Located in Earth, Texas, Plant X is a steam electric power plant owned and operated by Southwestern Public Service Company, which is a subsidiary of Xcel Energy. The plant is in Lamb County, an area that includes partially vegetated sand hills. The name of the plant has a unique beginning. During the time the plant was being designed, the general practice was to name the plant after its location. However, no specific location was assigned during the initial stages of the plant design process. Engineers referred to the plant as Plant X, and the name stuck after the plant was completed.
An employee in the Division of Ground Water of the Geological Survey recommended the Southwestern Public Service Company build the new power plant in the Sand Hills area of Lamb County. This came after the president Southwestern announced plans to build a power plant on the high plains of Llano Estacado. After determining that there was a significant amount of saturated freshwater beneath the Sand Hills, the plant was built in Lamb County.
The primary power source at Plant X is natural gas. However, fuel is also used as an alternative energy source. There are four operating units at Plant X. The first unit started in 1952, producing 48 megawatts. In 1953, the second unit was added with a production rate of 102 megawatts. The third unit was built in 1955 with a 103 megawatt production capacity. Finally, unit four has the production power of 189 megawatts and has been in operation since 1964. In total, the power production capability is 442 megawatts at Plant X.
Plant x was designed as a zero discharge facility to maximize the efficiency of water use. As a result, no process waters are discharged from the plant site. Engineers also developed a recycling system that reduces water use at the plant. A pipeline sends used water from plant operations to the Tolk Station for treatment and recycling. Tolk Station is a coal-fired power plant located about nine miles west of Plant X. This results in a combined water consumption reduction of about 180 million gallons each year.
Even with these precautions, Plant X consumes groundwater in large quantities. The generation and discharge of steam, along with water evaporation from the cooling towers causes a significant level of groundwater extraction. Combined groundwater pumping and water extraction has decreased the levels beneath the Sand Hills. This has also caused most natural springs to stop flowing normally, with some spring-fed lakes having completely dried up.
In addition to the plants impact on the water resources of the area, the plant’s age means that its construction likely saw the use of several materials that threatened employees. One of those materials is asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral valued for its ability to insulate boilers, wiring and even the ceilings, floors and walls of these facilities. That ability to insulate against heat, fire and electricity meant it was used in virtually all plants before regulations began in the 1970s. What makes this material so dangerous is its tendency to fragment into sharp particles that then enter the air where they can easily be ingested or inhaled, letting them collect in the body. Once embedded in the tissue layer surrounding organs, the mesothelium, these fibers cause scarring and irritation that eventually leads to the development of several serious diseases. Among them are asbestosis and mesothelioma.