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"Risks of Outages" Under EPA Rule, Texas Report Warns

Steam rises from the stacks at the Martin Lake Coal-Fired Power Plant in Tatum, TX March 30, 2011.
Photo by Tom Pennington via the Texas Tribune
Steam rises from the stacks at the Martin Lake Coal-Fired Power Plant in Tatum, TX March 30, 2011.

In a report released this morning, the Texas electric grid operator warned of "risks of outages for Texas power users" if a federal pollution rule takes effect as scheduled in January.

The "cross-state air pollution rule," finalized this summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, orders more than half the states, including Texas, to reduce their emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. It will force some Texas coal-plant operators to reduce their capacity, switch to lower-sulfur types of coal or make other changes to meet the requirements.

The grid operator laid out three scenarios for meeting the requirements. All three anticipate reduction of power plant capacity of 1,200 to 1,400 megawatts during the summer months, and larger reductions in the spring and (especially) in the fall. The grid's total capacity is 84,400 megawatts.

Grid representatives, appearing before the Public Utility Commission this morning, noted that the grid had already been severely strained over the past few months due to the extreme heat. "At least two" rotating outages would have occurred in August had the pollution rule been in place, according to Warren Lasher of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the grid operator.

Donna Nelson, one of the two Public Utility commissioners, said that she was working with Bryan Shaw, the chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to "get a meeting with the EPA administrator or her designee" to discuss the implications for Texas.

During a July visit to Austin, the EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, told the Tribune that she was "happy to talk to ERCOT and we're going to reach out to them to understand their concerns." 

"This is not an onerous rule," Jackson added.

The Texas Railroad Commission wrote to the state attorney general last month to ask that Texas take legal action against the rule.

The attorney general is "deeply concerned" about the rule, said a spokeswoman, Lauren Bean, though her office would not comment on legal strategy.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the Environmental Protection Agency said: "We look forward to meeting with ERCOT to discuss and review their analysis of the cross state air pollution rule. This dialogue will be important to reach a common understanding of the rule and its impacts."

The EPA also said: "EPA modeling shows that Texas has an ample range of cost-effective emission reductions options for complying with the requirements of this rule without threatening electricity reliability or the continued operation of coal-burning units."

Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.