AUSTIN, TEXAS – The Texas Public Utility Commission (PUCT) should not give nuclear plants or “clean” coal plants priority on the “new renewable energy superhighways” as part of its decision on the state’s competitive renewable energy zones (CREZ), according to a coalition of consumer and environmental groups in a petition filed today with the commission.
The PUCT decided on July 17 to authorize 18,456 megawatts of transmission lines to transport wind energy from rural West Texas to highly populated Texas cities. The ability to transmit wind energy from West Texas has become challenging in recent years. It takes less than a year to build a wind plant but five to seven years to build transmission capacity. This has resulted in transmission overload because there is already more wind power being generated than there is transmission so the transmission lines available are already overloaded. To address the challenge, the PUCT was charged by the Texas Legislature with writing a plan to develop more transmission lines to serve renewable energy plants.
“The transmission lines serving the windy areas were like two-lane dirt roads when we needed six-lane superhighways to connect the wind to our cities,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.
However, the commissioners delayed until July 31 a decision about whether to give priority on these lines to nuclear and so-called clean coal plants. A coalition of environmental and consumer groups, including Public Citizen, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, and Environment Texas, filed a petition with the PUCT asking to sever the decision on whether to give dispatch priority on these transmission lines to nuclear and coal plants.
Giving nuclear and so-called clean coal plants priority to use these lines could discourage renewable companies from investing in Texas and unnecessarily delay the entire plan, according to Smith. It also could discourage investment because the inclusion of an unknown number of nuclear power and “clean” coal plants makes it difficult for the renewable industry to accurately assess transmission capacity in various CREZ zones and on various lines.
The idea that nuclear and coal plants could be built in a reasonable amount of time is questionable, too. When Texas last built new nuclear plants, they were eight to 10 years late. And even if they are built quickly, they may not work properly; the “clean” coal plants would use untried technologies that may not be ready on time or may not work, increasing the risk that the CO2 sequestration promised on these “clean” coal plants may not operate
“All of these scenarios would discourage the development of renewable energy and would thwart the legislature’s goal of expanding the use of renewable energy,” Smith said.
And while current nuclear power may look cheap, proposed nuclear plants are actually the most expensive way to generate electricity. Cost estimates for the next generation of nuclear plants have increased 2 to 2.4 times in the past two years. The commissioners’ perception of costs may be out of date, not fully reflective of current estimates of bond rating houses and not based on estimates of costs by utilities.
“This is a decision that needs to be made based on a full analysis of cost and benefits of each of the various methods of energy generation. It should not be based on the commissioners’ perceptions or out-of-date estimates of costs,” said Karen Hadden of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. “The PUCT should make this decision based on fully developed estimates of current costs of the alternatives in another proceeding (PUCT Docket No 34577) that has been opened to specifically discuss this issue.”
Texas is already a leader in wind energy and is poised to be a leader in renewable energy. According to Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, concentrating solar energy in West Texas is now cheaper than the latest cost estimates for nuclear power. The proposed transmission lines could ship solar energy from West Texas into the state’s cities and help meet surging peak demand for electricity.
“We think that giving priority to nuclear and so-called clean coal plants will be promoting last century’s technology instead of promoting new cheaper, cleaner and safer technology,” he said.