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Drought adds to 2012 Texas power supply worry

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HOUSTON, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The worst drought in more than 50 years in Texas may limit electric output from power plants next summer, a grid official said on Tuesday.

Texas and Oklahoma, along with parts of Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico are under extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Only one small, 24-megawatt generating unit is currently curtailed due to a lack of adequate cooling water, said Kent Saathoff, vice president of grid operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) told the board Tuesday.

However, a continuation of the severe drought in Texas could result in as much as 3,000 MW being unavailable next summer, Saathoff said.

The drought has lowered the water level at nearly every reservoir in the state, according to the Texas Water Development Board. A lack of cooling water limits the ability of a power plant to operate at full capacity.

'If the drought continues, the effects will worsen,' Saathoff said.

Texas' hottest summer on record pushed power consumption to record levels, straining the state's electric resources on many days in August.

Grid officials and lawmakers are worried that the drought will compound existing issues that threaten to exhaust the state's power supply: looming environmental regulations that will curtail output from coal-fired power plants and a lack of new power-plant investment.

Saathoff said about 434 megawatts would be unavailable next summer if Texas gets about half its normal rainfall over the winter and spring months.

'If there is no significant rainfall, as much as 3,000 MW could be unavailable by May,' Saathoff said.

A weak La Nina pattern is expected to strengthen over the winter, keeping rainfall in the state to about half of normal, said Jerry Paul, senior meteorologist for Thomson Reuters/Weather Insight.

'The larger the geographic area and the stronger the intensity of the drought, the harder it is to break,' Paul said.

Power plant owners are taking steps to increase access to cooling water, Saathoff said, by increasing pumping capacity, adding pipelines to alternate water sources and securing additional water rights.

Earlier this year, as the lack of rain and hotter-than-normal weather began to deplete the Martin Lake Power plant reservoir in Rusk County, Luminant workers rushed to install two pumps ahead of schedule to add water to the lake to keep the 2,250-MW coal plant running at full output over the summer, said Luminant spokeswoman Ashley Barrie.

Over the past few years, Luminant has added more than 8 miles (13 km) of pipeline to pump water to the Martin Lake reservoir from the Sabine River.

Luminant, the state's largest power generator, has seen no generation limitations from the drought so far, Barrie said.

'Maintaining adequate lake levels is essential for safe, reliable electric generation, and it's even more important during times of high summer electric demand,' she said. 'While we can't speculate on the future impacts of this drought, we remain committed to responsible water management practices across all of our sites.'

(Reporting by Eileen O'Grady; Editing by Marguerita Choy)


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