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Front Page » April 29, 2008 » Local News » Rich Walje visits area
Published 3,226 days ago

Rich Walje visits area

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Rich Walje from Rocky Mountain Power.

Rich Walje the president of Rocky Mountain Power hosted a luncheon for local government officials and community leaders to update them on RMP and where things are headed in the energy business.

Deb Dull, public relations from RMP introduced Walje as well as several local RMP employees. Dull said an employee was seated at every table to help answer questions from the guests.

Walje said for the past five years he along with Karen Gilmore, customer representative, have worked hard to get out into the communities where their utilities are located and also the areas which are served by RMP. Getting out into the communities helps keep him in touch with what's going on in the field. He said top management sometimes gets together in meetings and they try to convince each other they really know what's going on, this approach doesn't work. "We want to stay connected," said Walje.

Walje said RMP has much invested in Carbon and Emery counties and he appreciates the reception the company has received in these counties. He said RMP asks the question, 'What do you need us to do to help accomplish your goals?' RMP is involved in some way in everyone's life in the area through power generation. You either receive power from RMP or have a connection to the energy industry. The power plants are right in the midst of the communities and try to be good neighbors.

In the past Walje said there has been some confusion about the company and its operators. With the new company, MidAmerican Holdings, the company wants the locals to have more ownership in the company. As a utility, in the past it seems to have lost contact with its roots. The new company likes to see more decisions made on a local level. RMP services customers in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Pacific Power has customers in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Their service area encompasses 110,000 square miles.

Walje said he has roots in this area with his paternal grandparents being buried in Green River. He worked on the lines here in his early days. When the Huntington and Hunter plants were being constructed the economy was robust. In 1981-82, it looked like the load projection for growth wasn't going to materialize so things were scaled back and Hunter 4 wasn't built. It wasn't financially feasible to bear that much financial burden on the books when it looked like there wouldn't be a return on the investment. "It was a painful decision for the company and employees at that time."

Rich Walje speaks with Emery County Progress publisher, Richard Shaw at the informational luncheon.

Through the mid 80s it looked like there would be enough capacity and for two decades that was the case. In order for the company to maintain viability in 1989 it merged with Pacific Power. They had a different peak than Utah Power and arrangements provided customers with a rate decrease. RMP now has a rate case before the Public Service Commission asking for a rate hike which will bring the price back to what it was in 1986 before the merger. The company has become more efficient and does more work with less employees. Consumers are using more energy now. Demand has gone up and homes are bigger, there are more gadgets, large TVs, high powered furnaces and air conditioners, computers, more lighting in homes, etc. Utah has the largest home size in the country. With Davis County being first among the counties. This isn't just because Utah has bigger families, people want more amenities. Walje said it has brought about a craziness, "We've grown accustomed to the good things electricity brings us."

Walje said technology depends so much on electricity. He talked of the health care industry and how so many tests and machines and new technology are tied to electricity. "We feel a strong obligation to provide safe and reliable electricity," said Walje.

Utah's electricity rates are among the lowest in the nation because RMP has relied on low cost, high quality coal for much of the resource. Coal has been the bed rock foundation of society and vitality here in Carbon and Emery counties. Washington and California have outlawed the use of coal fired generation for electricity in their states.

RMP will place much focus on wind and solar now and in the future. "Wyoming is a very good source of wind, the wind blows 40 percent of the time; 60 percent of the time it's not generating. Mid American-PacifiCorp will own more wind power than any other company in the near future. We need to make sure that renewable is cost effective," said Walje.

He said they have been asked why they don't store power for peak times, "There is no cost effective way to store bulk power," he said.

Solar energy is three times more expensive to produce. "The main obligation we are held to by the Public Service Commission is to keep rates low," said Walje. The US still receives 50 percent of its power generation from coal. Most of this coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Twenty percent of the power in the US comes from nuclear. Walje said there is a fear of nuclear power, although he believes this fear is unfounded. Since its inception its been a very safe industry. Sometimes those who don't want nuclear energy plant those fears among the public. "There are not ready solutions," said Walje.

Carbon capture and injection back into the ground is an ongoing research project, but it isn't being done anywhere yet. Walje has a hard time seeing that technology applied on a large scale power plant. It is unproven technology on a plant which operates, 24-7. Some technology people want implemented simply doesn't exist and if it does exist the cost is prohibitive. "As a company we are not arguing over climate science, we are utility people. We are not involved in research and development of new energy," said Walje.

Up until last year, plans were underway for new coal fired units. Bridger, IPP and Hunter four. They were also looking at integrated coal, combined cycle which turns coal to a gas first before its burned lessening CO2 emissions. This new technology puts a coal fired plant at twice the cost of a regular coal fired plant.

Walje said legislation is being considered which places a carbon tax of $30-$100 per ton for every ton of C02 produced which could result in a $1,500 increase for consumers. Walje said the technologies don't exist to totally eliminate C02 and the government shouldn't put restrictions and taxes in place that they (companies) have no way of reaching. The government should focus on new technologies and making them affordable and feasible.

Attendees visit at the Rocky Mountain Power luncheon.

Walje said RMP installed a scrubber on Huntington one which has reduced emissions considerably.

Walje said he sees every permit for coal fired plants being challenged in the next 10 years by environmental groups, but he sees that breaking loose at some time in the future. He sees nuclear as part of the future and RMP has looked into that but right now it's very expensive in the $5 billion ball park figure and the company simply can't put that much out.

He sees the country still relying on traditional electrical facilities to handle increased loads. "I am very proud of the Carbon and Emery facilities. I hope we have been a good citizen. These counties have embraced our company and our employees. I have the ultimate respect for the people in Carbon and Emery counties," said Walje.

Walje answered a few questions from audience members. One question centered around the future of wind and natural gas.

Walje said the country needs to come to grips with what it takes to keep the country going, the focus cannot be entirely on renewables. For the next 10 years, RMP will explore wind and gas and maintain their coal generation. New transmission lines will also be added from traditional sources. They are identifying sites where those transmission lines might go. People need to concentrate on conservation of energy which lessens impacts. RMP wants to meet growth, but do it cost effectively. Some exotic forms of power could be as costly as 20 cents per kh. The cost to produce electricity has risen substantially with gas and diesel costs, steel, copper, wind turbines, concrete and all building materials have sky rocketed.

In surveys RMP has done the customer cares most about reliability and prices.

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