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Texas Senate Hears Warnings on Drought and Electricity

Kate Galbraith

January 12, 2012

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Texas Tribune 

State senators expressed concerns Tuesday that a lack of water could harm Texas' long-term growth, as they held a hearing about the impact of drought on power generation.

"People may still move here, but whether they will stay and prosper is not guaranteed," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, at the outset of Senate Business & Commerce Committee hearing in Austin.

Despite significant wet weather across the state recently, including more than six inches of rain in parts of Houston in the last few days, the drought remains a concern. And drought conditions and lower lake levels could affect power plants, which rely on significant amounts of water for their operations.

George Bomar, a meteorologist with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, testified that although recent rains have helped, the drought will continue.

It's "very likely we're not going to see the spring rains we need to break the drought," he said. "We have little reason to expect major relief from drought until we are deep into 2012." 

Nearly 40 percent of water taken from rivers and lakes nationally gets used by power plants, according to Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Nuclear, coal and natural gas plants need significant amounts for cooling equipment. But most of that water goes back into the rivers after it is used for cooling — albeit at a slightly higher temperature, which can cause problems for fish. Webber told the committee that solar panels and wind plants need no water, and some types of gas plants need less water than others. Also, some cooling technologies can be less water-intensive than others, but they may cost more.

The drought is already having a "slight impact" on electricity generation, according to testimony from Trip Doggett, the chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the state's electric grid. He anticipated that problems would remain slight through the summer, but if the drought continues into next year, "the consequences are likely to become more severe."

ERCOT is hosting a drought workshop in February, Doggett said, and it will include a look at how southeastern states have managed their power supplies during past droughts. Doggett's testimony included a map of power generation-related reservoirs that had fallen to all-time low levels during the drought.

In addition to the lack of cooling water, Doggett said that the drought had caused some problems with some power-related equipment that need the rain for an occasional wash.

Texas officials' assessment sounds slightly more upbeat than even a few weeks ago, presumably because of the recent rains as well as a court-ordered delay of a pollution rule that had been expected to knock offline two major coal-fired power plant units in Northeast Texas this month.

Despite the drought, Texas officials want to build new power plants to meet growing electricity needs. Yet companies are reluctant to build plants in an age of low natural gas prices (and hence, lower power prices), so another area of emphasis is conservation.

Donna Nelson, the chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission, said that her agency was working to accelerate energy-saving measures such as "demand response," which creates incentives for cutting peak-time power demand. She noted that Texas has substantial amounts of water-free wind power (8.5 percent of ERCOT's electricity last year, according to new numbers), and also that the PUC was preparing a message encouraging Texans to conserve energy, ahead of summer, when conservation is most likely needed. The PUC was aiming, Nelson said, said, to "hit that sweet spot where customers listen but there's no message fatigue." 

The lawmakers repeatedly urged state officials — and their fellow lawmakers — to prioritize water issues over the long term.

"It's not just about next year. It's not just about 2013. The decisions we have to make now are about 2025, and we're not making them, " said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the committee chairman, said, "I don't think there's been a greater dereliction of duty" than failing to fund Texas' water needs.