Some 10 years and nearly $270 million after the state first backed construction of a new experimental coal-fired power plant in Healy, the project's 50 megawatt generators sit idle.
During a 90-day commercial operations test in 1999, according to the state, the project met expectations for producing power with emissions far cleaner than conventional coal-fired power plants.
However, the reliability of the technology remains suspect, and the cost per kilowatt attached to the plant's power production is apparently higher than Golden Valley Electric Association is willing to accept.
The Interior utility has called for a complete retrofit, installing conventional coal burners in place of Healy's experimental clean-burning technology. The estimated cost of such an overhaul runs as high as $40 million, according to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, the state agency already holding the tab for $85 million in Healy bonds.
AIDEA, meanwhile, acknowledges that something needs to be done to extend the life or reduce the cost of maintaining a giant fan used to propel powdered coal into the first combustion chamber. The plant's present design, which channels powdered coal and grit whipping through the blades of the fan, creates wear that soon introduces instability, breaking down the unit.
While the plant is designed to make use of lesser grades of coal from nearby Usibelli Mine, obtaining consistency in the heat-content of the incoming material has also proven more difficult, and crucial to smooth operations, than was expected.
AIDEA and Usibelli contend the problems can be addressed with modifications that are not only less costly, but preserve the new technology's demonstrated ability to deliver coal-fired power without the usual air-fouling emissions.
It would be a shame to give up on the new Healy project's clean-coal technology. The new plant's location near Denali National Park and Preserve adds national interest to its potential for keeping skies in the area clear.
At the same time, it's unreasonable to stick either Interior electric consumers or Alaska's development agency with bills arising from unforeseen glitches in a costly federal energy experiment. Lest anyone forget, a conventional coal-fired power plant could have been built for less than half the price.
Designing, building and ironing out the bugs in a prototype is a process often accompanied by expenses surpassing early estimates. Healy's start-up problems should be viewed from that perspective.
Assuming the design flaws can be addressed, the Healy project's technology will likely find application elsewhere. That underscores the need for the Department of Energy, which has already sunk $117 million into Healy, to invest what's needed in additional research and modifications to fully realize this experiment's goal of generating clean-coal power.
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