2066RE: [hreg] Coal and Houston
- Jul 3, 2003Mark,
I vote to give you the title of "HREG Coal Guru". You certainly brought a
lot of interesting and relevant information to the group. And, you answered
my question. It may very well have been this plant that my source of
information was referring to. Many people, myself included, are rather loose
in our definition of "Houston". And as you can see, we are not all well
From: mark r. johnson [mailto:mrj53@...]
Sent: Thursday, July 03, 2003 7:47 AM
Subject: [hreg] Coal and Houston
--- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "Michael Christie" <mchristi@f...> wrote:
> Someone in the railroad industry once told me that 100 rail cars of
> 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
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
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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