Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Shudde Fath, Local Contributor
Austin American Statesman

The proposal for Austin Energy to withdraw in whole or in part from the Fayette Power Project is not advisable because it would bring Austin electric rate increases without bringing air emission decreases. Why? Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority jointly own Units 1 and 2 of the coal-fired Fayette power plants, about 60 miles southeast of Austin. The LCRA is the operating and managing partner and has the right of first refusal if Austin withdraws. I believe the LCRA would buy Austin’s share either for its own customers or to sell at a profit into the state’s electric grid.

Simply taking Austin’s name off all or part of the Fayette power plants while they continue to operate would have no effect on air emissions.

Fayette produces low-cost base load electricity 24/7, regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Last year, the fuel sources that produced Austin’s electricity were coal (33 percent), gas (32 percent), nuclear (25 percent) and renewables (10 percent). Austin’s only coal plants are the two at Fayette.

Fayette County is not in the geographic area for which Environmental Protection Agency monitors show whether or not Austin meets federal ozone standards. Austin’s air emissions standard is based on EPA monitors for Travis County and the four surrounding counties (Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson). Fayette County is not in any metropolitan statistical area monitored by the EPA.

If Austin withdraws from Fayette, residential electric rates would increase 34 percent by 2020. If Austin reduces its Fayette output by a suggested 24 percent, residential electric rates would increase 22 percent by 2020.

Another consideration for Austin’s withdrawal or ramping down at Fayette is the basic question of whether the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas would grant approval. Since Dec. 1, ?ERCOT has controlled its huge statewide service area by telling all member utilities, including Austin, when and how much electricity to produce at their 550 generating units. ERCOT selects all generation 24/7 to power all demand based on each utility’s price offers. The goal is to operate the lowest cost generation with the least possible transmission congestion.

If and when climate control improvements occur through federal legislation or regulation, I believe coal plant reductions will happen in a descending effectiveness priority sequence: new coal plants (approved but unbuilt), ignite plants in Texas and elsewhere, soft coal plants, and hard coal plants with emission controls. The Fayette plants burn hard coal from Wyoming, have had nitrogen oxide emission controls for six years and are nearing completion of a $445 million project installing scrubbers to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants.

I strongly support continuing to work cooperatively with the LCRA on possible alternatives to burning coal at Fayette (biomass or natural gas) and on worldwide scientific studies on carbon capture and storage or neutralization.

Every week, Austin Energy cuts off electric service for more than 1,000 customers with past-due utility bills. And every month thousands of other customers struggle to pay utility bills at today’s rates. Let us vow to increase electric rates only for cost-effective measures that actually reduce air pollution.

Fath has been a member of the Austin Electric Utility Commission since 1979.

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