Texas: More power lines needed

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Updated: Tuesday, Jul. 11, 2000 at 22:21 CDT

More power lines needed, state panel told; speakers warn of electrical power outages throughout D/ FW Metroplex

By Neil Strassman Star-Telegram Staff Writer

DALLAS -- To avoid summertime power shortages in the Metroplex, additional electrical power lines must be built, state regulators and utility officials said Tuesday at a legislative committee hearing.

Fast-growing North Texas is the leading area in the state for increased electrical power demand, Public Utility Commission Chairman Pat Wood III said during the hearing at Dallas City Hall.

There is enough electricity generated in North Texas, and existing power lines can meet the region's needs through summer 2001, but more lines are needed, Wood told the Joint Committee on Oversight of Electric Utility Restructuring, an interim legislative committee overseeing deregulation of the state's electric utility industry.

"Texas is great on [power] generation, but can that power actually get to downtown Dallas and Fort Worth?" he asked. "The transmission grid needs to be upgraded."

Tom Baker, president of TXU Electric & Gas, told the committee that his company must spend $685 million -- including $333 million in the four-county Metroplex core -- to retool power plants to meet the state's new air quality rules.

The rules call for TXU to cut emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key component of ozone smog, by 88 percent at its Metroplex power plants and by 50 percent at TXU's East Texas plants.

The company is trying to sell some of its older natural gas- burning Metroplex power plants but hasn't found any buyers. It faces closing the plants or retrofitting them, Baker said.

Retrofitting the older plants is the preferable option, but it would "add risk" to the reliability of the Metroplex power supply because there would be "more equipment that can break down," he said.

Building new, cleaner power plants in the Metroplex or bringing power in from new plants being built in outlying areas would require additional power lines, he said.

"Nobody likes new transmission lines, but we have to get the power to the place it's got to be," Baker said.

Federal officials and the power industry are warning that hot weather and supply problems could lead to power shortages in some parts of the country. In California, as temperatures soared to triple digits last week, customers were asked to reduce electrical use, and the San Francisco Bay area had rolling blackouts two weeks ago.

The Southwest, California and the Northeast face the greatest threat of power outages, according to the Energy Department and an industry- sponsored watchdog group, the North American Electric Reliability Council.

Jim Marston, executive director of Environmental Defense, an Austin-based environmental group, advocated adopting energy-saving measures in Texas.

"The state has not done everything it can do to reduce energy demand. We can save money and clean up the air," Marston said.

Tuning up residential and commercial air conditioners and replacing older inefficient units with newer ones that use much less energy, coupled with more efficient lighting systems, could yield significant energy savings and reduce the building of power plants and transmission lines, he said.

Richard Levy, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told the committee that staffing cuts at TXU power plants and the company's "greater reliance on contract labor" are endangering the reliability of electric power in North Texas.

"The company's cost-saving moves are a very dangerous element in the discussion of reliability," said Levy, adding that the company had laid off too many "trained and skilled" personnel.

Baker said TXU does extensive cross-training of its employees.

"With more skill, you can operate a plant with fewer people," he said.

TXU has sued to block the state plan to reduce smog in North Texas, contending that the power plant emission reductions required by the state threaten reliable electric service in the Metroplex. But Tuesday, Baker did not repeat the assertions in the lawsuit.

Wood said the state "faces a balancing act between electric reliability and clean air."

Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, one of the authors of the 1999 deregulation bill, said cleaning the air and maintaining adequate electrical power in North Texas "is doable."

"The chairman of the PUC tells us it's not a problem, and the executive director of the TNRCC says it's not a problem," Sibley said. "Our problem is transmission lines."

State environmental officials have said that the TXU lawsuit and four other suits challenging the state's clean-air plan could jeopardize the effort to cut smog in North Texas.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 12, 2000

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