Officials with a new energy company think they may have a solution to cheap-but-clean energy that can work in high-altitude areas of the West.
But clean-energy advocates aren't sure that what's being proposed is a bona fide panacea.
The new contained coal-burning technology—pressurized fluidized bed combined cycle—is so recent to the United States that there is disagreement as to its classification.
Mountain Island Energy Holdings, LLC, wants to build a 400-megawatt power plant in Soda Springs, 250 miles southeast of Ketchum.
Mountain Island Energy Holding, of Soda Springs, is a subsidiary of Terra Systems Inc. and United Fund Advisors, LLC of Portland, Ore., which was formed last summer. Its stated goal was to pursue the "advanced coal gasification generating facility."
The partnership was originally formed with the intentions of applying to the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Department of Energy for federal advanced coal project tax credits.
"We thought we had a shot at that," Reynold Roeder, senior managing director, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Federal agencies, however, determined that the project did not meet their criteria. Most of those tax credits go to integrated gasification combined cycle plants, Roeder said.
Mitchell Hart, managing director, said the project is similar to a gasification plant but shares one combustion chamber rather than having two.
The company's management believed the project was still economically viable without the tax credits and is opting to move forward.
Gasification plant technology that is in use in the East has not been successfully applied in the West, Hart said, due to higher elevations and a different type of coal available.
The fuel-flexible technology (using different types of coal and some biomass) addresses those issues, he said, and has been used successfully in countries such as Japan, Spain and Germany.
Mountain Island Energy Holdings officials say the technology can remove 99 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 90 percent of mercury emissions for most fuels that would be used.
That's still more than the zero-mercury cap Idaho currently has. But that may change once state officials and lawmakers go through a negotiated rule-making process to regulate the pollutant.
Courtney Washburn, community conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League, said there's a paucity of information about the proposed plant's technology.
"The only information we have about the plant is coming from the company, and that is not the preferred way," she said.
She said the plant appears to be "somewhere in between" a coal-fired plant and a coal gasification plant as far as emissions.
Washburn said that the state will likely seek more information on the technology when it develops its own mercury rule in conjunction with the energy plan.
The state is also under a two-year moratorium, set to expire in April 2008, that prohibits the construction of coal-fired power plants.
The questions remain, though: What kind of plant is Mountain Island Energy Holdings LLC proposing, and would it fall under the moratorium?
Rather than engage the state in a protracted battle, Roeder and Hart say they will adhere to the moratorium's provisions.
"When it expires, we will pursue it in earnest," Hart said.
Soda Springs was chosen because of its existing industrial base, proximity to rail and transmission lines, and a need for power in the area.
Roeder added that the company is interested in alternative energy and is looking into wind towers for its property.
"The data so far has supported ... that potential," he said.
"Advanced clean coal" projects could serve as a bridge while renewable energy alternatives are developed in the state, he said.
The preliminary economic analysis estimates that the $600 million project will produce 2,760 jobs during construction, and more than $322 million in local economic impacts within the eight-county area of Southeast Idaho.
Construction estimates will increase as the process continues.
"Construction costs are going up like crazy," Roeder said.
The project could go through a two-year permitting process, then three years in construction.