Just before 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning, a hard-hat-clad tour group entered the control center of Sherman’s new combined-cycle natural gas power plant. A lone worker sat watch over a dozen computer screens, each detailing some aspect of the 750-megawatt-rated facility’s operations.

Just before 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning, a hard-hat-clad tour group entered the control center of Sherman’s new combined-cycle natural gas power plant. A lone worker sat watch over a dozen computer screens, each detailing some aspect of the 750-megawatt-rated facility’s operations.


A screen to the worker’s right displayed the bottom line. Each of the plant’s two gas-fired turbines churned away at several thousand revolutions per minute, converting shale-harvested natural gas into 179-megawatts of energy apiece and producing a rush of 1,100-degree exhaust. That hot air, in turn, heated water deep within the facility’s belly, producing steam which powered a separate generator, adding another 194 megawatts to the plant’s output. All told, it was enough power to fulfill the average consumption of 346,784 Texas houses in that instant.


"We have to meet the power needs every second of every day," said Bill Pentak, the man in charge of investor relations for Panda Power Funds, which built and maintains the Sherman plant. "The problem is those power needs are changing every second of every day. And that’s the amazing thing about this industry, is the amount of power supplied has to exactly match the amount of power required, or the grid doesn’t work."


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While the Panda Sherman power plant now measures its successes in minutes, the group of 200 people who gathered at the 250-acre site Thursday morning measured theirs in years.


The occasion was the plant’s "commissioning," which was less a grand opening — the facility has been generating power for nearly three months now — but more of a reason to celebrate the seven years of negotiations and civic gymnastics required to make the Panda plant a reality.


"I was looking through my files, and the first correspondence I had with Panda was Feb. 22, 2007," said County Judge-elect Bill Magers, who was mayor of Sherman when the city first opened talks with the company. "Days like today are why we get into public service. … People talk a lot about public-private partnerships, but this plant truly is the result of the private sector and the public sector working together. It’s a great positive for (Panda); it’s a tremendous asset for Grayson County."


Panda Sherman will generate an estimated $1.7 billion in local economic impact during its first decade of operation, according to projections provided by the city, with nearly 30 permanent jobs and millions of dollars in property taxes. A tax abatement allowed by the city will slowly recede in the coming years, meaning local officials will have a growing revenue stream from which to draw as time progresses.


The facility will use up to 5 million gallons of Lake Texoma water each day for steam generation, most of which will evaporate into the air through large cooling towers which produce menacing-looking-yet-entirely-harmless plumes of water vapor above the plant. The city will be paid handsomely for each of those gallons, with up to $1 million added to town coffers each year. The water is taken from Sherman’s federally-allotted portion of the Lake, of which it uses only a fraction.


"It’s a tremendous privilege for Sherman to be the home of Panda Power," said Sherman Mayor Cary Wacker. "Not only is Panda literally powering the leading edge for North Texas, it’s also leading the way for a new generation of clean, efficiency energy. … And we are proud that ‘green’ was part of the label on this project."


The pollutants released by the plant are minimal, according to EPA analyses of similar combined-cycle installations, with smog-forming nitrogen oxide the only significant offender. Plant Manager Mark Kadon said Panda Sherman employs a technology called selective catalytic reduction to mitigate those emissions even beyond what is required by federal rules. The process involves spraying a mist of ammonia into invisible exhaust to render a portion of nitrogen oxide molecules inert, Kadon said.


"We monitor our continuous emissions, which is tied to our air permit, to ensure that we’re operating in air compliance at all times," said Kadon.


It all adds-up to a win-win-win-win-win, said speakers at the commissioning ceremony, with Texas, Sherman, Grayson County, Panda and the country as a whole poised to benefit from the new facility. Rep.-elect John Ratcliffe, making his first appearance in the County since his unopposed victory in the the Nov. 4 election, said the partnership between the city of Sherman and Panda should serve as a model for future American energy development.


"The impact of what’s happening here today — the plant that we are commissioning today — should not be understated," said Ratcliffe. "This is one of the most advanced, fastest, cleanest natural gas fuel generating stations in the United States."


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Just before 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the breeze fell somewhere in West Texas, and a wind farm sharply slacked its output. Authorities with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas reacted at their command center in Taylor, sending a signal up to Sherman to respond.


"That’s one of the unique things about this plant here," said Pentak. "It allows us to get up quicker and to come down more quickly, so as the need for electricity ebbs and flows, we can keep with it. … And this plant allows us to do that very, very well."


By the time the tour group left the building a few minutes after it had arrived, Panda Sherman had upped its production by 12,000 megawatts — enough energy to power more than 520,000 compact florescent bulbs. Across North Texas, the lights didn’t so much as flicker in 7,500 homes.