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In Fact Daily

Monday, August 13, 2001 by

Andy Ramirez, Vice President for

Power Production at Austin Energy

By David Ansel

Andy Ramirez, Austin Energy’s Vice President of Power Production, came to Austin in 1996 from Central Power and Light Company. He was brought in to make Austin’s “production fleet”—its various electricity-generating plants—competitive. The prospect of electricity deregulation in Texas, which goes into effect on January 1, was already forcing both investor-owned and municipal electric companies to reevaluate the efficiency of their plants. At CPL in Corpus Christi, Ramirez had already taken part in three major reorganizations, and came to Austin to help position AE’s Power Production Division in the approaching competitive marketplace.

The disastrous results of electricity deregulation in California have created concern among consumers nationwide. Ramirez notes, however, that the deregulation law in Texas allows municipal utilities, like AE, to decide whether or not to enter the competitive marketplace. In California, utilities were forced to sell their generation fleet to power merchants like Reliant Energy and Duke Power. “We will probably sit on the sidelines. For the time being, we’ve chosen to watch how the market develops, to look at the activity out there and see if it’s good for our customers. We’ll play it by ear and feed City Council updates.” A Council action is required to opt in to the competitive market, a decision that is irreversible. “We’re preparing ourselves to be ready to opt in, but it must save our customers money.”

AE is already one of the cheapest electric utilities in the state. Because it isn’t dependent on one fuel, it is able to absorb fuel price fluctuations. AE’s current fuel mix is 46% coal, 29% gas, and 25% nuclear. AE has a 16% stake in the South Texas Nuclear Project in Bay City, which will provide very competitive power down the road, since nuclear fuel costs about one eighth as much as gas.

The recently-built Sand Hill natural gas peaking units out near ABIA, which are in operation about 10 hours a day during the summer months, are just the first phase of construction of a combined cycle plant, which directs gas-turbine exhaust to a traditional steam boiler for better efficiency. Peaking units are known for being able to deliver large amounts of power with quick start-up times, which is an efficiency advantage over traditional steam plants that can require as much as 12 hours to power up.

Holly and Decker natural gas plants provide the bulk of Austin’s electricity. They are ostensibly AE’s least competitive plants, but Ramirez was brought on board to improve their viability in the deregulated market. When he arrived at AE, Decker and Holly plants had twice the level of staffing of their competitors. Staffing has since been brought down to competitive levels purely through attrition. Process improvement plans, in combination with an attractive retirement policy, brought the plants’ complement down quickly. “When you shrink resources, you begin to do more with less. You work smarter, not harder. You look at what adds value.” Several operational changes have helped bring budgets in line with competitors. Plant control changeouts have allowed for better controllability of the units. The plants now run on a sliding pressure plan. When loads drop to 75% of plant capacity, boiler pressure is allowed to slide down, bringing a huge fuel savings. Excess oxygen, an indication of incomplete combustion of fuels, is now monitored, bringing up to a 10% efficiency improvement. According to Ramirez, a production fleet with an efficient coal-powered portion may be a competitive advantage in times of natural gas price spikes. Most independent power merchants who build natural gas plants are very dependent upon gas prices. However, he says, “As the transmission system gets beefed up and bulk power moves around the state, Decker or Holly may get displaced.”

In response to the public mandate, the City Council has resolved that 5 percent of Austin’s electricity should come from renewable sources by the year 2005. The GreenChoice program, allows AE customers to purchase electricity renewable sources, primarily West Texas wind farms. The public response to the program has been overwhelming, with demand exceeding the supply of such energy. “We offer it as it becomes available,” says Ramirez. “We’re already running around 4 percent.”

Ramirez is also responsible for the District Cooling Division, which just went commercial about a month ago. It consists of a chilled water plant for air conditioning the new CSC buildings, new City Hall, and Hobby Building. It doubles the efficiency of conventional cooling systems.

AE is also getting involved in what’s known as distributive generation—small generators put out at customer site locations and interconnected on the grid. Right now it’s just a very small pilot program, but Ramirez sees a day when it will be available to many retail customers. “We think the market will develop so the consumer will be able to provide their own generation. We want to educate ourselves in the arena of distributed generation and position ourselves to become a provider for that market.”

Ramirez is a Professional Engineer, having received his BSEE from Texas A&M-Kingsville and his MBA from Southwest Texas State University. He likes to spend his free time on his ranch in Falfurrias.

Plasma Center gets nod

To move to Burnet Rd.

