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Austin Energy set to plunk down $86 million for new power plant

Thursday, March 30, 2000 by

To be installed on site of South Austin Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant

Power to the people was a rallying cry for activists in the 1970s and today it's a rallying cry for Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility. The fast growth of both businesses and population in the electric service area has kept the utility hopping to meet ever-increasing demands for the power to run lights, air-conditioners, computers and other appliances that suck up an more and more power per-capita.

Last summer Austin Energy unveiled its Generation Plan to show how it would phase in additional electric generators to keep up with the projected peak loads over the next five years ( In Fact Daily Aug. 24, 1999). The plan called for adding two new 100 megawatt (MW) peaking plants, one in 2002 and another in 2005. Peaking units can be brought on-line quickly to meet massive cyclical loads, as on hot summer afternoons when every air-conditioner in the region is running full blast.

In addition, a base-loading plant of 230 MW is slated to come on-line in 2003 to meet day-in, day-out demands for such uses as lighting, water heating, cooking, refrigerators, and computers. Last Oct. 28, the City Council voted 5-0, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Willie Lewis absent, to approve $36.3 million to order the base-loading plant from General Electric International of Carrollton.

The City Council today will consider approving $86 million for a joint venture with Enron Sandhill LLC, a subsidiary of Enron North America Corp. of Houston, to build a new peaking plant of 180 MW. The project was included in Austin Energy's five-year capital spending plan and will not require a rate increase. The plant would consist of four 45 MW gas turbines built by General Electric. The plant is scheduled to come on-line in time to meet peak electric demand for the summer of 2001.

The city would get 80 MW per year for three years from the new plant, while Enron would own the other 100 MW of capacity to sell on the open market for three years, says Andy Ramirez, Austin Energy's vice president for power production. At the end of three years, the city would buy out Enron for $1 (yes, one dollar), Ramirez says. He says a projection of future electric demands, which was updated after last summer, showed the second peaking plant would be needed a year sooner than had been projected in the generation plan, or 2004. Ramirez says Austin Energy will own the full 180 MW capacity of the new peaking plant in time for the summer of 2004.

The total cost of the new 180 MW peaking plant is $93.7 million and Enron will pay the $7.7 million that exceeds the city's $86 million. Enron will serve as project manager for the development, engineering, procurement, and construction of the facility. Austin Energy will take over as project manager once the project becomes operational.

Cleaner air part of the package

Austin Energy is investing an extra $6 million in the new plant to install "selective catalytic reducers" (SCR), which will scrub the emissions to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) to 5 parts per million (ppm), Ramirez says. Without the SCRs, the gas turbines would produce NOx emissions of 9 ppm, he says. "We made the decision (to install SCRs) so we could claim we're putting in the cleanest kind of units you can get," Ramirez says.

Attaining 5 ppm NOx emissions is the same standard that the Lower Colorado River Authority announced Aug. 13 for its new 500 MW plant, Lost Pines Unit 1. That news drew widespread praise from the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense (formerly Environmental Defense Fund), Public Citizen, Texas Campaign for the Environment, and Texas Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

NOx is one of the precursors of ground-level ozone. The Environmental Protection Agency expected to declare Austin a nonattainment area next summer, unless prevented by pending litigation. (The litigation does not involve Austin directly.) If nonattainment is declared, the NOx emission limit will be lowered to 5 ppm, Ramirez says. Nonattainment also brings with it draconian requirements to reduce air pollution. While the specific requirements of nonattainment vary from area to area, the 12-county area centered on Dallas-Fort Worth must employ more efficient vehicle emissions testing, lower speed limits, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, cleaner gasoline and diesel fuels, a ban on early morning operation of diesel powered construction equipment between April and October, and much more, according to The Advocate, published by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

Grandfathered facilities that were in operation in 1971 when the Texas Clean Air Act was passed have previously been exempted for permitting requirements, The Advocate reported. Austin Energy will be reducing emissions at its older Holly and Decker Power Plants as required by Senate Bill 7, Ramirez says. Under SB 7, grandfathered units are required to reduce emissions by 50 percent of the 1997 emission rate, he says.

NOx emissions from the new peaking units, estimated at 34 tons per year, will be offset by equal or greater NOx emission reductions from Decker and Holly. With the four new peaking units, NOx emissions in Travis County each year will be about 1,700 tons, the utility states. "By comparison, NOx emissions from cars, trucks and buses, motor boats, trains, construction equipment and lawnmowers produce about 30,000 tons of NOx annually in Travis County."

New power plant will be on city land

The new peaking plant will be installed on land owned by the city, the site of the South Austin Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant on Fallwell Lane east of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The site offers numerous advantages. The four new generating units, each about the size of a railroad boxcar, will be placed side by side on the 300 acre remote site that is more than a mile from the nearest neighborhood.

A natural gas pipeline to fuel the generating units is already on the property, eliminating the need for construction of a new pipeline. Plans call for cooling the generating units with treated wastewater. Ed Clark, communications director for Austin Energy, says the four units will require about 25 million gallons of water per year for cooling, and much of that water will be returned to the wastewater stream. Power from the new generating plant will be routed into the grid through the existing Onion Creek Electric Substation and an existing transmission line, Ramirez says, and no new transmission facilities will be required.

Municipal court slowdown…Construction is scheduled to start April 10 at the city's Municipal Court to expand the lobby and make first-floor improvements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For six months the facility at 700 E. 7th St. will operate with a reduced staff and customers should expect to wait longer for service than the current average 15 minutes. Court officials are encouraging the use of the South Austin Customer Service Center, 5700 Manchaca Road at Stassney, which is open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. All service except parking hearings, Community Court trials, other court trials and docket calls can be handled at the South Austin location. Customers must use the downtown facility, however, to talk to a judge or prosecutor… Sucking up power… Austin Energy announced yesterday that the utility has hit a new all-time high peak for the month of March of 1,425 megawatts (MW). That occurred Friday, March 24. The previous high for the month was set March 30, 1999, 1,247 MW… Bad news for SH 130?…A March 25 article in the San Antonio Express-News reported tht State Senator David Sibley, R-Waco, said that State Highway 130, the Georgetown to near-San Antonio bypass for I-35, may not be the best use for the $1 billion price tag. Sibley, who chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee, stated that SH 130 will only create another bottleneck in Georgetown and would do nothing to relieve choke points at Salado, Hillsboro and elsewhere. The highway "would just spread the bottlenecks around. A better use of the $1 billion might be additional lanes for I-35 in rural areas," Sibley said… AMOA plans approved…The board of trustees for the Austin Museum of Art to be located on a block at 4th and Guadalupe has unanimously approved a schematic design for the facility. The design refines earlier designs submitted by Gluckman Mayner Architects of New York. The building totals 141,000 square feet and fills most of the site, with the main entrance to face 4th and the Republic Park. A Guadalupe entrance would provide access to a 300-seat film theater, and another entrance on San Antonio Street would be for school buses dropping off children. Architect Richard Gluckman designed the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, The Whitney Museum of American Art addition and renovation in New York, and many other art facilities. The fund-raising goal for the facility and supporting endowments is $60 million and to date $40 million has been raised.

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