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New energy center pumps power to 160,000


With about as much fanfare as a flip of a light switch, the product of one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Polk County – second only to the reconstruction of Interstate 235 – became fully operational earlier this year.

A dedication ceremony was held last month for the $357 million Greater Des Moines Energy Center in Pleasant Hill, Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy Co.’s newest power plant.

“A few years ago, there was a concern that if additional energy infrastructure was not built, Iowa would not be able to meet its energy demand within its borders,” said Allan Urlis, MidAmerican’s director of media relations. “It’s in Iowa’s best interest and our customers’ best interests to produce that electricity within our own borders so you don’t have to buy more expensive electricity, which can cost anywhere from 100 percent to 2,000 percent more.”

The Greater Des Moines Energy Center is a combined-cycle power plant with two natural gas turbines and one steam turbine that can produce a total of 540 megawatts of power – enough to serve 160,000 homes and businesses. The power plant is located in an industrial area off Southeast 43rd Street in Pleasant Hill. It was completed in two phases, the first in May 2003 and the second in December 2004.

According to Urlis, the Energy Center is the first to be completed of three electric generation projects MidAmerican launched in recent years to expand its energy capacity. The company is also working on a $386 million wind generation project in Northwest and North Central Iowa, which is slated to be finished by the end of this year, and a $1.2 billion coal power plant in Council Bluffs, which is scheduled to open in 2007.

The Greater Des Moines Energy Center employs about 25 people, according to Fred Hoots, the plant’s unit manager. Despite the facility’s massive size, it doesn’t take many people to run it, he said.

“It has all modern computer controls and it’s fairly amazing that a typical shift of operators is one person in the control room and two people to run around and open valves,” Hoots said. “The fact that you can control something this complex with that few people is pretty amazing.”

MidAmerican calls the Energy Center an intermediate-load facility, meaning that it is not designed to run year-round, like the company’s coal power plants, which are called baseload facilities. But it’s not to be mistaken for a “peaker plant,” which runs only during the summer to provide supplemental electricity for air conditioners.

“From really May through September, we would be expected to run from 6 a.m. to around midnight Monday through Friday,” Hoots said. “We’re the most efficient plant the company has, but we burn natural gas fuel, which is way more expensive than coal. The economics won’t really let us run full time.”

Urlis said MidAmerican built the Greater Des Moines Energy Center to run on natural gas so the company wouldn’t depend too much on one type of fuel.

“Coal is a less expensive fuel source than natural gas,” Urlis said. “Certain it’s more expensive than wind fuel, but you can’t have all wind generation capability when the wind doesn’t blow all the time.”

In 2001, the Iowa Legislature took measures to expand Iowa’s energy infrastructure when it passed HF 577. Urlis said that law provided the framework to build new power plants by setting energy rates in advance of a new project based on its projected cost. Before HF 577 was enacted, companies like MidAmerican and Alliant Energy Corp., the other investor-owned electrical utility in Iowa, built their new power plants and then went before the Iowa Utilities Board to set energy rates based on the projects’ cost.

“It was a circumstance where companies weren’t sure if they would be able to recover the cost of building that generation,” Urlis said. “Now, companies to go to the Utilities Board and say, ‘We want to build this power plant, and this power plant is needed to meet increased demand in the future, but we need to have some assurances that we’re going to be able to recover the cost of this plant.’”

MidAmerican’s agreement with the IUB is to keep energy rates stable through 2011.

“At the end of the time frame, we still don’t have a plan to raise rates to pay for generation,” Urlis said. “Our expectation is that with the rates where they are, along with the ability to sell our excess energy while plants are built, that we won’t have to raise rates.

“When it comes to energy, customers are concerned about reliable service and reasonable rates. Surveys show us that we’re doing a good job of keeping our customers satisfied, and we’re preparing for the future by keeping rates stable.”

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