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WA Parish Coal Plant Near Houston Continues to Pollute

Aging, dirty facility damages human health, doesn't appear profitable

By Adrian Shelley

One of the largest, dirtiest coal plants in the United States continues to operate in Fort Bend County, near Houston. It’s unclear why.

The WA Parish Generating Station lies approximately 25 miles southwest of Houston, in the suburb of Sugar Land. The plant produces enough energy to power 730,000 homes in Texas. But the coal-generated electricity comes with a tragic cost: Estimates show that WA Parish contributes to perhaps 178 premature deaths each year. What’s more, the company that owns WA Parish, NRG, probably isn’t even making money on the plant, according to independent financial analysis.

While we rely on its electricity, WA Parish seems to be a burden to its owners and a menace to its neighbors. Energy prices are now such that there are affordable clean energy alternatives to aging fossil fuel generation. So why aren’t we using them? Is it that nobody knows about WA Parish’s health risks or about clean, renewable energy alternatives available to the community?

The public should not only be educated about WA Parish, but about the true costs of energy derived from coal, and the safe and reliable clean energy alternatives. Armed with this information, more consumers will choose clean energy and speed up the move toward reliable, renewable power sources such as wind and solar.

Parish at a Glance

WA Parish’s owner, NRG, owns seven coal plants totaling nearly eight gigawatts of electric generating capacity.[1] A gigawatt is a unit of electric power equal to one billion watts. WA Parish produces 3.65 gigawatts of energy a day from four natural gas units and four coal units.[2] Parish’s coal units produce 2,697 megawatts (1 megawatt can power about 200 homes in Texas) of energy and consume 36,000 tons of locally mined coal each day.

NRG trumpets WA Parish’s investment of more than $1 billion into the Petra Nova project, which it bills as “the world’s largest carbon capture facility.”[3] The Petra Nova project captures 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions from a portion of Unit 8 totaling 240 megawatts, or less than 9% of the overall coal capacity of the plant.[4] The captured carbon dioxide – approximately 1.4 million metric tons each year – is used for enhanced oil recovery (the process of increasing the amount of oil that can be recovered from an oil reservoir) in the nearby West Ranch oil field. Enhanced oil recovery made possible with carbon from Petra Nova has boosted oil production in the West Ranch oil field from 330 barrels per day to 4,000 barrels per day.[5] Despite this project, WA Parish remains the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Texas, with 16.3 million tons of CO2 pollution belched into the atmosphere each year.[6]

Public Citizen opposed the Petra Nova project because it does not represent progress toward clean energy. Simply put, coal is irredeemably dirty and economically unfeasible. The first energy priority for Texas should be ending all coal generation. Petra Nova represents pointless investment in coal that could delay that desperately needed retirement. We also oppose the use of captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. The purpose of capturing CO2 is to mitigate climate change; but mining fossil fuels exacerbates the increasingly dire climate catastrophe. That’s why we oppose any project that promotes the use of nonrenewable fossil fuels. Finally, we believe the billion dollars invested in Petra Nova would have been better spent investing in clean energy. Adding clean energy capacity onto our energy grid is the fastest way to ensure that coal and other fossil fuel sources are retired as soon as possible.

Update: NRG closed the Petra Nova facility in May 2020. What went wrong.

Among the Largest Polluters in Texas

WA Parish is one of the largest, dirtiest polluters in Texas. Each year the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requires point sources of pollution (called “stationary sources,” as distinguished from mobile or area sources) to report annual emissions of six pollutants. Data from the 2017 point source emission inventory reveals that WA Parish remains one of the largest polluters in the state. In 2017 WA Parish ranked number one statewide among stationary source emitters of fine particulate matter pollution:

WA Parish is number two for sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions:

Number six for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions:

WA Parish is also among the top ten for coarse particulate matter (PM10) and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions.[7]

This air pollution is deadly. Researchers at Rice University in Houston used photochemical modeling of air pollution emissions and BenMAP modeling of health impacts to determine the health effects of WA Parish and other coal plants in Texas. Air pollution from Parish travels across several states and is responsible for as many as 178 deaths each year, including 177 deaths from PM2.5 pollution and one death from ozone pollution.[8] This makes WA Parish among the deadliest industrial facilities in the United States:[9]

Parish is Losing Money

It is unlikely that WA Parish is profitable for its parent company NRG. A 2019 analysis by Strasert et al. found that WA Parish likely lost nearly $125 million in 2016.[10]

A March 2016 Moody’s Investors Service report found that WA Parish is likely losing money.[11]

If WA parish is losing money for NRG, why does the company keep the power plant open? It may be because NRG expects the plant to make money in the future, which is likely only possible if energy prices in Texas increase significantly. Or NRG could be trying to delay the decommissioning costs that come with closing a power plant the size of WA Parish (a 4,664 acre facility with 3.65 gigawatt generating capacity).

WA Parish has significant unaddressed issues onsite that must be dealt with when the plant is finally decommissioned. There is a closed 80-acre coal ash landfill known as “Cell 2” that is essentially an unregulated coal ash dump.[12] NRG has also failed to make public any groundwater monitoring data required by the coal ash rule for pollutants such as arsenic, cobalt, and lithium.

Clean Power is a Cheaper Alternative

As coal loses money and clean energy prices decline, it becomes cheaper to build new renewable energy than to keep existing coal operating.[13] Solar companies are investing in Fort Bend County. A $170 million project will bring 200 MW of clean solar energy to Fort Bend in March. [14]

If companies in Fort Bend invested a billion dollars in solar–the same amount NRG has invested in the Petra Nova carbon capture project–enough energy could be produced to close half of the WA Parish coal units. This would save lives today and protect the planet tomorrow.

[1] See https://www.nrg.com/generation/coal.html.

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WA_Parish_Generating_Station.

[3] See https://www.nrg.com/case-studies/petra-nova.html.

[4] See https://www.energy.gov/fe/petra-nova-wa-parish-project.

[5] See https://www.nrg.com/case-studies/petra-nova.html.

[6] Brian Strasert, Su Chen Teh & Daniel S. Cohan (2018): “Air quality and health

benefits from potential coal power plant closures in Texas,” Journal of the Air & Waste Management

Association, DOI: 10.1080/10962247.2018.1537984 available at https://doi.org/10.1080/10962247.2018.1537984.

[7] “Point Source Emissions Inventory” Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (2017) available at https://www.tceq.texas.gov/assets/public/implementation/air/ie/pseisums/2013thru2017statesum.xlsx (file download).

[8] Strasert et al. 2018.

[9] Strasert et al. 2018.

[10] Strasert et al., 2019.

[11] “ERCOT: Renewables to Hold Down Power Prices in the Lone Star State,” Moody’s Investors Service, 23 March 2016, at page 8, exibit 13.

[12] Abel Russ and Ari Phillips, “Groundwater Contamination from Texas Coal Ash Dumps” Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) (17 Jan 2019) at p. 59 available at https://www.environmentalintegrity.org/reports/groundwater-contamination-from-texas-coal-ash-dumps/.

[13]  Megan Mahajan, “Plunging Prices Mean Building New Renewable Energy Is Cheaper Than Running Existing Coal” Forbes (3 Dec. 2018) available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2018/12/03/plunging-prices-mean-building-new-renewable-energy-is-cheaper-than-running-existing-coal/#7ced989c31f3.

[14] See https://www.myfortbend.com/local/1800-acre-solar-farm-to-be-built-in-fort-bend-county/.