The state's capital began receiving electricity Wednesday from a Nacogdoches County facility that is the nation's largest biomass-fueled energy generating plant.
Nacogdoches Generating Facility, which sits on 165 acres in the small town of Sacul, went online to serve the growing energy needs of Austin. Southern Power, based in Birmingham, Ala., operates the plant and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co. The companies held an event Wednesday to celebrate the plant's start of commercial operation and to thank local and state officials who helped make it possible.
“I'd like to officially invite you to the largest biomass facility in the United States, and we believe, in North America,” Oscar Harper, president and chief executive officer of Southern Power, told the crowd. “It represents significant investment in this community.”
The company made a $500 million investment in the local community and created more than 1,000 jobs during construction, Harper said. The company expects to pay $58 million in state and local taxes within the next year, he added.
Southern Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Fanning said the plant will generate more than $5 million a year in salaries and benefits for its employees.
There were about 100 local jobs created for service contractors, such as maintenance, and an additional 25 for fuel supply and operations, Southern Co. spokesman Steve Higginbottom said.
“It's important for us to meet the needs of our customers,” Fanning said. “We are proud to be here.”
“From Day 1, we felt completely welcome in this community,” he said after the ceremony. “It takes a whole lot of effort by a whole lot of people to make a project like this magnitude a success.”
He said it is clear Texas is a growing economy, but to meet the growing demands, the company must make sure there are energy providers that can ensure clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy.
Fanning said the plant “recycles wood waste in a clean and environmentally responsible way.”
“This is the newest technology in this part of the renewable sector in the United States and it just happens to be, as Texas loves, the biggest,” he said.
Harper said the plant is capable of producing around-the-clock energy. The project started with Austin Energy taking a bold step toward an alternative energy portfolio. “This plant would not be possible without Austin Energy,” he said.
Larry Weis, general manager of Austin Energy, commended Southern Co. for bringing the project online on time, on budget and with no injuries.
“I was told at 9:25 this morning it was dispatched,” Weis said. “The power is flowing to our consumers.”
From the generating plant, 100 megawatts goes into the much larger energy supply purchased by Austin Energy for its customers. The capacity of the Nacogdoches Generating Facility is dedicated to Austin Energy on a 20-year contract, Higginbottom said.
“We don't speculate” by building a plant before finding customers, he said. “We have a customer; we build a plant to meet their needs.”
Weis said Austin Energy's goal is to use renewable energies for 35 percent of all the energy it supplies to its consumers by 2020. It is well on its way, and Southern Co. will help it obtain its goal, he said, adding that Austin Energy also uses solar and wind to generate its energy.
Harper recognized state and local officials for their help in making the facility possible. Rep. Wayne Christian, Rep. Chuck Hopson and Sen. Robert Nichols joined the group of about 80 people beneath an air conditioned tent overlooking the plant.
Nichols said the company buying 1 million tons of fuel annually, in addition to creating jobs and investing in the community, “will have a huge impact on our region.”
Nichols said that as the state's population grows, it must have energy, and Texas wants an alternative fuel portfolio. “Thanks for helping us achieve that role,” he added.
“In the next session I can brag we have the biggest biomass facility in the U.S. here in Nacogdoches, and it runs the lights of government,” he said.
Alders said economic development first came to Sacul more than 100 years ago with the addition of a rail stop. Now, Southern Co.'s facility is “providing renewed energy to Nacogdoches County.”
Fanning said a biomass plant has to have a fuel source and “within a 75-mile radius, we have decades of fuel available to us.”
He said the generating facility could potentially use municipal wood waste. When residents clear their yards after a storm or trim their trees, if that debris is collected by cities in the area as municipal wood waste, they could use that to create energy at their plant.
They also will use pre-forestry trimmings, such as when a forester with a commercial timber operation trims its trees to make them grow better. Instead of leaving the waste in the field to rot or burning it in an uncontrolled environment, it could be brought to the facility and burned in a controlled environment, reducing emissions and generating electricity in the process, Higginbottom said.
He said Southern Co. uses natural gas but has to have a diverse fuel supply to guard against supply spikes, such as when the price of natural gas changes. A diverse fuel portfolio should include nuclear, natural gas, renewables such as biomass, wind and solar, and energy conservation.
“I think the commission of the nation's largest biomass facility is strategically important for the United States,” Fanning said. “It's certainly great for the benefit of the citizens of this area and our customers in Austin. But the country has to make a commitment to renewable as part of our energy portfolio for the future.”
Projects such as the Nacogdoches Generating Facility can help by using U.S. resources and re-boosting the country's economy, he said. Southern Co. is heavily invested in nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewable energies and is committed to spending $1 billion in energy efficiency through 2020, Fanning added.
“We need to renew a national emphasis in energy innovation,” he said.
Southern Co. was formed in 1912 and is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year. The company has a saying
Harper announced the company is giving an endowed Southern Power Forestry Scholarship to Stephen F. Austin State University. A scholarship will be given every fall to a student enrolled in the forestry program who lives within 75 miles of the plant or within 75 miles of Austin.
Southern Company is one of the largest generators of electricity in the nation, serving both regulated and competitive markets across the southeastern United States. Southern Company and its subsidiaries have been serving the Southeast for more than 100 years. Southern Company has 4.4 million customers and more than 42,000 megawatts of generating capacity, according to www.southerncompany.com.