Austin Energy's Coal Considerations Smoked Out?

Council to be asked to consider authorizing city manager to negotiate land agreement for future "clean coal" plant

Austin Energy's Coal Considerations Smoked Out?

Austin Energy is considering using so-called clean coal to meet the city's future power needs. The utility's plans to secure long-term land and water rights on property in Matagorda County, in partnership with San Antonio's public utility, were publicized prematurely by an Austin American-Statesman article on Jan. 20. Now, Austin Energy says it must accelerate to Thursday, Feb. 1, a public City Council vote – one that had not been slated prior to the Statesman article – in order to OK related negotiations, hoping to minimize land-price inflation following the leak.

Although city and utility staffers insist in unison that coal is among several energy options being considered, and that such a decision is quite distant, the site in question is in many ways suited to host an integrated gasification combined cycle coal plant (that could perhaps capture and store its carbon dioxide emissions) – the city's stated coal plant of choice. In a memo circulated at the Monday night meeting of the city's Electric Utility Commission, which oversees Austin Energy policies, AE General Manager Juan Garza wrote that council would be asked to "consider a resolution that would authorize the city manager to negotiate an agreement … to jointly acquire land, options for land, and water rights for the purpose of constructing a power plant in the future." It continued, noting that "no decision has been made to build a plant," though "there are a diminishing number of locations throughout ERCOT" (Texas' Electric Grid).

Deputy General Manager Bob Kahn said at the meeting that Austin would need about 300 megawatts of additional base-load (or constant) power-generating capacity by 2011. Garza said he hopes to delay such investments "as long as possible." Encouraged by solar energy's trends toward improved efficiency and affordability, he said such clean technological developments could, in the meantime, "set us off in a different direction."

AE's other Deputy GM, Roger Duncan, said it is "absolutely inaccurate that we've decided to build a new IGCC plant." Reiterating AE's blanket statement that it continually looks at a variety of options, he said the utility's five-year energy priorities, set forth in its 2003 strategic plan, are energy efficiency, renewable energy, gas, nukes, and coal. He reminded the EUC that council this summer is set to approve the first phase of what could be the nation's strictest building-code energy-efficiency boosts, mandating an estimated 65% improvement. Asked why the two utilities were eyeing Matagorda, Duncan said that while the property could house a future natural-gas plant or wind farm, "If you're going to do IGCC, you need a site with rail and [natural] gas" availability, as well as "a place to sequester carbon, like salt domes or depleted oil fields." With carbon sequestration, CO2 emissions are pumped into nearby underground geologic formations and can be sold to industry for various uses. Duncan told the EUC that such sequestration technologies today are "not proven," however.

Predictably, many greens and observers are uncomfortable with any decision or expenditure that moves Austin closer to additional coal combustion, particularly without vigorous and public debate – especially considering the all-out war being fought to stop 17 old-style coal plants proposed statewide. Paul Robbins, a longtime energy watchdog and publisher of the Austin Environmental Directory, said Monday night, "It's bothersome. … There's a public process in place, and it's not being followed" – lamenting the public's (and EUC's) lack of data regarding the terms of the agreement and doubting that council has had ample time to consider the move or hear public input. Such an investment "implies use," Robbins said. And given carbon sequestration's unclear efficacy, he said an IGCC project could have immense carbon emissions. He says he'd add the needed capacity by coupling wind power with compressed air storage – which captures unused wind energy when demand is low, using it to pressurize air that's then used to spin a turbine when power is needed – as well as natural gas combined heat and power (or CHP), which relies on small, decentralized plants that satisfy nearby electricity needs and use captured exhaust heat to run heating and cooling components. These facilities are now in use and employ off-the-shelf technology, he said.

Karen Hadden, whose Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition has joined a bevy of other enviro and community groups to fight Texas' 17 proposed coal burners (including one planned by the city of San Antonio), often cites IGCC as a favorable alternative. "Yes, this kind of plant would be cleaner than a typical coal plant," she wrote in a letter to Mayor Will Wynn, but it would still emit mercury, smog, and global warming pollution – and coal mining destroys land and habitats. Hadden continued, "Austin Energy should continue to lead the state and the nation by pushing the envelope, by developing more and better efficiency and renewable solar and wind programs and projects, not a coal plant – even if it's IGCC."

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