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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Public Service Commission takes a stand against coal
Even the inclusion of biomass doesn't save Cassville plant
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Michael Vickerman: 'It's really a bridge back to the 1950s.'
Michael Vickerman: 'It's really a bridge back to the 1950s.'

Katie Nekola couldn't be happier. On Tuesday, the state Public Service Commission voted 3-0 against Alliant Energy Corporation's controversial $1.26 billion electrical generating plant in Cassville, Wis.

"Today's historic decision will help move our state toward a strong clean-energy economy," says Nekola, energy program director for Clean Wisconsin, which has fought Alliant's application to construct the coal plant since February 2007. "Stopping dirty coal plants is critical to reducing global warming pollution and creating jobs by paving the way for alternatives like wind, solar and smart biomass technology."

It was the first-ever rejection by state regulators of a new coal-burning power plant. But what makes the decision even more noteworthy is that this was not an ordinary coal plant.

Alliant touted it as an environmental advance, one that would lower costs to ratepayers while using a renewable, "greener" fuel. It would burn up to 20% biomass, which includes things like corn stalks, wood pellets and switchgrass, along with 80% coal and petroleum coke (also called pet coke, a byproduct of crude oil refineries).

The PSC called the Cassville plant "the wrong project at the wrong time," saying it would cost too much and cause too much pollution. One commissioner said it would be "irresponsible" to approve a coal plant given the likelihood of new federal controls on greenhouse gases.

Alliant spokesman Rob Crain calls the decision disappointing but vows that the company will continue to offer plans to boost electricity production in Wisconsin.

"We're certainly disappointed," says Crain, "in terms of the economic development these jobs were going to bring [to Cassville] in these tough economic times." He sees it as an "opportunity lost in regards to the development of the biomass market."

But Alliant is striving to be magnanimous in defeat. "This was a difficult decision for the regulators, and we understand that," says Crain. "We respect their decision and look forward to working with them to come up with solutions that they feel are more viable."

Alliant will wait until PSC's formal written decision comes out in December before deciding what it will do. A legal appeal of the ruling is among the options. "However," says Crain, "as we sit here today, I would say that it would be unlikely that we would appeal."

Why no appeal? "The bottom line is, we need to move forward. One thing that this record did confirm was that [Alliant subsidiary] Wisconsin Power and Light has the need for additional base-load power. So we need to move forward...in finding what that mix will be."

The Cassville plant, known as Nelson Dewey 3, or NED 3, would have produced 300 megawatts of electricity. (A megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts, enough to power 1,000 average-size homes.) That would make it the most expensive generating plant ever proposed for Wisconsin, and possibly the entire U.S.

Alliant said the plant was needed because of a steady increase in electric usage. But critics questioned the need for a coal plant against other alternatives.

"They talked about this being a hybrid plant," says Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. "But they're using yesterday's combustion technology. It's really a bridge back to the 1950s."

Vickerman and others doubted whether the plant could achieve its 20% biomass goal. And even if it did, NED 3 would still have burned millions of tons of coal and pet coke over its operating life.

"The 80% coal and pet coke fuel mixture would still emit more global warming pollutants than even a straight coal plant of a different design," Nekola told Isthmus prior to the vote. "This at a time when we've recognized - as a state and a region - that we absolutely have to reduce carbon emissions to begin to do something about global warming. Other states are denying coal plants. This would be going against the tide."

Both sides ran radio ads in support of their positions. Alliant hired Madison environmentalist Brett Hulsey, a county supervisor, to advocate for the plant, much to the dismay of his former associates at the Sierra Club (Madison.gov, 10/31/08).

The plant did have considerable support in Cassville, in Grant County, largely because of the promise of jobs to build and run the plant, and, for area farmers, the promise of markets for biomass crops. Crain said the company was "fully committed to developing" the local biofuel market.

But critics argued that there wasn't enough biomass in the region to sustain the 20% goal, so much of the biomass would have to be transported by truck or train to Cassville, burning substantial energy in the process.

"Biomass gets very expensive as you transport it longer and longer distances," says Vickerman. "It's going to be very expensive, much more expensive than some of the coal they'd be burning there."

Armed with such arguments, the critics generated a vast amount of public opposition to the plan. "I've never seen public comment that thick," remarked one commissioner, holding up a stack of pages. "This is really significant."

NED 3 would have employed what's known as a "fluidized bed boiler," which would allow using a flexible mixture of fuels. But in most respects, NED 3 would have been a rather traditional boiler operation, in which water is heated to create the steam needed to drive the turbines that produce electricity.

Different and better designs do exist. Alliant's own analysis of its other options includes refurbishing a generating plant at Neenah to burn natural gas and run what is known as a "combined cycle."

Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, says changing this option would not only be more environmentally friendly, it would also be cheaper: around $400 million versus the estimated $1.26 billion price tag of NED 3. (Crain says this option was looked at but rejected.)

Ironically, says Higley, it may be in Alliant's best interest to spend as much money as possible. Given the laws under which they operate, electric generating utilities can only charge a fixed amount for the actual electricity they produce. But they can add substantial increases to those charges when they invest in infrastructure like new power lines and new generating plants.

The only thing that stands in their way is the PSC's regulatory authority.

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