AUSTIN — If there was ever a good time to turn on a power plant, this week would’ve been it.

As millions of Texans suffered this week during historic winter storms and catastrophic power outages, Austin officials left a $1 billion power plant completely offline.

According to local news KXAN, Austin’s East Texas biomass power plant—a facility that burns wood waste to generate more than 100 megawatts of power—was not turned on a single time over the past week.

It could have powered more than 20,000 homes.

An Austin Energy spokesman said the plant was turned off because they switched the facility last year to only seasonal use.

“On May 19, 2020, Austin Energy notified ERCOT [the state government’s now highly disdained power grid management agency] that the utility will suspend year-round operations at the Nacogdoches Biomass Power Plant and shift instead to seasonal, summer operations running from May 15 to October 15,” Austin Energy said in an email Friday morning.

“Seasonal operation will allow Austin Energy to use the biomass plant more efficiently—it will simplify operational planning,” they added.

Following KXAN’s report and this article’s publication, Austin Energy provided an additional statement to the local station on why they didn’t turn on the facility.

“Reactivating the plant was considered but determined to be unfeasible due to the time needed to return it to service,” they wrote, saying the plant was in a “safe storage or protective mothball state during off periods.”

However, they still did not specify when they considered reactivating the facility or how long it takes to fire up the plant.

Environmental activist Paul Robbins questioned Austin officials’ original response, saying though he did not know how much time was needed to prepare the plant, the state’s looming historic winter storm would’ve seemed like an appropriate time to turn it on.

“Maybe ERCOT thought they had it under control, and maybe it was not possible given the short emergency time, but it would seem to me that this (power plant) should be on call in emergencies like this,” said Robbins.

Austin’s biomass power plant has been a monstrous disaster ever since the idea originally began in 2008. The $2.3 billion 20-year contract plan was widely derided for a lack of planning and transparency with the public, as well as preposterous costs.

Austin’s Democrat city officials moved forward with the project regardless, and over the next several years spent roughly $1 billion on the plant—building it, maintaining it, then disastrously purchasing it in 2019 to avoid even greater financial calamity—all for the plant to only produce energy for two months.

“They can’t say they couldn’t know [the risk they were taking],” said Trey Salinas with Coalition for Clean Affordable Renewable Energy, “because they were told.”

Despite city officials throwing $1 billion of citizens’ money down a black hole over the years, they had a critical opportunity this week to use the plant and deliver vital, long-awaited help to freezing citizens.

Even then, nothing.

With citizens across Texas in an uproar at state government officials for their lack of energy preparedness and mishandling of the power crisis, and with the Texas Legislature currently in session, concerned Austinites are encouraged to contact their city council member, state representative, senator, and the governor.

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.


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