October 2, 2008

Opponents of Expansion Project in Cassville Cite Cost As Stumbling Block

By Paul Snyder

As builders and the village of Cassville tie their economic prayers to the Nelson Dewey Generating Facility expansion, opponents say the project's cost could trump every argument.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin might kill the project based on money before even considering environmental drawbacks or local economic merits, said Peter Taglia, staff scientist for Clean Wisconsin Inc. The environmental group is opposed to Alliant Energy's $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion coal plant expansion, which includes a percentage of power derived from biomass.

"The PSC is on record," he said, "saying it's the most expensive option for a conventional coal plant."

Still, project approval was the prevailing message Monday night at first public meeting the PSC held on the project in the Cassville Elementary School gym. Many residents carried signs reading "PSC Please Say Yes" and "Build it!" They joined local, county and state officials and spokespeople from the energy and construction industries in calling the expansion a shot in the arm for the state's energy baseload and a crutch in tough economic times.

"It's absolutely crucial to economic development," said Mark Reihl, executive director of the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters. "We need this project. It's going to provide a lot of work for carpenters and for builders in general. This kind of work is tough to come by right now."

Several government officials said the expansion must be built despite the cost.

"No plan is perfect," said Jerry Wehrle, Lancaster mayor and president of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. "The project has a high cost, but this part of the state also has ample resources to fuel the biomass component."

The expansion also could be a last stand for the village. Village President Louis Okey said Cassville will die without the project.

Some residents agreed.

"If we don't get this, we're done," said Monte Scholl, owner of the Sand Bar Lounge & Lanes in Cassville. "I've talked to a couple of my friends around the village, and if the PSC says on Dec. 15 that the project isn't going (forward) or they're going to build somewhere else, that's it. We're going to lock up and walk away.

"Last year I was saying it was the worst year of business I'd ever had. This year (is already worse)."

Project proponents said they understand the environmental concerns associated with coal-fired plants, but they argued Alliant promised to produce 20 percent of the plant's energy from biomass. They said even with Gov. Jim Doyle's goal for Wisconsin to produce 25 percent of its energy through renewable resources by 2025, the remaining 75 percent still has to be produced somewhere. The Nelson Dewey expansion, they said, answers that call.

David Williams, a retired librarian who lives in Madison, called that dangerously short-sighted.

"Building this plant would just continue to foster an unsustainable way of life," he said. "We need to produce less energy and spread it around more fairly. The people that talk about how much work construction will provide, why wouldn't building a biomass plant create just as much work?"

It might, but, expansion proponents argue, biomass won't work as a baseload option.

With a moratorium on nuclear plant development, coal remains one of the state's few baseload choices, but Taglia said its days could be numbered and environmental groups won't shy away from their original arguments.

"I get nervous about things, but (Cassville's support for the expansion) isn't one of them," he said. "All over the country, coal is one thing that's just extremely unpopular."

But that might not matter, Taglia said.

"We share (Cassville's) concerns about economic growth," he said. "But why does Alliant move forward saying this is economic salvation? It might not even be affordable."

Originally published by Paul Snyder.

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