Farms, cities, green forces say facilities use too much of resource
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
Oct. 24, 2010, 8:42PM
There is a new front in the fight over whether Texas should build more coal-fired power plants — water.
The various water factions – farmers, environmentalists and growing, thirsty cities – have come together as allies against proposed coal plants across the state, with battles now raging from Abilene to Corpus Christi.
Their shared concern: The plants will use too much of an already stressed resource. So the unlikely allies are asking water suppliers to not sell the rights to billions of gallons to the plants, seizing on the notion that, perhaps more than ever, water still shapes destiny.
“Water is where they are most vulnerable,” said Ryan Rittenhouse, who works on the watchdog group Public Citizen’s anti-coal campaign in Texas. “If (water agencies) don’t sell the water, we don’t know where else they can get it.”
The revival of the age-old debate about the best use of water represents the last, best chance to stop the state’s coal boom – in keeping with an aphorism, often attributed to Mark Twain, that out West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, the anti-coal forces say.
Coal-fired power plants are commonly identified as the nation’s biggest emissions villain. But that notoriety hasn’t slowed the rush to build them in Texas, where there are nearly 30 coal plants either operating, permitted or proposed.
What has given many folks pause is the amount of water consumed by the plants.
Thermoelectric power plants – those that use heat to generate power, such as nuclear, coal and natural gas – are the single largest user of water in the United States. In Texas alone, they consume 157 billion gallons annually – enough water for more than 3 million people, each using 140 gallons per day, a recent University of Texas at Austin analysis found.
Burning coal produces heat that turns water into steam, which spins turbines that produce electricity. Even more water is used in the cooling process employed at some power plants in which steam is condensed back into water for reuse.
An alternative, known as dry cooling, uses fans and heat exchangers, much like a car’s radiator, and consumes far less water. Even then, the proposed Tenaska Trailblazer Energy Center, which would be the first coal plant in Texas to use dry cooling, had asked nearby Abilene to sell it up to 2 million gallons of treated wastewater each day.
Mayor in opposition
Abilene’s mayor said in June he couldn’t support a sale, citing the need to save it for other uses, possibly as drinking water. The decision delighted the power plant’s opponents, who had applied political pressure with yard signs and billboards that read: “Water Yes, Tenaska No.”
In parched West Texas, “we felt we could influence people by talking more about water than pollution,” said Jeff Haseltine, organizer of the group Abilenians Against Tenaska.
“This is a conservative area, and there are not a lot of people who believe in global warming or worry about air pollution,” he said. “But they feel strongly about water.”
Tenaska, meanwhile, is looking for other sources of water for the proposed plant, which would generate electricity for about 600,000 homes.
Options may include buying effluent water from various cities and towns around the Permian Basin or pumping groundwater.
The clash is the result of rising demand for both water and energy in Texas. With the state’s population expected to double by 2060, there will be more neighborhoods, more businesses, more lights, more air conditioners. Meanwhile, the water supply is projected to decrease by 18 percent because of aquifer depletion and sediment accumulation in reservoirs, according to state forecasts.