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2061Coal and Houston

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  • mark r. johnson
    Jul 3, 2003
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      --- In hreg@yahoogroups.com, "Michael Christie" <mchristi@f...> wrote:
      > ...
      > Someone in the railroad industry once told me that 100 rail cars of
      coal
      > came into Houston every day.

      Let me try to shed a little light on the few areas where I have some
      good knowledge. The Houston region has exactly ONE coal burning plant,
      the W.A. Parish unit located I think in Wharton. It is fed by low
      sulfur Wyoming coal transported by rail. Literally speaking, there is
      absolutely no need for coal rail cars to pass into or through Houston,
      they will go to Fort Bend County instead.

      It is a sizable portion of the old HL&P's generating capacity, larger
      in fact than the nuclear portion. But it was designed and built in the
      old regulated era where they sought coal and nuclear fuel to reduce
      dependence on natural gas. For a time there were laws on the books
      prohibiting the building of power plants which used natural gas, that
      is the main reason we are saddled with not-so-well conceived coal and
      nuclear plants. HL&P for many years was 100% natural gas fueled, left
      to their own devices they might not have ever wanted to diversify into
      nuclear and coal.

      One weak point of the Parish coal plant concept, was a limited number
      of rail lines coming into the plant. After some railroad mergers,
      there was *one* remaining company serving Parish, and as you might
      guess they had a rather harsh idea of shipping rates. After a couple
      years of this, HL&P built another short rail line so they could have
      at least a competitive market shipping them their needed fuel.

      Utilities in Central Texas and North Texas make relatively extensive
      use of lignite, an indigenous type of coal which is cheap, not low
      sulfur, low in energy content per pound, and therefore not worth
      transporting. The only really good way to burn lignite is to build a
      power plant very close to the lignite mining, ideally at the mouth of
      the mine. Economics of lignite depend on the quantity and quality of
      fuel available -- electricity from such can be relatively very cheap
      if you have a good lignite source (and don't invest too heavily in
      anti-pollution equipment).

      The old HL&P also built one lignite plant in Central Texas near Waco.
      What I have heard is their fuel source is mediocre, a thin vein which
      is not expected to last but about 25-30 years. This plant's economics
      would be much improved except for the lousy fuel source. It is my
      understanding that many other lignite plants in Texas are more
      economical.

      With a slow trend toward competition in the energy industry, we should
      watch to see whether the coal or the lignite plant might be shut down
      for cost reasons.

      I used to work for HL&P and so learned of many of these things through
      office communication and publications which are not widely
      distributed. FWIW my opinion is that coal is inherently a loathsome
      fuel to burn vs. natural gas, because of coal's pollution aspects.
      Natural gas is inherently a pretty clean fuel as the great majority of
      the non-fuel parts are removed at the wellhead. To me the trade-off
      between burning coal which is nearly always cheap but dirty, vs.
      natural gas, is a devilish temptation. One might realistically say the
      worst natural gas plant is cleaner than the best coal plant.

      I am interested in all forms of energy including renewables, but I
      will always be able to
      articulate the virtues of certain non-renewable fuels.

      Hope this helps -- Mark Johnson
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