Looking toward the future

Published 11:17 pm Monday, March 30, 2009

President Barack Obama has made clean and efficient energy a top priority of his administration. That move resulted in a lion’s share of the $32 billion in stimulus money allocated for conservation and alternative energy solutions, such as wind, solar and biomass. Nuclear energy also is at the top of the list, according to the text of the measure

With the oncoming move toward more “green” and less carbon-related energy, utility companies, such as Alabama Power will have to change their business models, said U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham.

Davis talked about the administration’s energy plan and other issues during a visit recently with members of the The Selma Times-Journal Editorial Board.

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Davis said he’s studying the climate change legislation. “My question is what it’ll look like,” he said.

Utilities, such as Alabama Power Co. will have to diversify how they produce energy and become more environmentally conscious, looking toward ways of reducing carbons released into the atmosphere.

It appears Alabama Power is right on target with an eye toward the future.

In recent months Alabama Power purchased 5,600 acres of land near Orrville. The use of that land is undetermined right now, according to Pat Wylie, director for corporate communications.

“There are no immediate plans for the property,” he said. “It is a good site for potential electric generation, having access to water and transportation and it is everything we would look for.”

The company searches for sites and sometimes holds large areas of land long before building a power-generating plant because of the time it takes to construct such a facility, Wylie said.

“We have to kind of be far-reaching in our vision, because those types of sites with the amount of land we would need get grabbed up,” Wylie said. “We’re obligated to meet that need because demand continues.”

Demand at Dallas County’s industrial parks has nearly reached its limit, said Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the Selma & Dallas County Economic Development Agency.

However, the power company has said it will construct a substation to help with needs there. “It’s in the budget,” Vardaman said.

While future plans are under wraps, it’s certain that several different types of generating plants would best fit the 5,600 acres of land purchased by Alabama Power, Wylie said, including a nuclear plant.

A move to plan for construction of a nuclear plant in Dallas County not far from Orrville fell through during the 1980s. When a geological survey revealed a fault line on some of the property.

But that was nearly 20 years ago. In the U.S. nearly three decades have passed since licensing for construction of a nuclear power plant, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency that licenses the plants. An NRC survey made public in July 2007 showed that, nationwide, 104 operating nuclear power plants provided 20 percent of the energy used in the United States.

Davis talked briefly about the advances in technology that have major utilities now looking again at nuclear power. “The thing we haven’t solved is what to do with the waste,” he said.

Some environmentalists nationwide have called for the U.S. to examine the way France and Britain handle their nuclear waste by setting up a national agency. The New York Times recently pointed to an example of such an organization being the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, set up in 2004, which oversees nuclear cleanup in all areas, including research facilities and reactors.

But nuclear power isn’t the only option within Alabama Power’s reach. Wylie said the company hasn’t determined if it would construct a steam plant or look at other types of power generation at the Dallas County site.

Last month, Alabama Power representatives said they were exploring the option of generating electricity from other sources, including biomass or wood fuel. The company expects to finish the study during the second half of this year.

Officials from Alabama Power have said one of the sites for possible wood fuel study is the Barry Steam Plant in Mobile County. Environmentalists have advocated burning wood because the amount of carbon dioxide produced is absorbed by plants during their life cycles. Alabama Power also uses coal to generate electricity. Coal burning produces more carbon dioxide, which environmentalists have said is a major reason for global warming.

Alabama Power already uses wood chips and sawgrass at its Gadsden plant, but the company does not have a plant that generates power by using wood or other biomass materials exclusively.

Recently, Mississippi Power Co., a sister company to Alabama Power held under the Southern Company umbrella, filed an application with the Mississippi Public Service Commission to build a $2 billion gasification generating facility in Kemper County.

Gasification generating plants use less fuel to generate power and the process is environmentally cleaner. The Mississippi plant would be one of the first in this country, according to Anthony Topazi, Mississippi Power’s chief executive officer.

While the determination of what to do with the acreage in Dallas County has yet to be decided, plenty of options remain. Davis said the exploration of these options by power companies are all intentional.

“I think we’ll see more,” he said.