The municipality of the district faces an unsure future | District Information | –

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The chimneys rising from the WA Parish Generating Plant are big enough that you can even see them from Brazos Bend State Park – about 17 miles away.

The coal and natural gas plant, located in the largely unpopulated southeastern part of Fort Bend County, could escape many. But it also harbors many firsts for better and for worse – largest electricity producer for the Houston area, but also the biggest polluter.

The plant, which was first built in 1974, now faces an uncertain future, according to the experts who examined it.

“The days of the plant are numbered,” says Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who has studied the plant for years. “It's just not clear whether that means another one, 10 or 20 years.”

But even if studies like Cohan's show pioneering the plant's pollution levels and inconsistent production capability, officials at NRG Energy, the plant's owner, argue the company made the necessary upgrades to bring the plant to the highest standards.

“Each of our plants participates in several continuous improvement events throughout the year,” said Chris Rimel, a spokesperson for NRG. “We are constantly striving to find ways to improve our operations. For example, before the Texas legislature passed winterization legislation, Parish – and all of our Texas plants – had processes in place to review and incorporate best practices and experiences from across the fleet and to confirm their readiness before summer and winter and hurricane seasons. “

The data

Despite NRG's sunny assessment, the data doesn't quite support this, according to Cohan.

“Some of the community's coal and gas units and their black start unit failed during the February freeze and contributed to the blackouts,” Cohan said. “Coal and gas units also failed during the bottlenecks in June.”

The stormy temperatures in February led to an almost catastrophic failure of the state power grid, which plunged millions of Texans into darkness for days and brought power plants to a standstill.

According to ERCOT, around 46,000 megawatts fell from several sources from the state grid during the storm. More than 60 percent of what failed, or about 28,000, was caused by thermal generators – coal, gas, and nuclear power.

The Texan legislature has taken some steps this year to winterize power plants and other measures to strengthen the state's electrical grid, but it is not yet clear what impact those measures could have.

The power plant is essentially located on an area of ​​4,664 hectares and consists of two power plants with four blocks – one natural gas and one coal-fired power plant. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, it has a total capacity of approximately 3,653 megawatts between the two power plants.

While the power plants have significant generating capacity, they are also one of the region's biggest polluters – they contribute to an estimated 170 premature deaths from air pollution each year, Cohan said.

The power plants usually rank among the top 3 power plants in the country for sulfur emissions and emit more carbon and sulfur dioxide than the rest of Fort Bend County combined, Cohan said.

Petra Nova

Federal and NRG officials worked to reduce this pollution a few years ago, and in late 2016 they brought online a Petra Nova $ 1 billion carbon capture project that was supposed to capture carbon dioxide from the coal-fired power plant, according to an article in Argus Media.

It would capture emissions from the coal-fired power plant in Parish and pipeline them to an oil field where it will be injected to release more oil, the article said.

The joint venture between NRG and a Japanese company called JX Nippon received a $ 190 million grant from the federal government, according to a Yahoo Finance article.

However, the project also suffered from some mechanical issues, missed some of its goals, and NRG eventually shut down the carbon capture plant due to low oil prices during the coronavirus pandemic, Argus Media said.

Rimel declined last week to provide a schedule of when the facility could return to normal.

“Petra Nova is currently in reserve decommissioning, servicing equipment so that the project can come back online when economics improve,” he said.

NRG is also closely monitoring what the federal government could do to incentivize broader carbon capture technology, Rimel said.

The future

Cohan argues that the same trends that forced the Petra Nova facility to go offline could also shut down the facility as a whole.

“Any of several things could cause NRG to close it or drastically change operations,” Cohan said. “If you have to invest a lot in wintering without public money or if you have to invest in environmental protection equipment or if solar energy continues to grow and power plants are no longer needed.”

Even among NRG experts, it can be assumed that solar energy will only continue to grow in Texas.

“Texas is blessed with natural resources that enable the state to be the national leader in renewable energy sources like wind and sun,” said Rimel.

The state's queue for connecting new wind and solar plants to the grid is extensive, with more than 20 gigawatts of projects listed as under development, Rimel said. One gigawatt is equivalent to 20,000 megawatts.

And NRG is always looking for ways to invest in solar energy, Rimel said.

“NRG has signed contracts with solar developers in the past to support our carbon reduction goals and deliver clean products to our customers, and we will continue to do so,” he said.

For example, NRG partnered with a company in 2018 to build a solar garden in Fort Bend County to power the partner company's headquarters with renewable energy, Rimel said.

The biggest obstacle to replacing the Parish plant with renewable energy is that the plant is so close to the Houston Metro, while the best renewable energy locations are traditionally in the far west of Texas, Cohan said.

But that could change soon.

A Spanish company, Acciona, began construction of a $ 258 million solar farm in Fort Bend County in June, which when completed will have a generating capacity of 317 megawatts, the company said.

The company chose Fort Bend County because of its abundant sun exposure, vibrant, skilled and entrepreneurial community, well-connected infrastructure and proximity to the energy industry, said Mark Raventos, director of business development for Acciona Energy USA Global.


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