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Front Page » April 29, 2008 » Local News » Energy representatives paint unsure future for local crowds
Published 2,720 days ago

Energy representatives paint unsure future for local crowds

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Rich Walje of Rocky Mountain Power speaks to a local audience.

Two officials painted somewhat bleak pictures of energy production and the regulations that go with it on Wednesday and Thursday of last week for local audiences. While both say that energy production will continue to be important to our future, government regulations and public concerns over the environment could greatly restrict the energy the American economy has to use.

"We have lived off the extra generation capacity that was put in place 20 years ago," said Rich Walje, president of Rocky Mountain Power at a gathering of area leaders and business people on Thursday at the Carbon Country Club. "That extra capacity and new efficiencies has kept power available and affordable for customers. That is a good thing."

However what is not a good thing, Walje says, is that the capacity is running out and that people don't want new coal fired power plants "built in their backyard."

"As energy needs grow the power will need to come from somewhere and some states are actually legislating that none of the additional power they need can be generated by coal," he said.

In the United States overall 50 percent of the power that is consumed is produced by coal burning plants. In Utah that figure is closer to 90 percent.

On Thursday, during the regular Carbon Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon, Jim Felton of the Bill Barrett Corporation, the company that is drilling and working on drilling more gas wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau, spoke to the group about the EIS that is currently under review and the status of the drilling in the Rocky Mountains.

"It used to be that no one wanted to go after the deep gas, because a lot of it was here where it couldn't be exported easily and the technology just wasn't there," he said. "Now we are after that gas and have been drilling some very deep wells. The need and the demand is there."

Felton talked about the difficulties that his company has faced, particularly with not being able to conduct drilling operations in the winter on Tavaputs. The government restrictions keep companies from operating rigs during the winter to prevent disruption of wildlife feeding and migration patterns.

The need for both power and gas was a theme that both speakers talked about extensively.

Felton said Utah relied on natural gas more than most states in the union, particularly for heating homes. Walje pointed out that the use of power has gone up and up, as the supplies have remained basically the same.

"Back when I started as an electrical engineer, a large house required a 200 amp service to take care of its electrical needs," said Walje. "Now, many houses require a 600 amp service because of all the needs in the home."

He also pointed out that Utah is known for its large houses. In fact, in size of homes Utah has the average largest homes in the nation, with Davis county being the number one in size in the state and Utah county being number two.

Felton pointed out that he is amazed by the number of kitchen appliances in his home.

"It is a far cry from what was in my parents house in northwestern Iowa when I was growing up," he said.

Advanced technology takes a lot of power.

For example, the number of people who have computers continues to grow and the electronic devices consume a considerable amount of electricity."

"People are accustomed to the good things that electricity brings them and they continue to buy more things that use it," said Walje. "We now have relatively low rates for power provided by the low cost of coal power generation. But what will happen in the future? What will be the choices?"

There hasn't been a coal fired power plant built in the United States in 20 years, due largely to the permitting process and the roadblocks that are standing in the way of building them. Gas fired plants have been constructed and are efficient; they are also considered cleaner. However, as the use of gas plants increases, the demand for gas will increase raising the cost of generation and of course, for heating homes with gas as well. And Walje said that new technology will allow for the gasification of coal to be used in power plants, but those new technologies would be twice as expensive as present pulverized coal plants.

The United States, as whole, gets about 20 percent of its power from nuclear plants. It takes decades to get a nuclear plant approved and permitted.

Walje said all the nuclear waste generated from plants since they started to run in the 1940s could "fit on a single football field and would be only a few feet deep."

Walje said alternative sources have promise. But behind the technologies must be a solid power source for when alternatives aren't producing.

"In some places in Wyoming ,the wind blows 40 percent of the time, and you could build hundreds of wind turbine generators," said Walje. "Yet you would still have to have a solid backup to it when the wind wasn't blowing and that has traditionally been coal."

As for solar power Walje said that he has heard people comment that companies "should build miles of solar panels to provide power" but he pointed out that photovolt electricity cost three times more to produce because of the costs of those systems and it to would need a solid backup because "the sun doesn't shine all the time."

Felton said that gas is almost the perfect fuel, but that because the wells are getting more and more expensive (sometimes two to three million dollars a piece) to drill, the costs to produce it continue to rise.

"When you drill wells below a few thousand feet deep, the cost per foot goes up substantially," he said. "But the easy to get at gas supplies in this country are dwindling and the harder ones, such as on Tavaputs, are what we have to go after now."

Walje also answered questions about carbon dioxide sequestering.

"While the technology isn't completely there right now, it may be possible to inject the CO2 a coal fired power plant produces into the ground for storage for later use in industry or to permanently deposit it," he stated. "However such a plant to remove the CO2 and to put it in the ground would cost around $750 million and then it would take 20 to 30 percent of the power produced by the power station to run the CO2 plant."

He also pointed out that the idea of carbon footprint taxes on customers might not be too popular with the public if the government should ever enact them. It is calculated that such a cost per customer would be about $1500 per year.

Walje said that big problems, like those he talked about, cannot be wished upon to go away by those who want to find other ways to provide energy.

"Regulations shouldn't put in place anything to do that we can't do today," he said. "There needs to be time for technology to catch up with what needs to be done. And once in place no one should expect things to change right away, because it takes years to get into implementation."

Felton said that gas exploration and production will impact the local area for a long time, but the life of wells in the Tavaputs area are expected to only be in the area of 20 to 30 years. The company has holdings of 166,200 acres in the area between Carbon and Duchesne counties.

"We know our operations will affect the economic well-being of Carbon County for quite some time," said Felton. "A study done by the University of Utah this past year shows that the economies of Carbon and Emery are affected to the tune of $22 million a year by the gas industry. State wide, if we get to the point of producing 250 million cubic feet of gas per day from our fields, and that we feel is achievable, it could mean $260,000 of impact per year on Utah."

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