A key state senator is touting an idea that he says could simultaneously address two of Texas’ most pressing problems — the threat of water and electricity shortages.
Sen. Troy Fraser, a Horseshoe Bay Republican whose district includes northwest Travis County, is suggesting that new power plants be built at sites where brackish groundwater can be desalinated and used as a substitute — albeit more expensive — for fresh water. Electricity is the largest cost of desalinating brackish water, which is saltier than fresh water.
Locating a power plant at a desalination site isn’t a novel idea, but in Fraser’s vision the power plants could be used for desalination until they are needed in times of electricity shortages. On those occasions — such as hot summer afternoons or in case of emergencies such as this month’s winter storm that almost prompted a rolling blackout — the power could be diverted into the state’s electrical grid.
Fraser’s proposal has drawn interest from experts in the utility field, who are characterizing it as an interesting idea but one in need of more study.
Fraser says the revenue from selling electricity on the wholesale power market in times of short supply could lower the cost of treating the brackish water. And, unlike most “peaker plants” that are idle except when they are responding to power shortages during times of peak demand, the fast-start gas plants would have a built-in customer at the desalination site.
“This gives us a way to incentivize people to build peaker plants,” Fraser said.
A third component of Fraser’s idea is storing the desalinated water underground, because he said the state loses more water from its reservoirs to evaporation than it consumes.
“I’m just connecting the dots,” said Fraser, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees water and electricity issues. He says his idea could address the water and power concerns without changing how Texans buy and sell wholesale electricity.
There are hurdles involving geology, economics and politics, although some Texas cities, particularly Brownsville and El Paso, already are desalinating brackish water.
On the electricity side, some will argue that the state will need additional electricity reserves before desalination can be fully developed as an incentive for building more power plants.
Fraser brushed aside those concerns: “This is not rocket science. It’s just problem solving.”
He is vetting the idea with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s primary electricity grid, and San Antonio’s publicly owned water and electric utilities as well as the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Texas Water Development Board.
There were no initial estimates available for what it might cost to implement Fraser’s idea.
Fraser met with the officials in his Capitol office on Friday morning. Carlos Rubinstein, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, was there.
Desalination is already part of the state’s water plan, and Rubinstein noted that Brownsville, for example, already gets half of its water supply from desalination during dry seasons.
While Texas has ample supplies of brackish water, the ability to use it depends on the local geology, which officials only now are trying to map.
“We don’t have complete geology on this,” Fraser said. But with the state’s extensive history of oil and gas production, the senator said, “We have a better idea (than other states) at what’s down there.”
Rubinstein said Fraser’s idea really addresses the higher cost of pumping and treating brackish water.
According to a study by the Sierra Club, energy can comprise one-third to one-half of the total cost of desalination.
“You can reduce the rate shock to the (water) users,” Rubinstein said of Fraser’s idea.
San Antonio is a likely test site for Fraser’s idea because the city owns the electric utility and has already embarked on a desalination project. Its first phase is expected to be completed in 2016.
San Antonio officials had already been considering collaboration between their two utilities.
“I’m confident that others around the state and nation will follow San Antonio’s lead as it relates to the energy-water nexus that will determine future growth,” said San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
The projected cost of water from that project is $1,382 per acre-foot, according to the San Antonio Water System, as compared with the $331 to $541 per acre-foot for fresh groundwater pumped and stored underground.
Voters statewide last year approved a $2 billion fund to help finance water projects, but there is expected to be intense competition for the money. Fraser noted that 20 percent of the fund must be spent on conservation or water reuse and at least 10 percent in rural areas.
Fraser’s idea also lands in the middle of a controversy over whether the state is facing a future shortage of electricity — and what to do about it.
Wholesale electricity prices have been too low for too long to encourage enough construction of new power plants to address summer peak demands, the state’s consultants have warned.
Owners of power plants, from Austin Energy to investor-owned utilities, have lobbied for additional capacity payments, but some of the state’s largest industries have opposed that proposal as costing as much as $4 billion a year.
The Public Utility Commission is split on the issue, but Fraser has led the legislative charge to leave the current wholesale electricity market alone.
Fraser said his idea of pairing peaker plants with desalination sites better addresses the threat of shortages during the periods of peak power demand or emergencies.
He said his plan wouldn’t create competition for existing generators because the new peaker plants would be serving a new desalination industry.
“Ninety percent of the power is going to a source that didn’t exist before,” Fraser said. “The power will only come into the (general) market if the generators can’t provide power.”
Eric Bearse with Texans for Reliable Power, a group of investor-owned generators, said it’s hard to comment on a plan his group hasn’t seen.
“Ultimately, we must have a reliable system where outages are not 40 times more likely, which is what the status quo would lead to in a few short years,” Bearse said.
Doyle Beneby, CEO of San Antonio’s CPS Energy, also attended Friday’s meeting.
He said Fraser’s idea is a great concept that must be investigated further but could at least partially satisfy two big issues — water and electricity supplies.
“I would not view this as an overarching panacea for the electricity issue,” Beneby said. “But it can help.”
He said it would take several desalination projects with peaker plants to address the threats of power shortages: “Maybe over time, it solves the problem.”
Fraser, who envisions four to 10 such projects, said he believes an upcoming consultant’s report will give him more time to work on the plan.
He said he expects The Brattle Group report, due at the end of the month, will show the state’s power needs moderating because of greater energy efficiency and that the power plants coming online will be enough for now.
“We believe the reserve margin is going to be good. We’re going to have plenty of base capacity, we believe, and these peaker plants will be insurance,” he said.
Cyrus Reed, director of the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, said he agrees with Fraser that a capacity market for generators is not the solution.
“This seems like a much more targeted approach to getting the resources we need,” he said.
Reed said he also agrees that desalination has a role to play in addressing the state’s water needs, but he noted that conservation remains the cheapest approach.
Fraser said he knows there will be opposition in some quarters, but he suggested how Texans should view the debate.
“This is not an electric story that has a water component,” he said. “This is a water story that has an electric benefit.”
Laylan Copelin has covered public policy and politics for the American-Statesman for three decades. He delved into electricity supply issues in 2011, when generating plant outages caused rolling blackouts across the state, and he has written extensively about the ensuing political debate over electricity regulation.