Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Wiscasset scouted for power plant

Portland Press Herald
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Three separate investment groups are considering Wiscasset as a possible site for a new kind of power plant that would burn gas extracted from coal.

All three groups are looking at the same parcel: the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant property.

One group, made up of people with ties to the coal industry, visited the site in September and met with state and local officials. That group plans to return again this winter, said Mark Bigge, a Bath entrepreneur who recruited the investors.
The other two groups invest in energy projects around the world, said Poe Cilley, marketing director for Point East, which owns the parcel. She said all three groups have contacted the company in recent months.

"It would be a great thing for Wiscasset if we can get it," Cilley said.
No group has submitted a plan.

The 430-acre site does not include the section that housed the nuclear reactor dome, which was on Bailey Point, a peninsula that juts into the Sheepscot River.

Investors are looking for sites in the Northeast to build coal gasification plants because they stand to make a lot of money if they get one approved, said Rich Silkman of Competitive Energy Services, an energy broker and consultant. He said the region is dependent on natural gas, which is an expensive fuel. Coal, though, is cheap and plentiful.

"Anything you can do that is cheaper than natural gas looks attractive to some degree or another as a source of electric power," Silkman said.

Rather than burning coal directly, the gasification plant would break down coal into its basic chemical constituents, using hot steam and carefully controlled amounts of air or oxygen under high temperatures and pressures. Under these conditions, carbon molecules in coal break apart, setting off chemical reactions that typically produce a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and other gaseous compounds, according the U.S. Department of Energy.

The process extracts sulfur, either in liquid or solid form, so it can be sold commercially to chemical companies.

This new technology is being pushed by the Bush administration as a cleaner alternative to traditional coal-fired power plants. There are now only two small "demonstration" plants using the technology, but several large power plants are under consideration around the U.S.

The plants would still produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and it's unlikely that a gasification plant would ever win approval in New England because of the region's strong political interest in reducing greenhouse emissions, said Steve Hinchman, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.

"A new coal plant -- even if it's clean coal -- in Wiscasset is neither a good environmental or economic decision," he said.

Bigge said investors are looking at building a plant that could produce 600 megawatts. The natural gas-fueled Westbrook Energy Center is rated at 540 megawatts, enough to power a half-million homes.

The Wiscasset site is attractive because a plant could make use of the electrical transmission infrastructure that connected Maine Yankee to New England's power grid, Bigge said. In addition, the site is served by rail and has access to deep water. The coal could be shipped to the site by train or barge.

Also, he said, Wiscasset residents and officials are familiar with the benefits of having a power company pick up most of the town's tax bill, so support for a proposal there would be stronger than in other towns.

Former Town Manager Andrew Gilmore, who met with some investors in September, said the response in Wiscasset would be mixed. But if the technology is as clean as its promoters say it is, he said, most residents would support the plant once they learned more about it.

Neither Bigge nor Cilley would identify the investors. They said the cost of such a plant would be more than $1 billion.

In New England, demand for power is expected to outstrip supply within five years, Silkman said, and the region must boost its electrical capacity to keep rates competitive with the rest of the nation.

But Hinchman, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said investing in energy efficiency projects is a cheaper solution than building new power plants.

Maine has a surplus of electricity and will not see any significant benefits from new plants built in Maine, said Kurt Adams, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be reached at 791-6369 or at

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