Monday, February 16, 2009

Austin Energy declines involvement in STP expansion

The South Texas Project (STP) is a two-unit, 2,725 MW nuclear facility located in Matagorda County, Texas. The City of Austin has a 16% (smallest) share of STP, along with CPS Energy and NRG Energy, Inc. According to the ownership/operation agreement between the three for STP, any owner may propose the construction of new generating units at the site. At least 50% of the plant ownership must participate in order for the construction to proceed. However, all owners have the right to decline involvement. This also represents the first application submitted to the NRC for a new nuclear plant in 29 years.

From Austin's perspective, analysis indicates that such participation could cost $2 billion or more over the next seven years, an amount and time frame that is likely to increase given the history of nuclear facility construction (particularly as Austin Energy and financial adviser on the matter WorleyParsons viewed the construction timetable as "overly optimistic"). The appealing factor would be an addition of 432 MW of clean, efficient baseload power.

However, this represents about double the amount of additional generation projected to be needed by 2020 for Austin Energy. Also, the amount of debt necessarily incurred from such a commitment
relative to their size "could result in a downgrade of its credit rating, leading to higher future borrowing costs." [1]

That final economic factor as well as Austin Energy's strong existing plans for generation through 2020 are the primary reason for the lack of involvement. "That proposed plan includes about 900 MW of additional capacity, including a 200 MW expansion of the utility's natural gas-fueled Sand Hill Energy Center, an additional 100 MW biomass plant, a doubling of the utility's wind-generation portfolio to about 1,000 MW as well as 100 MW of solar capacity."

Although Austin Energy's (AE) proposed generation plan through 2020 has yet to be finalized and approved by public review, it demonstrates a strong commitment to alternative energy sourcing. The largest portion being the very green and very Texas increase in projected wind power generation.

Transmission costs of this power to areas of East Texas, along with the availability of wood waste from logging and mill activity, among other reasons, have led to the approval of the $2.3 billion biomass plant. The plant burns waste wood to generate steam to produce electricity. Despite the apparent lack of technological "green-cred," the plant helps curb oncoming natural gas price hikes and carbon taxes, with the strong selling point of 24/7 on demand power that fits, legally speaking, within the goal of 30% renewables by 2020 [2].

CPS Energy, which is San Antonio's municipal utility and owner of 40% of the STP, quickly approved of the project; thus providing the necessary support for the project to proceed. The project is a part of NRG's initiative to provide "clean," cost-effective baseload power that does not contribute to global warming. The initiative is part of NRG's need to reduce carbon intensity due to it's large scale and strong dependence on North-East coal plants. Thus, they have resolved nuclear technology as the only large-scale, zero/low GHG or CO2 emissions capable of providing on-demand available power; and plan on building 10,000 MW of it within the next 20 years or so [3].

Such an aggressive move should be of concern to anyone aware of the unresolved issue of nuclear waste. Certainly the amount of energy supplied by such convenient baseload sources as coal and natural gas will need to be offset in the very near term (particularly coal), but do pending carbon restrictions force us into hasty financial and energy investments that we do not fully understand the environmental consequences of, particularly nuclear waste? This is the situation we have put utility companies in, and nuclear power is the clear solution for the time-being, or else wood-burning biomass plants. Is this what we want? Strong dedication to "alternative" sources that cleanly shirk their environmental responsibilities and reprecussions into areas other than CO2 emission? As ETP students are the main audience for this post and have been made aware of the lack of funding the utility industry puts into R&D, this decision is likely of little surprise.

To myself, these facts speak volumes to the public's need for conservation efforts. Usage studies, technology R & D, public education, and the necessary motivation - even if it comes in the form of government mandated financial motivation. Energy used should come with a clear monetary indication of the environmental impact had, whether emissions, waste, or resource depletion. Utility affiliated or not investment firms that will provide capital costs for home technologies to increase efficiency and reduce waste. I believe it is time to force the people to do what they know they need to, and make them aware that the answers to their hypocritical Utility Company demands can be solved in their own home.

1 - Austin Energy Press Release on STP Decision

2 - Austin Energy Press release on East Texas Biomass Plant

3 - NRG STP Proposal Press Release


Nate said...

Well written post. I was told once by an Austin Energy Rep. that the smart grid application that began this January avoided building one 500MW power plant in the next ten years. How much additional generation is expected by 2020? From your post I deduce 800+ MW increase in demand by 2020? Where can I find these projections? Thanks.

gully said...

check the references...

I would believe a fully functioning Smart Grid to be able to eventually compensate for 500MW of power generation in theory, and I would believe that some form of it could be brought online by 2020 (maybe test cases?) but I cannot imagine 500MW compensated within the next 10 years. But I have no have no hard evidence to the contrary...

Anonymous said...

I know that Austin Energy is going to be distributing smart meters to its customers soon. I live in Hyde Park and we're supposed to be getting a smart meter soon. If we can only get a smart grid, too...

gully said...

David, I didn't know that; did they inform all customers of this, or did you find out elsewhere?

Anonymous said...

My roommate found out about it...Austin Energy mailed us a letter in the mail. I'm not sure how many people will be getting them, or how long the time frame is.

Austin Energy is pretty good about tackling demand-side energy use, though. I used to live with some friends in North Austin and we participated in Austin Energy's remote-controlled thermostat program. Basically, Austin Energy could cycle your A/C on or off in the summer months for a few hours during the day to shave off some peak demand. Pretty cool.