Utility Likely to Opposeby Christopher Schwarzen, Times Snohomish County Bureau
Puget Sound-area energy suppliers say they're less interested in exploring a clean coal-power source proposed by Energy Northwest than other electricity alternatives during the next five years.
Energy Northwest, which operates a variety of electricity plants, including the nuclear Columbia Generating Station and the Nine Canyon Wind Farm in the Tri-Cities area, wants to move forward with a multimillion-dollar study of a coal-gasification plant. The process, which turns coal into a gas, creates less pollution than traditional coal burning does.
Included with the plant is the option for a carbon-sequestering component, which would capture the byproduct carbon dioxide and sink it deep into the ground.
Today, Energy Northwest will ask its members to approve spending $3.5 million on the study, and though it appears to have the votes to move forward, it most likely will lack votes from Tacoma Power, Seattle City Light and the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD).
The technology is still relatively new in the U.S., Energy Northwest proponents acknowledge. Only three plants are operational, but six others are in the works. The closest to Washington would be the proposed 250-megawatt Excelsior Energy project in Minnesota.
For a Washington plant, which likely would be built west of the Cascades and operational by 2011, Energy Northwest proposes two 300-megawatt units -- half for public utilities to use, the other half for private investors.
The energy output for public utilities pales compared with the almost-1,200-megawatt output of the Columbia Generating Station but is more than four times what the Nine Canyon Wind Farm can produce.
Nineteen utilities make up the Energy Northwest board, many relying completely on the Bonneville Power Administration for electricity. With Bonneville's future rates in question, smaller utilities are interested in options that might cut costs.
"We're feeling pretty comfortable that we have a majority of the members who will pass the resolution," said Energy Northwest spokesman Brad Peck.
But larger utilities such as the Snohomish County PUD, Seattle City Light and Tacoma Power say the costs are too high. Though Energy Northwest officials said gasification electricity could sell for $35 to $45 a megawatt-hour -- on par with today's prices -- adding the carbon sequestering would almost double that price.
"That's clearly not economical," said Dave Aldrich, the PUD board chairman. "We should be worried about where our next resource should come from, but you can do lot of conservation for $70 a megawatt-hour."
Winning public support for a coal process few understand seems the death knell at Tacoma Power.
"The fact we're looking at these ideas is a good thing," said Steve Klein, Tacoma Power's superintendent. "But I wish we'd had more dialogue on this option before the vote. I think this would catch a lot of people by surprise."
For City Light, it's as simple as the fact that coal isn't a part of its planned future resources.
"We had a very public process to consider future energy sources," said John Prescott, City Light's power-supply and environmental-affairs officer. "And what plans they produced did not include coal."
Any study would take Energy Northwest into 2006, but a tight timetable has design and construction set for 2007 through 2010. The board members would need to vote again before design and construction could begin.
For Energy Northwest, it's a chance to stay on the leading edge of energy production. But that can come with costs. Energy Northwest, known as the Washington Public Power Supply System in the 1970s and 1980s, defaulted on more than $2 billion in bonds for constructing nuclear power plants.
Still, the public-power entity is excited at the chance to move forward and stay positive.
"We're very optimistic about all this," Peck said.
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