Smith: Power plants suck

Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

Austin American-Statesman

Tom 'Smitty' SmithAs the Texas population booms, residents worry about where the water will come from to provide for all of our needs. What many don’t realize is that power plants together are the single largest user of water in America, and adding plants is the single greatest threat to our dwindling water supply.

Three proposed power plants — two in Matagorda County and one in Corpus Christi — threaten to drain as much as 26 billion gallons of water each year from the Colorado River. Doing so will threaten levels in Lake Travis and other Highland Lakes.

The LCRA board is considering a contract for water for one of these proposed units in the next several months and now is the time to call the board and ask them to plug the drain on Lake Travis by denying this contract.

A little background: In 1942, the LCRA constructed Mansfield Dam and created Lake Travis to serve as a reservoir supplying freshwater for communities along the Colorado. When it was created, Lake Travis and some of the other Highland Lakes were designated “variable level” lakes. This means that they can be partially or fully drained when communities or industries located downstream need water.

Residents and businesses on Lake Travis have long understood that relationship, and though they don’t always like it, they have mostly learned to live with it. In 2009, that relationship was put to the test when an extended drought required lake levels to drop by over 50 feet, bringing them to the third lowest they’ve ever been. Businesses on Lake Travis were hurt badly, and LCRA staff called for a moratorium on new water contracts.

Now the relationship between lake users and downstream industries is being tested again. Three proposed plants in southeast Texas — one petcoke, one coal and petcoke, and a pair of nuclear reactors — could suck up the dwindling water supply, leaving local businesses and homeowners with sour investments.

What makes the situation truly intolerable is not only what it could do to local businesses and homeowners, but that it may be entirely unnecessary.

Each year the Public Utility Commission performs a "State of the Market" assessment which discusses electricity supply and demand in the state. In the report for 2009, the agency clearly stated that there was no room in the electricity market for new coal, gas or nuclear power plants. Those plants are generally large-scale and the truth is that Texas produces more electricity than it needs.

What’s more, energy efficiency and renewable technologies do not require significant quantities of water. While coal, petcoke and nuclear plants all need to be cooled, wind turbines and solar panels do not. Those technologies keep getting cheaper, and they create far more jobs for every dollar invested than do power plants.

With renewable energy technologies declining in price, Texas producing more electricity than it needs and the state unemployment rate beginning to climb, doesn’t it make sense for us to avoid unneeded and water-intensive power plants and instead continue to develop clean energy technologies that could help us solve problems with air pollution, water scarcity and an uncertain economic future?

Of course it does. Businesses and individuals who rely on, live on and play on Lake Travis are coming together for a benefit event at the Iguana Grill on Sunday. Attendees will learn what we can do to protect lake levels which generate so much revenue for our local economy while helping to make Austin and Central Texas one of the best places to live.

Smith is the Texas director of Public Citizen. To learn about Sunday’s event, visit