Amid political and environmental conflicts over Texas air quality, International Power announced on June 14 a long-awaited powerplant expansion in south Texas. Barring intercession by the courts, the Coleto Creek Unit Two project is expected to ramp up next year, creating more than 1,000 construction jobs by 2015, when it is scheduled to come online.

To some, the Coleto powerplant means more power and jobs; however, to others—including the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club—it just means more dirty air.
Rendering: International Power
To some, the Coleto powerplant means more power and jobs; however, to others—including the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club—it just means more dirty air.

The $1.4-billion expansion project will add a 650-MW coal-burning powerplant to International Power’s existing Coleto Unit One. Michael Fields, director of expansion for International Power, says that, after concluding a six-month open-bid period, the company expects to sign an engineering, procurement and construction agreement early next year with the design-build joint-venture team of Zachry Industrial, San Antonio, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo., and Mitsubishi Power Systems, Lake Mary, Fla.

The South Texas Electric Cooperative, which is a part owner, says the expansion will provide electricity to 65 counties, create jobs and fuel economic growth.

When Coleto Creek’s 632-MW Unit One went into service in 1980, infrastructure for all coal delivery and handling, as well as the cooling reservoir, were sized for a second unit, Fields says.

Both units will use low-sulfur Wyoming Powder River Basin coal. Unit Two, when completed, can be retrofitted with carbon-capture technology when it becomes available. Until then, it will use “ultra-supercritical technology” to efficiently reduce CO? emissions, Fields says. “The nitrogen oxide burners inside the furnace will produce less NOx than conventional burners,” he says.

Fields says local support for the project is “tremendous,” noting that the city of Victoria passed a resolution supporting the project, while elected officials from Goliad “traveled to Austin and went in front of [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] commissioners.”

TCEQ awarded an air permit for the new unit on May 3. But opponents, including the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, worry about air pollution. The Sierra Club has threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency in federal court if the agency does not force Texas to comply with the Clean Air Act. That action may not be necessary, however, as a recently appointed regional EPA administrator is threatening to take over aspects of Texas air-quality permitting.

The Sierra Club charges the TCEQ’s “flawed permitting program” allows proposed coal-fired powerplants to move forward with air-pollution permit limits that do not protect public health or the environment as state and federal laws require. “TCEQ does not even require readily available air monitors on the stacks for pollutants,” says Eva Hernandez, organizer for the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign in Austin.

“The bottom line is, it’s a dirty coal plant,” Hernandez says. “We don’t need to invest in old technology.”

Scrubbers and other new technologies have only limited value. “Once the coal is burned and goes into coal-ash waste ponds, it can seep into any groundwater source, lake or stream,” Hernandez says. Utilities want to “grandfather in” Texas coal plants before new federal standards go into law, she adds.

Hernandez says the Coleto Creek permit allows 1,461 tons per year of NOx emissions. “We are not meeting the federal clean-air emissions standards,” she says. Regulations will make coal-fired plants even more expensive to operate. Investing in clean energy, such as solar and wind power, she says, would create three to four times as many jobs that can’t be outsourced.