Shock Treatment

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SRP officials say the deal was the cheapest way for SRP to get much-needed power generation in the East Valley market. Bonsall says that while the utility has power to spare elsewhere in the state -- northern Arizona and the West Valley -- it is short in the East Valley and would need to build massive new power lines to ship its own power there.

Power lines are expensive, hard to get approved, ugly and just move existing power around. The Dynegy/NRG plant would have allowed SRP, for the same price as new transmission lines, to get more efficient power and a much-needed generating pillar to support the East Valley power grid.

Critics, though, question SRP's timing and logic. They say SRP, like other power companies, just wants additional power to sell to California. They point out that Dynegy and NRG have been two of the companies profiting most from California's woes.

Worst of all, in SRP's case, the generators weren't being planted in remote desert. They were being planted in the suburban East Valley.

SRP's first choice for the new plant was in Tempe, where SRP has an existing substation located on top of the El Paso gas line.

SRP figured it could use its legal status as a quasi-government entity to avoid a review process by the City of Tempe. But critics pointed out that with Dynegy and NRG involved, much of the power would, in essence, be shipped out of the Valley. The plant would be a merchant plant.

Because companies other than SRP were involved, the plant would have to go through the normal Tempe review process.

The deal collapsed. A much smaller Tempe plant will be built without Dynegy and NRG.

But SRP soon came up with another proposal -- to add 825 megawatts of power at its substation at Val Vista and Warner roads in Gilbert.

The Gilbert plant, called San Tan, will sit 250 feet from a recently built subdivision of middle-class homes.

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.

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.

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Robert Nelson