SATSOP – Built in the shadow of two long-abandoned nuclear power plants, two gas-fired turbines and a companion steam generator hummed along – but not exactly quietly – Monday on a rare, blue-sky afternoon.
Inside the control room of the Grays Harbor Energy Center on Fuller Hill near Elma, the monitor told plant operators that about 550 megawatts of electricity – enough to power about 425,000 homes – pulsed from the plant into a Bonneville Power Administration transmission line erected some 30 years ago to serve the Washington Public Power Supply System’s Satsop nuclear plants.
Those controversial nuclear plants succumbed to cost overruns, mismanagement and a deflated Northwest energy market in the early 1980s, long before they were completed.
By comparison, the Satsop gas-powered plant has been low-profile and running in near anonymity for two years – except for complaints from nearby neighbors irritated by noise and, to a lesser extent, air pollution.
When WPPSS faded from the Satsop scene, the consortium of public utilities left a lot of land, water supply and infrastructure behind to support a gas-fueled power plant, Invenergy plant manager Todd Gatewood said.
Duke Energy secured state permits to build the plant, but pulled the plug on the partially built project in 2002, an event eerily similar to what happened to the WPPSS plants.
Invenergy, a Chicago-based company heavily invested in gas and wind power projects, seized on an opportunity.
“Duke Energy had a fire sale on these combustion turbines and we bought the project,” Gatewood said of the 2005 purchase by Invenergy for $210 million.
Today, Invenergy is looking at an energy future when Satsop and other similar high-efficiency gas-fueled plants will operate nimbly and reliably enough to fill in the power demand gaps that occur with less dependable but environmentally friendly wind and solar power.
“Wind produces better at night than day,” noted Invenergy business development director Brett Oakleaf. “A plant like Satsop can be a backup for green power.”
“We’re going to need that – gas can fill in the holes in the energy load when the wind isn’t blowing,” Olympia energy economist Jim Lazar agreed.
Confident that the economy will rebound and some coal plants around the nation will stop producing power because of pollution problems, Invenergy wants to double its power-producing capacity at Satsop by adding two combustion turbine generators and a single steam generator.
“There is some need for more natural gas plants as coal plants go down,” said Nancy Hirsh, policy director of the NW Energy Coalition. She said the high efficiency gas plants such as Satsop have one-half to one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions of a coal plant.
It could be anywhere from one to 10 years before Invenergy would begin work on the roughly $400 million project, Oakleaf said. First, it needs a permit from the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council and next it would need customers for its electricity.
Those customers could be far-flung or here in the region. Power from the existing plant sells on the open market, which means the electricity goes to Southern California or other power markets outside the Northwest.
NEIGHBORS AND NOISE
Many of the 30 or so neighbors who live within a mile of the Satsop project are none too thrilled about the existing plant, let alone plant expansion.
“They need to do something about the noise,” said Keys Road resident and teacher Antha Holt. “It’s waking us up at night.”
“This is like a Chinese torture test,” Keys Road resident Doug Taylor wrote in a letter to EFSEC, urging the council to reject the expansion request. “The only way we can deal with this noise is to stay inside our houses or get into our cars and leave the area for sort of relief.”
Taylor said the owners of the Satsop project have been insensitive to neighbors’ concerns.
“They haven’t even tried to be a good neighbor,” he said.
Gatewood said Invenergy has started to reach out to the neighbors to work on the noise problem. Company officials hosted neighbors at the plant last Saturday for a tour and question and answer session. Five neighbors participated.
“I’m not denying that the neighbors are bothered by the noise,” Gatewood said.
Invenergy has conducted noise studies, which have concluded the sound emanating from the plant is within legal limits.
As part of the review for an expansion permit, EFSEC will require an audit of the plant to look for ways to curb noise. The state agency will hire an independent acoustical engineer to review the company noise studies and recommend further steps to reduce decibel levels from the plant, EFSEC project manager Jim La Spina said.
And at its April 13 meeting in Olympia, EFSEC could sign an order putting the project on a fast track for a permit decision. Once EFSEC makes a recommendation, the council will forward it to the governor, who will have 60 days to take action, EFSEC compliance manager Stephen Posner said.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444