Denton's Plan for Renewable Energy Angers Opponents With Its Reliance on Natural Gas

If at first you don't succeed ...EXPAND
If at first you don't succeed ...
Courtesy photo from Blackland Prairie Rising Tide

Environmentalists in Denton were smacked down by the Texas Legislature in their effort to enact a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the city, but they haven't abandoned the fight. If Denton's greens can't stop frackers from drilling wells, then they're ready to go to battle again to stop Denton from burning the natural gas.

As part of its Renewable Denton Plan, the town's City Council wants to invest $265 million to build a gas-fired electricity generation plant whose 12 engines would supplant a coal-fired facility that supplies power to the city now. Proponents say they're a necessary bridge as Denton moves to increase its use of wind and solar energy to meet 70 percent of electricity demand in the future.

Burning coal is a notoriously dirty way to generate electricity. Modern gas-fired plants are much cleaner, and their use can help keep electricity rates stable as Denton takes aim at an ambitious target for renewable energy. What's not to love, for an environmentalist?  

Plenty, particularly among those who led the ballot effort that made Denton the first Texas city to ban fracking in 2014 — for a few months, anyway, until the Legislature passed House Bill 40, nullifying the Denton ordinance before the city had the chance to try to enforce it.

Opponents point out that methane emitted from natural gas production is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide from burning coal. Besides, Denton is merely selling its share of the coal plant in question, not retiring it, which means the plant might keep puffing away even as the city fires up its new natural gas plants.

“The time has come to stop making investments in fossil fuels,” one resident told council members at the June 22 meeting. Despite receiving 900 letters of protest and hundreds of public comments against the proposed power plants, the council voted 4-3 to approve building one power plant with 12 engines at one of two locations: either near the airport in Denton or south of Ray Roberts dam north of Denton.

“It paints a picture of money interest coming before citizens’ interests,” says Hale Baskins, a local Denton artist who submitted a letter of protest and later organized a protest on “Clean Air Action Day” in front of City Hall.

Now protesters are talking about a possible lawsuit to prevent Denton City Council from moving forward with a plan that they say isn’t what Denton residents want.

Introduced to the public in October 2015, the proposed power plant will be one of the cleanest facilities in the country, Denton Municipal Electric spokesperson Brian Daskam told the Observer. It is also efficient, meaning it would use less natural gas to get the same amount of power. He also says while $265 million is a lot of money to drop, they anticipate spending about $2 billion on power over the next two decades. They’re simply trying to shave a few hundred million off the total purchase.

“The Renewable Denton Plan represents the most economical way to procure power for Denton,” he says and cites estimates that switching to natural gas will save Denton taxpayers between $410 million and $975 million over the next 20 years and introduce rate decreases in 2019, according to a study by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm that the city hired.

The natural gas power plant faced opposition from the start from residents, college students, some city officials, a movie star and environmental activists who took part in the fracking ban effort. In March, Keely Briggs, one of the council members who voted against the natural gas power plant, moderated a town-hall style meeting to discuss the risks of using natural gas for electricity. 

A month before the meeting, Harvard researchers published a paper that concluded the nation is bleeding massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Data showed that U.S. methane emissions increased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2014, during the peak frack boom years.

Researchers’ findings come at a time when more and more natural gas plants are appearing on city council agendas across the nation to replace coal plants with what many considered a much cleaner fossil fuel. Austin's City Council recently defeated a proposed natural gas power plant.

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