Proposed coal-fired power plant in Mat-Su draws protest

Emotions flare over Matanuska Electric Association plan

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Hit the switch and the lights go on. That simple act is such a habit that few think about where their power comes from.

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Until someone suggests plunking down a coal-burning plant in their neighborhood, near their cabin or their favorite fishing hole. Then it's the talk of the town.

That's the scene in Mat-Su these days.

Plans by Palmer-based Matanuska Electric Association to build two 100-megawatt power plants, the first powered by coal and the other by natural gas, have heated up emotions in the Valley.

The issue flared last month when MEA officials sent out 41,000 advisory ballots, asking members to rank five potential sites of the two plants. Ballots will be counted today.

Protesters have paraded outside MEA offices.

One MEA member is pushing for a recall of MEA board president Lee Jordan and board member David Dahms.

"The basic issue is nobody wants a coal plant in their backyard," said Jim Sykes of Lazy Mountain, a founder of the Green Party of Alaska.

"But regardless of where they put the coal plant, everybody is going to be affected by it, by the coal dust from coal piles and wherever the train takes the coal, it blows. And you know what kind of winds we have here."

Sykes also is president of UtilityWatch, a group fighting the MEA plans.

That kind of talk by Sykes is mostly spin, counters Dahms. What people don't understand about the utility's plans, he said, is that "this is not your father's coal plant." New technology means the plant would operate much cleaner than the pollution belching coal-fired plants of generations past, Dahms and other MEA officials said.

MEA is the only utility along the Railbelt, which stretches from Homer to Fairbanks, without the ability to generate the power its customers need. MEA is part owner of the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project, which guarantees up to 19.5 megawatts. But MEA's peak demand is 130 megawatts. As a result, MEA gets most of the power for its customers from Anchorage's Chugach Electric Association.

Chugach and other utilities have discussed uniting to build a power plant that would serve them all. Unlike MEA, the other utilities would control other significant power sources for backup.

"We have to have our local generation plant first so if the big plant goes down, we have ability to keep lights on here in the Valley," said Tuckerman Babcock, MEA human resources manager.

Sykes said MEA should have asked its members to vote on what kind of power plants they want, just as it asked them to vote on where to put the plants.

More than 260 people agreed with Sykes. Those MEA members took extra steps to send their advisory ballots to UtilityWatch this week, many with "no coal" scrawled across the front, rather than return the ballots to MEA to be counted.

"We should have a new plan. We need to explore all the options, from alternative to synergy with other utilities," said Pete Houston, president of the MEA Ratepayers' Alliance, another group actively fighting MEA coal plans.

MEA spokeswoman Lorali Carter said holding a ballot vote on future generation for a 41,000-member utility is a stretch.

It's one thing to ask your members where to put a power plant, she said, but quite another to ask them to choose among different, very technical power-generation choices. Even the MEA board relied on experts to make that decision, she said.

In deciding to pursue building its own power plants and to make one of them coal-fired, MEA relied on a $130,000, 70-page report _ the Integrated Resource Plan _ prepared by engineering consultant CH2M Hill. The board has released only a 10-page summary of the report, fueling criticism from members who want to see the full report so they can understand how CH2M Hill reached its conclusions.

The proposed plant would use a "clean-coal" technology _ called fluidized-bed technology _ that is relatively new to big power plants. It and a natural-gas plant would go online by 2015 and together they would provide 200 megawatts of electricity. Another 26.5 megawatts would come from renewable energy sources, according to Babcock.

Electricity from coal would cost $60 per megawatt, based on estimates for coal purchased in Healy and shipped by rail. Power from a gas-fired plant would run $77 per megawatt, Babcock said.

Fluidized-bed technology burns cleaner than earlier coal-fired plants because the sulfur left after burning the coal is combined with lime to create a solid rather than a gas. The solid is trucked away for disposal rather than blown up smokestacks into the air, according to the U.S. Department of Energy

It's not clear yet how MEA would pay for the new plants. MEA administrators are still looking at options.

Created in 1941, MEA is the state's oldest electric cooperative - cooperatives are owned by their customers. In 1950 it first contracted for its power supply with fledgling Chugach Electric. In 1987, MEA signed a 25-year contract to buy wholesale power from that utility.

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