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UW power plant savings in question

By: admin//May 24, 2011//

UW power plant savings in question

By: admin//May 24, 2011//

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By James Briggs

A crane stands high above the Charter Street Heating Plant on Monday on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. John Harrod Jr., the physical plant director, called into question the savings that would come from Gov. Scott Walker removing a biomass boiler from a planned $251 million renovation of the plant. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

When Gov. Scott Walker axed a biomass boiler from a planned $251 million renovation of Madison’s Charter Street Heating Plant, the governor announced savings of $100 million for taxpayers.

That number is wrong, said John Harrod Jr., the University of Wisconsin-Madison physical plant director who is in charge of the Charter Street plant. Although later estimates pegged the savings at $75 million, Harrod on Tuesday estimated the state would save about $60 million by excluding biomass from the project.

“They talked about different numbers,” he said, “but I don’t know that anybody really confirmed anything.”

The Charter Street project originally called for two natural gas boilers and one biomass boiler, which would have burned waste material. When Walker removed the biomass boiler, though, Harrod said, it required the state buy two gas boilers — for a total of four — to make up for the heating capacity that would have been provided by one biomass boiler.

The natural gas boilers, Harrod said, are capable of burning 225,000 pounds of fuel an hour, while a biomass boiler could have burned 350,000 pounds an hour.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said Tuesday he couldn’t immediately confirm the latest cost estimates for the Charter Street project but that the governor still would support removing the biomass boiler even if the savings fall below expectations.

Jeff Niesen, a project executive for The Boldt Co., Appleton, the project’s contractor, also said he couldn’t confirm the latest cost estimates.

Lawmakers such as state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, have expressed disappointment over Walker’s decision, arguing biomass would have been environmentally friendly and supported an emerging industry in Wisconsin.

“The governor is putting up all sorts of money for venture capital and new industry,” Risser said. “(Biomass) falls right in line with the concept of trying to develop industry and bring jobs to Wisconsin.”

Even when the Charter Street project bill was $251 million, Risser said, he considered it a worthwhile investment.

“Obviously, when you start throwing numbers around, you want to have some sort of basis for it. We’ve had some numbers coming out of the executive office over the last several months that have varied considerably,” Risser said, using as an example estimates that overshot by millions of dollars how much it would cost to repair damage caused by protesters to the Capitol.

But Alan Fish, vice chancellor of facilities for UW-Madison, said he was focused on the benefits of the renovation rather than elements that wouldn’t be included in the construction.

“The good news is,” he said, “we are getting a new gas plant instead of a 60-year-old coal plant.”

The Charter Street plant this month received its final shipment of coal, Fish said, marking a turn toward a much cleaner power source.

“We’re not buying any more coal,” he said. “We’re only going to use it for backup in the early part of the fall when we start commissioning the two gas boilers that will be installed.”

The first two 500,000-pound boilers are expected to arrive in June on 150-foot trucks, Fish said.

Even if the savings to state taxpayers turn out to be less than advertised, Harrod said, natural gas is a more known commodity than biomass fuel, making it easier to predict operating costs. He predicted biomass fuel would have cost about the same amount as natural gas but said he had no way of knowing for sure.

“The market had not been established for biomass materials,” he said, adding the price of coal and natural gas has remained fairly even in recent months. “We thought as the market developed, it might be comparable to coal, but that opportunity never evolved.”

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