Duking it out over Duke

Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

There are two major landmarks in Morro Bay. One, Morro Rock, rises up out of the bay like the hump of a submerged terra-firma camel. The second, the Morro Bay Power Plant, is right down the street and has a set of stacks that soar into the clear, California sky, competing with the rock for dominance on the horizon.

And, right now, the power plant is stuck between that rock and a political “hard place.”

Change is good?

The Morro Bay Power Plant, a 1,002 MW merchant facility, was purchased by Duke Energy North America from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in 1998. Modernization efforts are planned for the facility, including replacing the existing four units with two units. Each of those two new units will include two gas-fired combustion turbines, two heat recovery steam generators and one steam turbine operating in combined-cycle mode. The output of the plant will increase with this modernization to 1,200 MW.

And while the project itself has seen a few internal setbacks in the form of new directors–rounds of layoffs at Duke have made a few changes in the hierarchy–the modernization project seems set to clear the final hurdle before breaking ground: the last round of certification hearings before the State of California’s Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission slated for November 4 and 5.

The chairman of the committee apologized in writing for setting the hearings on election day, but those individuals interested in putting in their two cents on Duke’s modernization project in Morro Bay may be torn between the hearings and the polling place–for it seems that this modernization process has become a political hot potato in the town’s mayoral race.

He said, he said

In one corner is Don Boatman. He’s an electrical technician with 20 years of experience with PG&E, and he’s been endorsed by CAPE (The Coastal Alliance on Plant Expansion), a local environmental group concerned with the potential habitat impact of Duke’s plan.

In a late September issue of the Central Coast Sun Bulletin, the local newspaper published by The Tribune, Boatman took out a political ad to counter an earlier ad that his opponent, William Yates, had issued about the advantages of the Duke plan, saying it was “good for the city and the city’s coffers.” Boatman disagreed.

“I give my opinions as someone who works in the energy industry and knows the energy needs of the state,” he wrote.

“The city and the city’s coffers will not inhale the additional ground level pollution that Duke’s and the Air Pollution District’s studies show will increase with the new plant. People who live in and visit Morro Bay will inhale this pollution even more easily with the proposed short stacks.” [Editor’s note: The current stacks, according to a Duke representative, are 450 feet tall; the new stacks would be 145 feet tall.]

“The city and the city’s coffers will not be affected by the drone of four large jet engines and two steam turbines full-time, full-power for the next 30 years with minimum shutdowns for maintenance: with or without dry cooling. But residents of the city will be affected by this constant noise…

“Finally, my opponent states that Duke could walk away if they don’t get their permit to build. I don’t believe that. My opponent says Duke has a $700-million investment. Not true. Duke paid about $200 million for the existing plant and, during the great ‘power heist’ last summer, made that $200 million back every three weeks!”

In the opposite corner of this fight is William Yates, a businessman and commercial fisherman who was Morro Bay mayor previously in the mid-1990s. In the same issue of the Sun Bulletin where Boatman pleads his plant opposition, Yates, too, has a paid political ad.

“So, my opponents say I’m in Duke’s ‘pocket,'” he wrote. “Really? I didn’t know.

No one told me. Let me check the mail. Hmmmm, no check, no cocktail party invitations. They don’t call. Poor me. Apparently I’m not on their social agenda. I feel so left out.

“I will say this again, and again, and again: I support the Duke Project primarily because the majority of us voted for it. It is the mayor and council’s duty to support your vote. If you had voted against it, I would be against it. It’s that simple.”

Duke makes a statement

“Boatman has been active with CAPE, which has been the primary group opposed to the modernization,” stated Patrick Mullins, manager of public affairs for Duke Energy North America’s California operations. When asked what CAPE was specifically against in connection with the project, Mullins stated, “That’s a good question. It’s change, perhaps, or they are under the false assumption that, if this project doesn’t go through, that the existing project will not continue to operate, which, obviously, it will.”

Mullins stated that, while the project is still in the permitting phase, Duke is committed to move forward to obtain the permit. And, with over 63 percent of the voters supporting the modernization, this mayoral election tiff may have little impact on the project’s final outcome.

“It’s an election year in a small community where we have a large presence, just by virtue of our facilities being there,” he added, but, that large presence does not include having the political power to put William Yates in their “pocket.” According to Mullins, “that’s a ridiculous assertion.”

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“It’s just a part of the political process that all members of the community can voice their opinions,” he added, but he didn’t see this issue with the project modernization–one among many issues, he pointed out–really swaying the outcome of the mayoral campaign. But, whomever is elected can expect neither special favors nor grudges from Duke Energy.

“It’s a great project that, obviously–based on the vote that was taken–the community supports,” Mullins said. “We’ve worked very cooperatively with the city and will continue to do so, no matter who is elected mayor on Nov. 5. That commitment doesn’t change.”

Press time for this issue fell before both the Morro Bay mayoral election and the final set of hearings for the project’s certification. For updates on both issues, please visit www.elp.com and look in the “online extras” section.

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