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Wichita Falls will consider selling water to Oklaunion hydrogen plant

Nov 14, 2023Nov 14, 2023

As a stubborn heat wave depletes area lakes and forces residents into water usage restrictions, the Wichita Falls City Council is considering selling a large volume of water to a new “green” hydrogen factory.

Air Products and partner AES Corp. want to build their plant on the site of the now-defunct Oklaunion power plant in Wilbarger County. It’s a $4 billion project whose owners say should be completed in 2027.

Green hydrogen requires shooting an electric current through water to turn it into fuel. Developing hydrogen is a major push of the Biden administration but has encountered opposition from groups that say the attempt to reduce carbon emissions consumes too much water.

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Before it shut down in 2020, the coal-fired plant at Oklaunion provided electricity to two grids, including the Texas ERCOT grid.

The new plant would make hydrogen fuel as an alternative to diesel for big trucks and for other industrial purposes. Its promoters say it will be the largest facility of its kind in the U.S.

“We’re still evaluating our water needs and working with several partners to finalize sources. We’re also considering water saving techniques such as air cooling to minimize water consumption by the facility,” said Air Products spokesman Art George.

George did not say how much water the plant is requesting or comment on whether it would seek water from other area reservoirs in an emailed response to questions from the Times Record News.

During its 34 years in operation, the old Oklaunion plant bought its water from the city of Wichita Falls and Wichita County Water Improvement District No. 2. The water came from the city's biggest reservoir, Lake Kemp, via its secondary reservoir, Lake Diversion. Although the lakes sit on ranchland owned by sports franchise multi-billionaire Stan Kroenke, the city and water district have held water rights for a century.

Negotiations on the sale of water to the hydrogen people involve contracts, legalities and lawyers and have been conducted behind closed doors with city councilors and staff. How much water the plant operators want and what they would pay for it is hush-hush at the moment, but the City Council may vote on the contract this month.

Wichita Falls Mayor Stephen Santellana said he always has concerns about the city's water supplies in times of drought, but could not comment on the hydrogen facility because negotiations are held in closed executive sessions.

While the old coal-fired plant was in operation, the city and water district sold it up to 20,000 acre-feet of water per year.

To put that in perspective, that figure represents about one-tenth of the capacity of Lake Kemp when it’s full. Right now, it is about 75 percent full and during the major drought of 2010-2015 it dropped to just 18 percent of capacity.

The city also uses water from Lake Kemp. Although it is too salty for human consumption through normal processing, the city runs it through reverse osmosis equipment and blends it with Lake Arrowhead water to make it potable.

Lake Kemp typically provides 10 to 20 percent of the city’s drinking water supply. During summers and droughts, the city uses about 160 million gallons of Lake Kemp water per month to augment the supply from lakes Arrowhead and Kickapoo. The volume is lower in cooler months.

About 45,000 acre feet of Lake Kemp water goes for agricultural irrigation.

Even though the old power plant has been closed for three years, the current owners have continued to pay the water bill even though very little water has been used. That has given lakes Kemp and Diversion a much needed break. Because they are so old, sedimentation has taken a toll. Lake Kemp has about half the storage capacity it once had and loses about 900 acre feet per year to sedimentation, according to the Texas Water Development Board.