Texas Drought hindering electricity production

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Drought hindering electricity production West Texans face cutbacks, higher costs


By Scott Parks / The Dallas Morning News

The drought, already plaguing agriculture and urban landscapes, is beginning to hamper at least three electric generation plants in the driest parts of West Texas.

State officials warn that continued lack of rainfall eventually could lead to cutbacks in electricity production throughout Texas.

"If these drought conditions continue, other generating stations as well as other regions will begin to feel the effects of reduced generation capacity and higher costs," said the August report of the Drought Preparedness Council, an Austin-based, state government task force.

Steve Williams, a spokesman for AEP/West Texas Utilities, the company that owns the imperiled plants, said none of the company's customers will go without power even under a worst-case scenario in which all three endangered plants temporarily cease operation.

Rates could go up, however, because West Texas Utilities might have to buy electricity on the open market. Often, that purchased electricity is more expensive than the electricity generated in a company's own plants.

"Are we imminently in danger of going dark? No!" Mr. Williams said. "But the potential is there for increased costs if we had to shut down plants."

West Texas Utilities, a division of Ohio-based American Electric Power, serves 184,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in 56 Texas counties. An estimated 420,000 people live in the service area.

The three plants experiencing operational problems sit on small lakes. They are Fort Phantom Hill Power Station near Abilene, Oak Creek Power Station in rural Coke County and Paint Creek Power Station near Haskell, Texas.

Declining lake levels have forced West Texas Utilities to take extraordinary steps to keep lake water flowing into their plants. The water is a critical element in a plant's radiator-like cooling system. Without enough water, a plant has to cut back operations.

The Oak Creek Power Station, smallest of the three plants, is in danger of shutting down by November if significant rains don't replenish its lake, according to the Drought Preparedness Council report.

The Lake Fort Phantom Hill station, the largest of the three, will have to reduce operations by next spring if conditions don't improve. The Paint Creek station in Haskell County would have to cut back power production by November, the report said.

Jim Calloway, a senior utility engineer with the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said electric generating plants in all regions of the state depend on lake water for cooling systems. If lake levels in other parts of Texas decline as they have in West Texas, power interruptions to customers eventually could happen, he said.

"It's not gonna happen this year," said Mr. Calloway, who wrote the electric utility portion of the state drought report. "But if we get a couple more years like this without significant rain, things could get serious."

Sam Jones, chief operating officer of the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, said he sees no reason to worry about the supply of electricity available in Texas. New plants go on line regularly, he said.

Mr. Jones and the energy reliability council promote cooperation between electric companies and keep up with market transactions between those companies. Electricity can be generated in Houston and moved through "the grid" to West Texas, or vice versa.

"We already hit our peak in July and made it through just fine," Mr. Jones said.

But state officials and West Texas Utilities executives worry about what could happen if Texas descends into a "second summer" instead of a rainy fall season.

"We need all of our plants," said Mr. Williams, the West Texas Utilities spokesman. "I think if you talk to anyone in West Texas right now, they will tell you that water supply is a serious issue."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 26, 2000

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