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State power officials say new EPA rule could cause "emergency events"

09/01/2011 9:08 PM

09/01/2011 10:03 PM

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, operator of the state's major power grid, said in a report Thursday that a new Environmental Protection Agency regulation will reduce generating capacity and put the grid "at increasing risk of emergency events," including rotating power outages.

The Jan. 1 implementation date for the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, designed to slash air pollution from power plants, leaves ERCOT with "an extremely truncated period" in which to assess the rule's impact and "no realistic opportunity to take steps that could even partially offset the substantial losses of available operating capacity," the report said.

It outlined three scenarios, with even the "best-case scenario" expected to result in the loss of an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 megawatts of generating capacity during peak-consumption periods, ERCOT said.

"Had this incremental reduction been in place in 2011, ERCOT would have experienced rotating outages during days in August," the report said.

Rotating power outages are implemented as an emergency measure when electricity demand is close to exceeding available power supplies from generators.

Power consumption on the ERCOT grid hit record levels exceeding 65,000 megawatts on several days of exceptionally high temperatures in August, causing ERCOT to implement initial emergency measures and putting it close to instituting rotating outages.

Dallas-based power generator Luminant has asked the EPA to delay implementation of the rule, which it says could force it to curtail power generation and lignite mining in East Texas.

That could reduce revenue for the company and cause the loss of hundreds of jobs, it said.

The new federal rule will require substantial reductions in plant emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. The EPA says the rule will save and prolong lives by reducing harmful smog and soot pollution.

The EPA, responding to the ERCOT report, said Texas "has an ample range of cost-effective emission reductions options" for complying with the rule "without threatening electricity reliability or the continued operation of coal-burning units."

"Without this rule, Texas power plants will contribute significantly to air pollution in downwind states ... in some cases forcing the consideration of more costly local reductions, and in all cases unfairly depriving thousands of families of the health benefits associated with breathing clean air," the EPA said.

In Texas, the rule will prevent an estimated 670 to 1,700 premature deaths per year starting in 2014, the agency said.

The Sierra Club, a leading environmental group that has urged the shutdown of some older coal plants in East Texas, issued a statement Thursday calling on ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission "to focus on adopting solutions that strengthen the state's commitment to energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy such as wind and solar power."

"ERCOT and the PUC have multiple tools in their pockets to help meet any reliability concerns," the Sierra Club said, adding that it favors "a more robust energy-efficiency goal for the state's nine [electric] transmission and distribution utilities."

Warren Lasher, ERCOT planning system manager, said that a substantially delayed implementation date for the rule would give power plants a much greater chance of coming into compliance. For example, "if there were a window of up to three years," plants would have time to install new emissions-reducing "scrubbers," he said.

The ERCOT report said that power plants that currently burn Texas lignite coal might use more low-sulfur coal from Western states such as Wyoming. However, "in the near term, the demand for lower-sulfur coal is expected to exceed the mining capacity and/or the railroad capacity necessary to deliver the coal to Texas," the report said.

Last week, at the urging of the Texas Railroad Commission, the Texas attorney general's office said it will pursue "every available legal remedy" to prevent the EPA from implementing the new rule.

Jack Z. Smith, 817-390-7724

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