Shock Treatment

California eats lots of power, but it doesn't like growing its own power plants. Instead, Arizona is becoming the new power farm for the Coast.

On February 12, after five months of hearings, the Power Plant and Transmission Line Sighting Committee approved the plant. The full Commission, which has never turned down a facility cleared by the committee, is expected to vote on the proposal in April.

The San Tan plant has been a public relations nightmare, infuriating Gilbert residents who live close to the site. The plant is the only one of its size in the country being proposed within an urban area. (A local planning commission in San Jose, California, recently rejected a similar proposal because the plant was too close to the neighborhood.) Beyond the question of why the city of Gilbert allowed houses to be built so close to the SRP property, critics say SRP has used its vast political power to manipulate the plant-approval process.

On several points, documents support their concerns.

Joe Forkan
Gilbert residents fought SRP's plan to greatly expand its San Tan plant.
Paolo Vescia
Gilbert residents fought SRP's plan to greatly expand its San Tan plant.

SRP commissioned a poll allegedly intended to find out how residents near the proposed plant felt about the project. The poll results, SRP representatives initially said, showed 69 percent of nearby residents in favor of the plant.

Critics of the plant were skeptical. They had petitions signed by thousands of residents saying they didn't want the plant.

So critics got hold of the questionnaire used in the poll. As they expected, it wasn't a survey, it was a series of questions slanted in such a way to get the desired results.

"The thing was absolutely absurd," says Evans, the councilman.

SRP was slow in describing the size of the plant. When SRP finally presented a drawing of the plant to nearby residents, the 150-foot smokestacks drew gasps. By the next hearing, the artist's rendition included what, by scale, would have been 90-foot trees in front of the plant.

"It was the funniest thing I've ever seen," says Kathy Lopez, an opponent of the plant. "If we're lucky, it will look like that in 20 years."

Dale Borger, a Gilbert resident who spent 45 years building and inspecting power plants in the eastern United States, began attending hearings. He says he was shocked by the misinformation being thrown out by SRP.

The plant is being built without a containment building, Borger says, which would lessen the impact of an explosion. For that $2 million in savings, Borger says, the plant will put neighbors in greater danger in the event of an explosion.

"If it blows, you've got several thousand people who are going to feel it hard," he says.

Residents argue that SRP's San Tan property is zoned incorrectly and that, regardless of zoning, SRP had a duty to inform nearby residents that the small, intermittently operated plant on the property could be expanded in the future.

Environmental activists argue that the massive natural gas-fired plant isn't as clean as proponents say. Of particular concern is ammonium sulfide, a byproduct of the technology the San Tan plant will use to cut down other harmful emissions.

"Plenty of people are allergic to these sulfides and they've been proven to shorten lives," says Steve Brittle, head of Don't Waste Arizona. "But it's a byproduct of this technology that hasn't been properly studied."

But Steve Branoff, the EPA engineer, says the plant is safe. Because SRP is supposed to improve emissions on the plant's existing generators, the plant will actually be cleaner, he says.

Borger also doesn't buy SRP's claim that the San Tan facility is an absolute must. Like most everyone opposed to the project, Borger doesn't question that the East Valley is growing and that more power is needed. He and others simply believe the plant could have been placed farther from a heavy concentration of people.

"They could bring it in from around Coolidge," he says. "Coolidge wants the plants, the lines are there and being built and you would only lose about 1 percent of the power transporting it only 20 miles."

In fact, SRP has already contracted with one of the new merchant plants for the plant's total output, according to SRP's Bonsall. He would not divulge the company.

But that isn't enough, he argues.

SRP does need the Gilbert plant, Bonsall says -- badly.

"San Tan is just part of a larger picture," Bonsall says.

SRP officials scoff at the idea that they are using Gilbert as a power farm for California.

As a public utility, SRP doesn't have a profit motive, utility officials say. Its only motive is to provide cheap, reliable electricity for customers.

Basically, SRP, officials say, like a lot of other Valley planners, didn't foresee that the East Valley would grow so big so quickly. Residents are using more power for everything from computers to swimming pools.

Industry, too, is sucking up more power. For example, Intel's expanded plant in south Chandler will increase its power needs from 40 megawatts to 100 megawatts.

And if the East Valley hopes to attract more high-tech companies, it must have an ample source of reliable, affordable power.

Utilities in the Southwest have traditionally swapped power with utilities in the Pacific Northwest. The Southwest needs power for the summer, the Northwest needs power in the winter. SRP would trade with Northwest utilities at low prices to provide extra summer power for the Valley.

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