An Update to the Zombie Gas and Coal Plant Situation

Black and white coal plant with graphic of a zombie face and hands. Text: Will zombie coal and gas plants rise from the grave? UPDATE
Original image of Decker Power Plant by Al Braden


By Cyrus Reed

Earlier this month, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) made an astonishing request to bring shuttered, polluting gas and coal plants back from the dead to try and avert a possible energy emergency this winter. (For the full background, read our blog post here.) 

We promised to keep you updated, so here's the latest...

The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT), which regulates the state’s electric utilities, held a special “Winter Preparedness” workshop on October 20th and commissioners – and many other stakeholders including the Sierra Club – spent a full day discussing the risks and opportunities during winter weather. 

As part of that process we filed comments which can be found here, in which we expressed our concerns about the potential costs, pollution and process. The Sierra Club expressed grave concerns that the contracts could lead to resources like Dirty Deely in San Antonio and the Decker gas steam unit in Austin back from the dead, leading to pollution in local frontline communities. We also spoke about the need to immediately begin rulemaking on demand response and energy efficiency. 

During the meeting, a number of participants made presentations about the real opportunity for residential and small commercial customers to provide demand response IN THE REGULAR MARKET if the PUCT would just make the rules easier to participate. PUCT commissioners, for their part, expressed concerns about the legality of ERCOT’s sudden order, and also directed staff to review some potential cost and other guardrails on the process. Hopefully, the PUCT will let ERCOT know that contracting 3,000 MW of extra juice without permission and outside of the existing structure is not good public policy, or at the very least establish some caps on costs to customers. If you want to view the whole special workshop from October 20th, you can see it here.

We will be waiting to see who responds to the RFP by November 10th, though we already have seen one mothballed power plant - a mothballed unit at Talen Energy’s Barney Davis gas plant - announce it intends to come back online. The 352 MW gas steam unit had been shut down recently by Talen but last Friday the company announced to ERCOT it intends to bring it back online. While we won’t know for sure, it is presumably coming back online in hopes of getting a rich contract paid for by ERCOT customers. The unit is located just south of Downtown Corpus Christi and across from North Padre Island in the Upper Laguna Madre, meaning that the community can expect local negative air quality impacts. 

As we have repeatedly stated, the cheapest and quickest way to get extra capacity and finally fix the grid is to concentrate on reducing both peak and overall energy demand through energy efficiency and demand response. As an example, Texas transmission and distribution utilities currently only spend about $125 million a year to help Texans reduce their energy use. Recently, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) identified 10 programs that could reduce summer peaks by some 15,000 MW and winter peaks by some 25,300 MW through targeted investments over the next six years. We have been advocating for several years that the PUCT open up rulemaking on these programs, but so far they have not. Until the PUCT, ERCOT, and the Texas Legislature take the demand side more seriously, we will continue to be in an emergency situation. 

Stay tuned for updates on the zombie gas and coal plants. We will have actions for folks to take soon.

A stage with five individuals on a panel in front of a seated audience.
PUCT Interim Chair Kathleen Jackson, the Sierra Club’s Cyrus Reed, Garry Jones of Oncor, Sen. Nathan Johnson, ACEEE’s Steven Nadel, and Octopus Energy’s Mike Lee discuss the cheapest, quickest way to meet our energy needs – reducing demand through energy efficiency at the GCPA (Gulf Coast Power Association) annual conference in October 2023.