MidAmerican explores natural gas as coal alternative

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Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 12:00 am

MidAmerican Energy Company will stop burning coal in half the units at two Iowa power plants and completely at a third as part of a settlement reached between the company and the Sierra Club.

The plants involved are Walter Scott Jr. Energy Center in Council Bluffs, Neal Energy Center North in Sergeant Bluff and Riverside Generating Station in Bettendorf.

No jobs will be lost as part of the settlement, said MidAmerican Energy spokeswoman Tina Potthoff. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. company employs 3,500 workers across its service area, which includes Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Illinois.

The environmental advocacy group alleged in a lawsuit filed in July 2012 that MidAmerican Energy violated provisions of the Clean Air Act at the three coal operations. MidAmerican Energy maintained it was and remains compliant with the law, citing reports on file with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The natural resources agency determined no enforcement was necessary at any of MidAmerican's plants, but Potthoff said the company entered into discussions with the Sierra Club to avoid higher costs to customers, delays and the possibility of lengthy litigation.

Ken Winston, a spokesman for the Nebraska Sierra Club, said any move away from coal plants is a step in the right direction.

“In general,” he said, “natural gas is a cleaner fuel and puts fewer toxic pollutants in the atmosphere, but long term we prefer to see renewable sources replacing coal and replacing fossil fuels.”

Potthoff said switching to natural gas from solid fuel, or coal, is part of the company's business plan of reducing emissions and advancing renewable energy. Since 2007, MidAmerican Energy has installed environmental improvements like scrubbers and baghouses a device that controls pollution at its Louisa Generating Station in Muscatine, Iowa, and Walter Scott, Jr. Energy Center.

The price of natural gas did not play a factor in the decision, she said.

Riverside's three boilers will be converted to natural gas. Potthoff said the company is still exploring non-coal options for two boilers each at Neal Energy Center and Walter Scott, Jr. Energy.

Council Bluffs city attorney Dick Wade said the conversions at the Walter Scott Jr. plant shouldn't cause an economic disruption for the city because MidAmerican Energy has until April 2016 to complete the project.

“In that timeframe, they can be converted to natural gas or whatever they see most appropriate to keep them operational,” he said.

Settlement negotiations included MidAmerican Energy completing the installation of baghouses at Neal Energy Center Units 3 and 4 by Dec. 31, 2014. The company said construction is already in progress and was under way prior to the lawsuit.

Also as part of the settlement, both parties agreed to work with the Iowa State Fair to install 60 kilowatts worth of solar panels. Agreeing on such a

project is common in a settlement, Potthoff said.

“This is a new aspect in the agreement that we're very excited about,” she said.

MidAmerican Energy currently has a wind turbine at the state fair that, when installed in 2007, was supposed to provide one-quarter of the total energy used to power the fair each year.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1192, emily.nohr@owh.com

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