plants will be operational by October, some as early as September 1st.

ERCOT’S decision to bring four plants online for additional power, instead of opting for conservation efforts is perplexing to me. The state has a two-fold Demand Response plan to deal with the threat of blackouts. “Demand response” refers to agreements with commercial and residential customers in which they agree that, in cases of emergency, they will use less electricity. According to this Houston Chronicle article, Texas industrial customers are capable of dropping nearly 1,300 megawatts of demand in an emergency. This amount certainly covers the 414 megawatt capacity that would be generated by the mothballed power plants. According to EnergyCental, we all benefited on August 4th when companies were paid to scale back usage during peak hours, thereby avoiding a rolling blackout. So demand response works.

In addition, there are demand reduction programs aimed at residential consumers. On these record hot summer days, residential customers use 50% of the electricity generated. Consumer conservation works, too. Take, for example, the folks in Austin who signed onto an innovative demand response effort. Austin Energy, the city-owned utility that services the area, provided free digital thermostats to nearly 90,000 Austin homes in exchange for permission to reduce their air conditioning twice per hour for 10 minutes at a time from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. And it worked to reduce consumption. An Austin Energy spokesman said the program reduced peak demand by 35 to 45 megawatts.

TXU  Energy offers the same kind of program with its iThermostat.  Customers agree to have their thermostat reduced in an emergency, but retain the right to over-ride any adjustment, if they choose.  TXU currently has 25,000 iThermostat customers. And, like Austin Energy, TXU has been able to cut demand by as much as 30 megawatts during this summer’s grid emergency. These are smaller amounts than the resurrected power plants might provide, but still significant in a pinch.

When conservation efforts are employed through the demand response programs, the crises’ are addressed in ways that use less energy, encourage ongoing conservation and do not adversely impact air quality.

The mothballed plants are old and recently retired. One former 30-year employee of one of NRG’s plants (the Sam Berton facility) commented on chron.com that the plant was “held together with bubble gum and rubberbands for the past 15 years of its life.”  These old natural gas plants are polluters. Firing them up in the midst of this heat and drought is a dire proposition in the clean air fight.

The four plants slated for revival are “peakers.” According to the EPA, they are called peakers or peaker power plants because they are generally run only when there is a high (or peak) demand for electricity, such as the summer months. Peaker plants are run by natural gas. Since natural gas is more expensive than coal, peaker plants generally run only during peak periods when utilities will pay higher prices for electricity. (Go HERE to learn more about peaker power plants)

Because peaker plants are not running all of the time and because they are natural gas fueled, they are lesser polluters than coal-fired power plants. But these plants, especially the old ones, do emit nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. Why add more pollution to our already dismal air unnecessarily, when we can conserve and accomplish grid reliability through conservation?

Without a shift to conservation, the pressure to revive and build more coal-fired plants and peakers will only increase. ERCOT has already implied that the EPA’s Mercury and Toxics Rules will result in the closure of other plants that are currently being used to avoid black outs this summer. At the same time, ERCOT admits that conservation (in the form of demand response plans) is the better long-term and short-term option. According to ERCOT’s chief executive Trip Doggett, “Demand response is probably the best tool that could be implemented quickly because it takes several years to build a [power] generator.”

It’s really up to us, the consumer, to force the conservation option. We must let our legislators know that we support clean air efforts of the EPA and let our power providers know we are willing to cut our own consumption.  Here is how to reach your members of Congress. Below are ways we can let our personal power usage speak for us and begin to change our habits in our own homes even before an emergency is looming. (These tips are reproduced from Dallas Morning News Editorial)

Electricity Conservation tips

Tip: Set your thermostat to 78 degrees when you are home and 85 degrees or off when you are away. Using ceiling or room fans allows you to set the thermostat higher because the air movement will cool the room.

Savings: 1 to 3 percent per each degree above 72

Tip: Do your laundry efficiently by using the warm or cold water setting for washing your clothes. Always use cold water to rinse clothes.

Savings: 4 percent

Tip: When you need to use the dryer, run full loads, use the moisture-sensing setting, and clean the clothes dryer lint trap after each use.

Savings: 0.5 percent

Tip: Conserve energy by running your dishwasher only when it is fully loaded, and turn off the dry cycle and air dry dishes instead.

Savings: 1 percent

Tip: Turn off appliances, lights and equipment when not in use.

Savings: 2 percent

Tip: Unplug electronic devices and chargers when they aren’t in use; most new electronics use electricity even when switched “off.” Turn computers and printers off at the power strip.

Savings: 1 to 2 percent

Tip: Unplug or recycle that spare refrigerator in the garage if you don’t really need it.

Savings: 10 to 20 percent

Tip: Replace dirty air conditioner filters which can restrict airflow and can cause the system to run longer, increasing energy use.

Savings: 1-2 percent


TOPICS: Coal, Economics, Pollution