Power generators, farmers to work together to conserve water

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Sunday, February 04, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

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Power generators, farmers to work together to conserve water

by Hal Bernton Seattle Times staff reporter

ALDERDALE, Klickitat County - Mercer Ranches farm is a prime spot for producing food. The 8,500 acres atop an irrigated plateau yield sweet corn, potatoes, onions and baby carrots sold in Seattle.

Mercer Ranches could also end up a prime spot for power generation, with a developer proposing to built an 850-megawatt plant right next to the fields.

It would rank as one of the largest power plants in the state, roughly two-thirds the size of the nuclear power plant operating at Hanford.

The farm might seem an odd place for such big plans, but it lies in the middle of a budding energy belt along the Columbia River. In this stretch of territory, lie three resources coveted by power-plant developers:

-A natural-gas pipeline vital for supplying the fuel to operate turbines. With numerous natural-gas power plants in the permitting process, such turbines are expected to be the biggest new source of electricity for the region.

-Water essential to cooling these turbines.

-Regional transmission lines necessary to transport the power the turbines would produce.

For several years, power-plant developers have been prospecting for sites along the Columbia, and their efforts have intensified in recent months as electrical prices have skyrocketed.

High energy prices are bad for farmers, who depend on natural gas to produce fertilizer and on electricity to drive irrigation pumps. Many farms operate on narrow profit margins. And in recent years, those margins have faded.

"We've tried to diversify, but every crop has been down," said Russ Rasmussen, manager at Mercer Ranches.

But Mercer Ranches managers hope the new power plant will help them survive the energy crunch. And they say they have a farm-friendly design to get the job done.

Their solution is a power plant that would assume the traditional farm task of pumping water 300 feet up from the Columbia. In return, the power plant would use the water to cool its turbines. Then the water would go to a pond, where it would be available to irrigate Mercer Ranches and 14 other Alderdale farms.

This would be a big departure from standard power plants, which consume large amounts of water that otherwise could be used to irrigate cropland.

"We floated the idea around and finally got someone to bite," said Rasmussen.

It was a big bite: Cogentrix Energy, an energy-plant developer based in North Carolina. Kurt Humphrey, a vice president, said his company is serious about the project.

But the plant still has a long way to go. It will require environmental studies and a complex water-rights and permitting process through state agencies.

Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company.

-- Swissrose (cellier@azstarnet.com), February 05, 2001

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