Energy Company Shies Away
by Don Jenkins
There's a four-letter word that Energy Northwest wishes people wouldn't utter when labeling the power plant it proposes to build at the Port of Kalama: "coal."
Coal suggests mining, smoky skies and what naughty children get for Christmas. Coal also could fuel the 600-megawatt plant.
But Energy Northwest spokesman Brad Peck, the point man in squelching visions of soot-belching smokestacks, said the plant would more likely use petcoke, a byproduct of refining oil, to generate the heat to make electricity.
If coal is used, it would be heated and pressurized into a gas, not burned. The air pollution would be more in line with a natural gas-fired plant, rather than a traditional coal plant.
Calling the project a "coal plant" conjures up images unlike what's actually being proposed, Peck said. "It's more than imprecise. It's totally misleading."
Opponents of the plant, however, say they're calling a coal plant a "coal plant."
They point to what Energy Northwest itself says about the project in documents submitted to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which will recommend, perhaps late next year, to Gov. Chris Gregoire whether to allow the plant. "Their license application says the plant could be fueled by up to 100 percent coal," said Chris McCullough, campaign manager for Initiative 937, a ballot measure that would spur the development of wind power and possibly hamper coal-based plants.
"I think it's a fair characterization to call it a 'coal plant,' " he said.
Energy Northwest, a consortium of public utilities, including Cowlitz PUD, unveiled plans a year ago to build a $1 billion "integrated gasification combined cycle" power plant.
Only plants of its kind have been built in the United States. "I don't think anybody quite knows what to call these things," said Allen Fiksdahl, manager of the energy site council. "People are grasping for labels and no one has come with anything that fits yet."
At the beginning, Energy Northwest said coal from Wyoming and Montana likely would feed the plant, but protested that describing its proposal as a "coal-fired plant" inaccurately described the plant's technology.
Recently, Energy Northwest has moved to further distance itself from coal.
Peck said the plant may be fueled entirely by petcoke because of its low price and ready availability from West Coast and Alberta, Canada, refineries.
"What we've discovered is that petcoke turns out to be a very favorable option," he said. "It's true that circumstances change and a year or two from now it could be different. (But) now we see adequate long-term supplies being available." Petcoke wouldn't significantly change the air-emission profile of the plant, including the amount of global-warming carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But petcoke doesn't have to be dug from the earth.
Petcoke also is less likely than coal to provoke a negative reaction --- if it provokes a reaction at all.
Peck said opponents of the plant persist in calling it a "coal plant" to denigrate the project.
The plant also could run on natural gas, which is currently more expensive than coal or petcoke. Peck said a thoroughly accurate description would include all three fuels.
"To describe it with any one fuel source ignores what is the chief advantage of the technology," he said.
For something not impossibly cumbersome, Peck suggested calling the plant a "petcoke-fed gasifier," a title that indicates petcoke is the leading candidate to fuel a plant and converts the feedstock into a synthetic gas.
The yes on I-937 campaign this week issued a press release saying that the initiative, which would require utilities to invest more in renewable energy, was an option to building more "coal plants," like the one proposed in Kalama.
McCullough agreed "petcoke plant" would have been just as accurate. Either way, though, the plant would emit between 4.1 million and 4.4 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, he said..
McCullough also said he doesn't blame Energy Northwest for wanting to change the plant's "brand name."
"Coal is not popular. People don't like using coal for energy," he said. "It makes sense to me they want to call it something different."
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