Coal plant expansion ignites debate

A proposed expansion of the Oak Creek Power Plant, set to be decided by Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission by Nov. 10, sparked debate at public hearings last week.

Thad Nation, spokesman for WE Energies, said the current plant, which has four units, needs to be expanded by three more units because of demand for electricity growing in Wisconsin by approximately 3 percent per year. The expansion is part of WE Energies’ “Power the Future” plan, announced in September 2000.

According to a plan overview, it is a “comprehensive approach to address electricity supply and reliability issues” for customers. The plan includes many measures already implemented, including replacing coal-based generating units at the Port Washington Power Plant with natural gas-based units and increasing programs using wind, solar and biomass renewable energy sources.

The Oak Creek plant expansion is the last part of the plan — the part causing the most controversy.

“Many of our members testified (at public hearings) to oppose it,” said Caryl Terrell, chapter director of the Wisconsin Sierra Club, a national non-profit environmental group. “It would be the seventh largest coal plant in the U.S.”

Terrell said she was concerned with increased air pollution more units at the coal plant would create.

“Air pollution affects the way people breathe,” she said. “This is not just a sick person’s concern. Healthy people are going to have respiratory problems, too.”

The plan calls for building the new units to the highest environmental standard and putting controls on existing power plants, Nation said. It would cut pollution from WE Energies’ power plants by 65 percent.

“When you begin to look at coal technology, even the cleanest is not clean,” Terrell said.

Both Terrell and Cynthia Georgeson, representative for Responsible Energies for South Eastern Wisconsin’s Tomorrow, said they would like to see natural gas used more.

“A coal plant, with this plan, costs three times more to build than a gas plant,” Georgeson said. She said WE Energies is willing to pay more because it will be the ratepayers who pay for the construction in the form of higher bills.

Nation agreed rate payers will pay for the project. Over the next 10 years, the average customer bill will inacrease by $4 to pay for the $4.3 billion project. He said a natural gas plant would be cheaper, but the price of natural gas would push the cost to the rate payer significantly higher.

The expansion has to come in the form of a coal plant because of what is demanded from it, being a base load plant, he said.

“A base load plant provides the majority of electricity you use,” he said. “They run 24 hours a day.”

Intermediate plants run at periods of high use, such as the end of the day when businesses and homes are using power at the same time. Peaker plants only run during the absolute highest usage times. The Oak Creek plant is a base load plant.

“No one builds base load plants for natural gas,” he said.

The only options for efficient base load plants are coal plants or nuclear plants. Under current Wisconsin law, new nuclear plants are not an option until a designated place for waste is established, he said.