Think Texas, think oil? Not always. About half of the state's electricity is generated from lignite, a low-sulfur soft coal. Not long ago, before Gov. William Clements, utilities officials, press, and local guests, the huge maw of a pickup-truck-size bucket (with walking- around room for two men) on a two-2,250-horsepower dragline trailing an 8,000-foot extension cord, brought up the 100 millionth ton of lignite from the Monticello plant in Mount Pleasant, a two- hour-drive from Dallas.
The Texas Utilities Company System by contract for the joint owners, Dallas Power & Light (DP&L), Texas Power & Light (TP&L) , and Texas Electric Service Company (Tesco), operates Monticello and two other plants that stand on the three formations of lignite crossing the state from northeast to southwest.
Mining was begun for the joint owners at Big Brown, near Fairfield in Freestone County, in 1971, but lignite exploration was actually begun in 1948 when officials of TP&L became uneasy about the increasing cost and difficulties of acquiring natural gas.
Utilization of the coal, which cannot convert to car or plane fuel, has risen from 9 percent use for electricity in Texas in 1976 to a predicted 41 percent in 1981.
Lignite reserves in the state, equivalent to 20 million barrels of petroleum, are twice the estimated reserves of oil and gas, Governor Clements told the hard-hatted ceremony attendants who were standing on the cover dirt from which the "overburden" of dirt had been removed to expose the lignite vein.
From 1971 through the 100 millionth ton, said Texas Utilities chief executive officer Louis Austin, about 130 billion net kilowatt- hours of electricity were generated for customers of the three utilities.
The cost was about $1.5 billion less than that of market-price natural gas.
At the Martianlike generating plant, with its boggling complexities of coils, stacks, and structures, lignite is received from rail cars loaded at a pulverizing silo at the rate of 100 tons a minute. Also mounded in small mountains is the silver-gray lime which is used to "scrub the air" of the 6/10th of 1 percent sulfur.
Utilities people shake their heads at the 20 percent added cost for cleaning the air which, they say, is passed on to customers.
Other irksome regulations, they say, have extended plant-building time from four years to 10, now that 26 instead of 4 permits are required. As far back as 1926, lignite was mined near Malakoff, Texas, for electricity production when TP&L became concerned about unstable oil prices.
But when natural gas became available in the 1930s at 3 1/2 cents per 1,000 cubic feet, Texas Utilities plugged in to the era of cheap oil and gas and shut down the lignite plants.
Today, says Governor Clements, Texas is the No. 1 producer of lignite coal. But it alone won't do the job, he adds. The governor says that nuclear plants such as the nearly completed Commanche Peak plant in Glen Rose, near Dallas, are needed as well as the "composite from wind and solar."
Most important, he asserts, "is to get the government out of the energy business and let private enterprises do the job."