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Walker’s request brings uncertainty to Charter Street Heating Plant

By James Briggs

If Gov.-elect Scott Walker wants to radically redraw plans to convert a Madison power plant, the contractor behind the project would sure like to know what the changes entail.

The Boldt Co., Appleton, is waiting for clarification on what Walker meant last week when he requested in a letter to the state Department of Administration that “the Doyle administration begin making plans to shift to natural gas rather than bio-fuel at the Charter Street Power Plant.”

Boldt is working on a $251 million project that, for now, calls for the Charter Street plant to convert from burning coal to generating power through natural gas and biomass. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2013.

“I’ve really only seen the same things everybody else has seen,” said Jeff Niesen, a project executive for Boldt. “It’s not completely clear to me what they’re asking for. We’re waiting for direction from the Department of Administration — that’s who our contract is with, that’s who we work for, and we’ll take whatever direction they give us.

“Until then,” he said, “we’re working on our official contract terms.”

The DOA did not immediately respond to questions about the power plant on Monday.

Walker’s letter asked the DOA to convert the plant to natural gas instead of biomass. The current plan, though, calls for the burning of both types of fuels. It is unclear whether Walker opposes any inclusion of biomass at the plant.

When asked for clarification, Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie referenced a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report that indicates a biomass boiler would cost $100 million more than a natural gas boiler. Werwie would not say whether Walker opposes biomass capabilities at the plant.

Boldt doesn’t yet know how Walker’s vision for the plant might change the project, Niesen said.

“There’s a number of things that could be done,” he said. “I’d really have to defer what and how that would shake out to DOA at this point.”

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, also said he was unsure what Walker had requested. Hintz, a member of the state Building Commission, said he would bring up the matter with the panel, which meets Wednesday.

The Building Commission approved the project after a 2007 lawsuit by the Sierra Club, which forced the state to upgrade the plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Hintz said he didn’t know if Walker’s letter called for a substantive change in the project, but he hoped biomass would remain in the plant’s future.

“We had to meet the emissions goals, or demands, of the lawsuit, but I think we also wanted to move in a leading direction,” Hintz said. “The state’s been a leader in clean energy, and there’s an emerging industry for biomass. We don’t want to get wrapped up in short-term decision making.”

Boldt, meanwhile, continues work on a project.

“(Walker’s letter) could have some impact on some of the design and engineering work we’re doing,” Niesen said. “But to what degree is unknown until we get some specifics.”

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