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Few hints in what's ahead for Denton Energy Center

Council member Keely Briggs said she “honestly has no idea” what to expect during the City Council's closed-door session on the Denton Energy Center set for Friday morning. 

Last week, after Denton Municipal Electric officials announced the city would increase its renewable energy portfolio much faster than expected, the city manager asked council members to find time to meet about the city's new power plant, Briggs said. 

"I didn't know what the topic would be until I read the agenda posting," she said. 

Details are scant on the agenda posting. City leaders are expected to review the two primary contracts for Denton Energy Center's construction before the council goes on hiatus for two-and-a-half weeks. 

In September 2016, Briggs formally complained about how the energy center deal came together. She listed specific concerns about the quality of information council members received to analyze the deal, in light of a rapidly changing energy market. 

However, no other council member agreed that her concerns warranted holding up the estimated $240 million investment in the energy center. DME is building a new, natural gas-fired power plant even as it seeks contracts to buy more electricity from wind and solar farms. 

The city has never revealed the cost of either primary contract in the power plant deal. But industry experts estimate Denton is spending about $100 million to purchase 12 natural gas-fired engines from Wärtsilä, a Finnish company known for manufacturing ship engines. Experts also estimate the city is spending another $100 million on a contract with Burns and McDonnell, a Missouri engineering firm, to design and construct the power plant that would house the engines. 

The energy center ostensibly helps DME hedge its renewable energy contracts. But the energy market is changing rapidly since DME finalized the deal. The city-owned utility originally planned to get about 70 percent of its energy from wind and solar farms by 2019. Last week, DME told City Council members it expects to increase that to 88 percent. 

The city is also trying to divest itself of a coal-fired power plant near Bryan. But Denton, and the three other cities that own the plant, have been unable to sell it and have begun making plans to decommission it. 

In addition, DME General Manager Phil Williams told council members last week that DME has begun talks about storing some of the renewable electricity DME buys.

Texas wind farms can generate more electricity than people need, most frequently overnight. Researchers and energy companies have been experimenting with holding excess electricity in large-scale batteries for a few hours until it is needed on the grid.  

Last year, Williams told council members he believed it would be years before utilities could depend on battery storage to power the grid. However, last month, Wärtsilä announced a new capability that offers "hybrid solutions"  including energy storage along with the gas-fired power plants it has been marketing for the past decade.  

The agenda posting specifies that council members will consult with city attorneys over  "the city's procurement activities," including "staff interaction with bidders." 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. 

FEATURED PHOTO: Delivery trucks bring materials to the site where Denton Municipal Electric is erecting its new power plant on Jim Christal Road in western Denton.
DRC file photo