Two commissioners have doubts

Planning Commissioners approved a conditional-use permit request for a building at 5335 Burnet Road last week. The property owners, Brougher Partners Ltd, had requested the permit to allow operation of a Blood Plasma Center in the now-vacant space that had formerly housed a drug store. The requested use fell within the existing zoning for the site, but a CU permit was required because the lot is within 540 feet of a residence, church, school or public park.

The primary neighborhood concern, and the concern of some members of the commission, was the nature of the donors that would be visiting the center. That issue also dominated the presentations made by the representative of the applicant, Lopez-Phelps Vaughn and Associates, and by representatives of the company seeking to operate the Blood Plasma Center. That company is Aventis Behring, a division of a European-based firm that recently acquired the Austin Plasma Center on W. 29th Street. They are seeking a new location for that facility. They told commission members that plasma donation is a time-consuming process with extensive screening procedures, and that proof of a fixed local address and a Social Security number were both required in order to donate. The company’s written responses to a series of neighborhood questions indicate that “drug addicts, drunks, homeless persons . . . are not accepted as donors.” According to company officials, their donor population consists of a mixture of working adults and students. The company offers a small amount of cash to compensate donors for the hours spent completing the screening and donation process.

Members of the commission expressed concern about the impact the facility might have on the surrounding neighborhood and the people that would be drawn to the site. “What bothers me more than anything is the liquor sales just a parcel away to the north,” said Commission Chair Betty Baker. Commissioner Ben Heimsath also focused his comments on neighborhood concerns. “I’m very concerned that medical of any kind would not really be appropriate in this kind of strip of commercial,” Heimsath said. “This is one of those very tough cases, and we really do need to give it a lot of thought.” After some deliberation, Heimsath came out against the CU permit. “You just have far too many critical issues for me to be comfortable that we have to grant this, whereas there are plenty of uses that can go on with this site without having a conditional use permit granted.”

Commissioner Silver Garza argued that the proposed medical use would have less of an impact on the surrounding neighborhood than many other uses permitted under the existing zoning. “What’s concerning me is they do have the ability to put almost any use in this site and not even bother to come before this commission and they would not have any restrictions whatsoever.” He found some support from Commissioner Ray Vrudhula. “It sounds like a first-class facility,” Vrudhula said. “I don’t see what the emails have stated and the neighbors have said about all these transients.”

Garza and Vrudhula managed to sway the rest of the commissioners but not Heimsath and Baker. “This has the potential to have a significant negative impact on its neighbors,” Heimsath said. The vote to approve the CU permit was 7-2, with Heimsath and Baker voting against the proposal. The commission also voted to add certain conditions concerning the hours of operation of the center, signs at the site and the need for a security officer.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

We regret our errors . . . The Internet version of Friday’s In Fact Daily erroneously reported that the City Council voted unanimously to claim by eminent domain a city block to erect a parking garage for the expanding Austin Convention Center. Council Member Will Wynn voted against the motion, which was part of the consent agenda. In Fact Daily also reported that the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition celebration for Rep. Dawna Dukes and Mayor Kirk Watson was last Friday. That’s good news if you wanted to go but missed the party, which will take place this Friday from 6-8 p.m.at the Austin Film Studios at 1901 E. 51st St . . . Monday morning traffic alert . . . The fiber optic cable folks will start installing cables along South First St. from Barton Springs Road to Oltorf from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 10 p.m. The city says the project should be completed in late October. Also beginning today, traffic on Third Street will be reduced to one lane in each direction downtown from Colorado to San Jacinto and for westbound traffic between San Jacinto and Trinity. This work is being done to install chilled water lines allowing Austin Energy’s newly constructed cooling plant to provide cooling for the convention center expansion project . . . Appointments. . . Last week the City Council reappointed Dan Leary to the Historic Landmark Commission and Matt Watson to the Environmental Board. Council Member Beverly Griffith appointed Jeb Boyt to the Parks and Recreation Board and reappointed Adan Martinez to the Resource Management Commission. She also reappointed Carol Szerszen to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission and Dennis Brown to the Urban Forestry Board. The Council appointed Camile Pahwa by consensus to the Community Development Commission. Mayor Kirk Watson reappointed Elango Rajagopal to the Telecommunications Commission . . . Congressman Barney Frank to visit Austin . . . Congressman Frank will be visiting Austin in September to help raise funds for the local and national chapters of the Stonewall Democrats, an organization dedicated to representing gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered interests within the Democratic Party. Those interested in attending a reception for Frank on September 23 may contact Allan Baker at 345-4437 or email arbaustx@aol.com. The local organization’s web site is www.stonewallaustin.org.

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