A panel from Denton Municipal Electric fielded questions from a skeptical audience for nearly four hours Saturday over a proposal to replace the city’s current coal-fired power with new gas-fired power plants.
Questions and comments from the audience ranged from the pragmatic to the philosophical. They wanted to know why the city should build the plants knowing the rapidly changing energy market, the region’s poor air quality, the community’s stated values and the threat of climate change.
Nearly 200 people filled the council chambers and overflow rooms to participate in the discussion. About 120 of them wore bright green or pink stickers that said “Delay Plant Vote. Independent Study Needed.” About two dozen raised their hands to show they lived near the sites where the two plants would be built: at FM2153 and Shepard Road, and west of Denton Enterprise Airport. Most Denton City Council members also attended the meeting, as did several renewable energy activists, including representatives from Public Citizen, Earthworks and the Sierra Club.
DME plans to buy 70 percent of its energy from wind and solar farms in the next few years. But to minimize financial risk to electric ratepayers, DME also is recommending the city own and operate two new gas-fired power plants.
Denton is part-owner in a coal plant near Bryan. The plant is becoming increasingly expensive to operate, particularly with new regulations aimed at limiting their toxic emissions.
This past week, a federal appeals panel rejected a bid by 27 states and many industry groups to block the Clean Power Plan. The federal plan has new rules aimed at reducing emissions from power plants. Most coal-fired power plants in Texas cannot meet those requirements without expensive improvements. But because Denton and its three partner cities made improvements at their coal plant, DME officials believe they can sell Denton’s interests in the plant to another utility and displace a dirtier coal plant.
Ed Soph, a resident and local activist, said he wasn’t convinced city officials have given full consideration to the risk that gas plants face from future regulations, once state and federal policymakers turn their attention to methane.
“They [state and federal regulators] are not going to loosen regulations on greenhouse gases and air quality,” Soph said. “Have we really looked at the big picture, all the way out to 2049? Are these plants the e-cigarettes of the fossil fuel industry?”
Both the carbon dioxide emissions associated with coal-fired power and the methane emissions associated with natural gas production threaten the global climate. However, methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas. An increasing number of experts argue that controlling methane emissions could do more to slow climate change in the short term.
Jim Maynard, of DME, told the crowd that utility officials want to move to renewable energy as soon as possible, too.
“But ‘soon’ in utilities comes in decades,” Maynard said. “These are the most modern [gas] plants you can find. They are specifically designed to support renewables. It’s a misconception that every minute of every day can come from renewables.”
More than one speaker said they couldn’t understand why, after the 2014 citizens’ initiative to ban fracking in the city limits, the city-owned utility would come before the community with a recommendation to spend about $240 million to build plants fueled by natural gas.
“We kicked the industry to the curb, and a year later, you’re back with this,” said resident Kathy Hale.
A lot of the things about the latest plan seemed “counterintuitive,” agreed DME General Manager Phil Williams. But the utility was following a directive from the City Council to increase its purchase of renewable energy when it came up with the plan, he said.
Tom “Smitty” Smith of nonpartisan watchdog group Public Citizen told DME officials he doesn’t envy the position they are in. He has worked for years on an Austin Energy citizens’ group as that city also buys more renewables. He underscored that Denton residents are asking the utility to provide other technical and financial information — information that would balance all the risks the residents are considering.
“You’ve done the studies on the gas plants. Why not go out on the other things, too?” Smitty said.
He urged DME to study the long-term financial risks of building the plants against improvements in battery technology, considered to be a key factor in the expansion of solar and wind energy. He also encouraged DME to consider what might be achieved by working with its industrial and commercial customers to reduce load.
Williams acknowledged that the cheapest, cleanest energy is the electricity that’s never used.
Several local activists told the crowd they had spent recent weeks walking the neighborhoods where the two gas plants would be built. They knocked on doors and discovered that no one living near either location was aware of DME’s plans, including most city leaders in Aubrey and Krum.
A representative from a Vietnam veterans’ group said they were concerned the plant would be too noisy for members to enjoy the historic school buildings they recently renovated. One speaker read aloud a letter from actor and entrepreneur Jason Lee and his family, who also were concerned about the plant’s location near their home.
In an interview after the meeting, neighbor Diane Hilton said she and her husband are CoServ customers, so they never got the notice about Denton’s proposed plant on Shepard Road.
“We are concerned about what it will do to our property values,” Hilton said.
Some of the exchanges between speakers and the panel members got testy. That prompted Sharon Wilson, an organizer with Earthworks, a national nonprofit that works with communities affected by mining and fossil fuel development, to remind the panel that polls show the vast majority of Americans want to use renewable energy.
“But they are trapped in a system of fossil fuels and trying to get out,” Wilson said. “Don’t scold people for participating in a system they are trying to get out of.”
IF YOU GO
What: Another community discussion of renewable energy is planned at the upcoming Thin Line film festival. After the screening of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, organizers are hosting a Q&A session with a renewable energy expert and the filmmaker, Josh Fox.
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Campus Theater, 214 W. Hickory St.
For more information: www.thinlinefilmfest.com
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.