It’s an immutable law of the free world that everything’s bigger in Texas, at least according to many Texans. But even in Texas, some things seem beyond comprehension. And some of the numbers thrown around by a group of Panda Power Funds brass during a tour of the group’s new Sherman power plant Friday, well, they strain the imagination.

It’s an immutable law of the free world that everything’s bigger in Texas, at least according to many Texans. But even in Texas, some things seem beyond comprehension. And some of the numbers thrown around by a group of Panda Power Funds brass during a tour of the group’s new Sherman power plant Friday, well, they strain the imagination.


Two combustion turbines with 330,000 horsepower each — that’s the equivalent of twelve 747 engines. A combined-cycle steam generator that uses 3,600 gallons of Lake Texoma water every minute. Peak capacity natural gas usage of 2 million cubic feet per hour — more than the displacement of the Titanic. The list goes on.


And when the Sherman Panda Power Plant goes operational this summer, the lights will go on, too, in some 750,000 homes across North Texas. It will be a day for which the city has been waiting for more than four years.


Situated within 250 miles of America’s 4th fastest and fastest growing cities in Dallas and Austin, respectively, Panda Power represents a way for Sherman, and the Texoma area at large, to capitalize on the Lone Star State’s population boom, said city officials.


More than a dozen of those officials gathered at Sherman City Hall Friday morning to board a TAPS bus for the 10-minute trip south to Progress Park and Panda Power.


"We’re really in the epicenter up here in North Texas of all of that growth, and we’re thrilled to play a part of it," said Panda Vice President Bill Pentak to the group before beginning the tour. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, the (technology) development has just been amazing. I mean, these plants are more efficient; they’re quieter; they’re smaller; they’re safer; they sip natural gas compared to the way they used to."


Sherman’s combined-cycle natural gas power plant is actually three power plants in one, which together will produce a maximum power output of 758 megawatts when the on-site engineers put the pedal to the floor. The first two of those power plants are a pair of gas-powered turbines that sit in parallel on the plant’s north side. The turbines suck, cool, and clean raw air before mixing it with gas and igniting it to turn the six-figure-horsepower turbines. Together, the two engines comprise the surprisingly straightforward "natural gas" portion of the plant’s title, producing about 60 percent of the facility’s output.


To earn the "combined-cycle" moniker — and the greatly increased power generation efficiency that comes with it — the Sherman Panda plant will employ a massive and massively complicated labyrinth of water-filled pipes inside two, 10-story structures called Heat Recovery Steam Generators, or HRSGs for short. The HRSGs function as a sort of reverse radiator, using the 1100-degree exhaust from the gas turbines to steam water in the pipe system.


The gasified water is then sucked into the third power plant, a separate, steam-powered generator situated to the side of the two gas units. The steam plant provides about 300 of the plant’s 758 megawatts, giving the Panda facility a thermodynamic efficiency rating close to 60 percent. In comparison, a traditional, single-cycle gas plant has an efficiency of around 35 percent, while coal plants struggle to achieve even that number, according to the Energy Information Administration.


"CCGT is the most efficient form of natural gas generation," explained Pentak. "We’re taking heat that would otherwise just be dispersed in the atmosphere and we’re using that. The plant that we’re building here will be one of the most efficient power plants in the United States. This is state-of-the-art technology."


And the cutting edge doesn’t stop there. Texas, for all it’s oil-soaked history and fracking-filled present, actually leads the nation in wind energy by a large margin, with more than twice as much capacity as the next closest state. That fact was not lost on Panda officials when they green-lit the Sherman plant for construction two years ago. Engineers chose a Siemens FP-30 design for the plant, which is renowned for its ability to start in the blink of an eye — comparatively so, at least.


When the West Texas winds lull and the rows of windmills stop spinning, the Sherman plant can cold start in only half-an-hour to pick up the slack. It’s a quick number compared to virtually anything else on the market, said officials. A typical coal plant can take hours with perfect conditions to reach full load, stretching that number into days when the atmospheric mix isn’t quite right.


"We do have the capability that if the wind suddenly stops generating electricity because the wind has stopped blowing, you have to have another power plant that is standing ready to make up for that lost load," said Pentak. "This plant was specifically designed to help the Electric Reliability Council of Texas with those needs."


But efficiency ratings and start times and all those other numbers associated with the Sherman Panda plant are just statistics on promotional fliers until the 800-plus construction workers leave town and the turbines fire up for the first time. It’s a day that should be right around the corner, said Panda officials, as construction has now crossed the 90 percent mark, with a targeted operational date of early July.


For the city of Sherman and its various institutions, it will mean a payday of fairly epic proportions. While the increased property tax revenue will be a hefty haul in and of itself, the bulk of the money will come to the city in the form of payments for water.


