AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Senate Democrats worried Tuesday that continued drought could lead to brownouts and keep major firms from expanding statewide because of fears about an unreliable power grid.
A growing population has left state planners rushing to approve coal-fired power plants, expand nuclear facilities, create more wind power, build transmission lines and extract natural gas to meet rising demand. But vast amounts of water are often necessary to generate electricity — an increasingly complicated prospect for a state still struggling through what has already been the worst single-year drought in its history.
Trip Doggett, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told a meeting of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce that the lack of rainfall is already impacting electricity generation but that it's not likely to cause significant power shortfalls through the end of this year. Should the drought continue into 2013, however, its impact on energy generation could be more severe, he said.
While power plants require a lot of water to generate electricity, most of it is simply heated up and then returned to the environment. John Fainter, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, said facilities that generate electricity only account for about 3 percent of the state's water use. Still, they have to enough water on-hand to keep production going.
"We were in pretty good shape making it through this last summer," Fainter said.
But senators heard testimony from state utility authorities who said part of the problem is that energy is currently so inexpensive to produce in Texas that there is little incentive to improve infrastructure and make energy generation more efficient to guard against shortfalls sparked by water shortages.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the continued lack of rainfall poses serious concerns "about the ability to keep the lights on" in the short term and that things will only get more complicated in the future. He said Texas should have a contingency plan for coping with future energy needs similar to the $16 million it spends on a long-term water plan it produces every five years.
San Antonio Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said, "we are advertising that if you're a major company, in the United States or foreign, and you want to come to Texas to expand, 'well watch out because they don't have any water' or 'look, they're having problems with their electricity grid.'"
"That's not the message we need to send," she said, "so the electricity grid has to match and align itself to reality."
Van de Putte said would-be job creating companies eying expanding in Texas have already begun to take notice.
"I can tell you, we've already heard in board rooms where the cities have been going after major businesses to come it's been slowing down," she said. "And the reason is there are questions about electricity."
The committee heard that about six weeks of increased rain and snowfall recently has helped some but not enough. About 67 percent of Texas is now in extreme or exceptional drought, compared to 88 percent in September.
State meteorologist George W. Bomar said very little of that rainfall reached streams, meaning lakes and water tables remain low. He said that due to La Nina weather conditions, the drought is likely to continue but is also believed to be reaching its peak — meaning normal weather conditions could return to the state by mid-2012.
"When you couple the drought with the heat of last summer we've experienced a once in a lifetime experience," Bomar said. The state's average temperature of 86.8 degrees between June and August set a new record, breaking the previous mark of 85.2 degrees set by Oklahoma in 1934.