The plant reuses each gallon of water five to seven times, which is an exceptionally high rate of reuse compared to older technologies, said Panda. But the water must be quickly cooled after it passes through the steam generator, and evaporation is the most cost- and time-efficient method. The plant will employ 12 evaporative cooling towers that will pump as much as 5.1 million of gallons of water per day into the air in the form of water vapor. It’s likely to be the most visible feature of the plant for Shermanites and those driving on U.S. Highway 75, as the temperature differential between the piping hot vapor and the relatively cool ambient air will frequently create harmless, white plumes over the cooling towers.


The clouds might look suspiciously like dollars and cents to budgeters at Sherman City Hall. The city is providing Panda with a portion of the Lake Texoma water to which it has rights — about 17 percent of the town’s allotment — in exchange for usage fees that could add $1 million each year to city coffers.


Near the power plant, crews constructed a 7-acre, 28-million-gallon holding pond that will provide the power plant with a buffer should the city’s pipeline experience a crisis. In order to treat the salt- and mineral-heavy lake water, Panda created its own on-site treatment plant which purifies the water beyond even drinking standards before pumping it into the HRSGs. When running at its peak, the treatment equipment removes more than 2,000 pounds of minerals every hour.


All this infrastructure is worth quite a bit of money, as one might imagine. While Panda officials refused to reveal exact construction costs beyond Pentak’s vague, "We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars here," the county has initially pegged the value of the plant at $350 million. That valuation will mean money in the bank for Sherman, SISD, Grayson College and the County, each of which will get a cut of Panda’s property taxes.


An estimate provided by the city said Sherman’s share of the money will top $600,000 per year by 2020 when a temporary tax abatement granted by the city expires. Even next year, with the abatement in full effect, the city will recognize an estimated $375,840 in new, ad valorem taxes from the plant. City Manager George Olson said even that early figure would make Panda the largest property tax payer in the city.


Sherman Independent School District Superintendent Al Hambrick said the financial impact on the District won’t be quite as stark. But having a large player like Panda contributing to the tax pool will help keep tax rates low to pay back bonds, he said.


"We are certainly very pleased with the impact this is going to have on the Sherman ISD," said Hambrick after the tour. "We anticipate a one-year infusion of revenue that will certainly impact the District in a positive way on the operating side of our budget. We anticipate an ongoing impact on our debt service side. We haven’t calculated what that will be."


Also ambiguous at this point is what kind of impact the new plant will have the Texoma environment. Natural gas plants in general — and combined-cycle plants specifically — emit a fraction of the pollutants of their coal brethren, without the meltdown and radioactive waste concerns of nuclear power plants.


Specifically, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions from burning natural gas are so low compared to coal that the Environmental Protection Agency calls them "negligible." Carbon dioxide release is about half of what a similarly sized coal plant would produce. Most of the environmental concerns from natural gas occur on the extraction side of the equation, meaning Sherman has outsourced many potentially negative consequences from the plant to Odessa, Ardmore and other drilling sites.


The only emission of real concern for local residents, according to the EPA, is nitrogen oxide, which is dangerous if inhaled in large amounts and has been linked to smog formation. About 20 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States come from power plants, with automobiles producing over half. While exact numbers for the Panda plant were not available, company officials said the plant was engineered to meet not only current standards, but anticipated tighter standards in the future.


"Every power plant’s going to have some emissions, but we had to file for an air permit with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and we had to show them that we were going to be within their standards," said Pentak. "In fact, at this plant, because it’s the newest plant and uses the newest technology, we meet the strictest standards they have. This plant will meet standards for a gas power plant that no other similar-sized gas power plant in the state will be able to meet. So this really is the cleanest of the clean gas power plants, right here."


The Sherman Panda site will employ 27 people when it opens for business this summer, with 17 operators, five maintenance employees, various engineers and managers, a clerk, and General Manager Mark Kadon.


The operations center at the plant, in which a trio of operators has total control via a bank of schematic-clogged computer screens, was designed to accommodate future expansion, said Kadon. While Panda officials were very cautious not to get too far ahead of themselves, adding extra capacity in the future is a possibility, they said.


"It was designed to basically have expansion, room for more control stations," said Kadon. "So there is room for it."


As the tour wound down Friday afternoon, Pentak thanked the group of Sherman leaders for their role in the process — a process he said would never have started if not for their initial and sustained interest.


"As a part of our development efforts, we consider it a fatal flaw in a project if we do not have community support," said Pentak, who juxtaposed Panda’s investment in the local economy with the dire energy needs on the West Coast. "It normally takes about two to three years to develop a power project (before construction begins), and that’s if you’re in Texas. If you’re in California you have to double that number. … What happens is investors look at that and they say, ‘I’m not tying up my money for that long.’ And what we’re seeing is that investors are saying, ‘Why do (California) when I can go to Texas and invest in something that actually gets built and operating.’"


"Built" is nearly in the books. For the city of Sherman, the countdown to "operating" has officially begun.