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Profit Surge 

Utilities race to make Arizona a nursery for power plants Arizonans don't need.

Thanks to Arizona's reputation for rapid-fire power plant and line permits, our state is rapidly becoming a big, dirty power farm for California. "It's like a new California gold rush," says Steve Brittle, president of the environmental group Don't Waste Arizona. "This whole trend is going in absolutely the wrong direction."

As a result of electricity deregulation--and the potential for astronomical industry profits--the state currently has 20 plants in either the planning or construction stages, following nearly two decades that saw no new generators at all. By 2003, Arizona's new power plants could provide enough electricity for 20 million people, in a state where the population hovers between 5 and 6 million. Simple math tells you all this power isn't meant simply for home-staters.

Government officials say they're closely scrutinizing each new facility. But critics of the building surge say utility companies will profit handsomely from California's shortage and other lucrative wholesale electricity markets, even while they pollute Arizona's air and drain its water.

Indeed, the boom looks like a bum's rush for Arizonans: We'll be saddled with environmental devastation, according to critics, while power companies make big bucks. This energy juggernaut has dire implications for Southern Arizona in particular, as companies shove their way through the permitting process while the Bush administration's pro-energy industry stance still prevails.

The power plant boom has also prompted at least three lawsuits against the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities. "State law governing the siting of power plants requires the commission to balance the need for an adequate, economical supply of power against the environmental impacts that the plants will have," says Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which filed the suits. The legal action is meant to highlight that responsibility, he says.

Arizona officials say they've already responded to the power boom by tightening review procedures for the new plants. When the Corporation Commission recently approved one generator near Gila Bend, it included toughened air-quality standards equivalent to those of coastal California. "I think this does show there's a different level of scrutiny, in terms of collective impact of all these plants," says Heather Murphy, a commission spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of new generators under review has strained resources at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. "But plants meant to serve state residents are given priority," says Deputy Director Richard Tobin. "Our folks are very committed to the job they do, and they're holding the utility companies' feet to the fire."

On the transmission-line scene, Tucson Electric Power has been playing hardball to gain approval for massive new lines south through the Coronado National Forest to Nogales. If approved, the 345-kilovolt lines would connect to Mexico's power grid.

But the project has drawn considerable fire, both locally and at the federal level. On May 1, Santa Cruz County's Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the proposed 345-kilovolt lines, saying a new area power plant would be less environmentally destructive and more reliable.

And a source close to the energy industry, requesting anonymity, says the U.S. Department of Energy is concerned about connecting TEP's line directly to Sonora, Mexico's quirky grid.

"Under TEP's proposal, if there's a significant (power) event that occurs in Mexico while TEP has that Mexican load on their system, it could domino on them," the source says.

This opinion was confirmed last fall by DOE senior analyst Ellen Russell. "There is nothing in (TEP's) application with respect to any type of equipment that would be added to the facility for reliability purposes," she noted. Such an apparatus "would be added in Mexico, and it's not clear to us ... whether we're going to require that today, or if we're going to require it when they begin their reliability studies."

Still, TEP lawyers manhandled angry residents at recent ACC hearings in Nogales, and according to Weekly sources, were equally arrogant with Santa Cruz County officials at a later May 17 meeting in Phoenix.

Tucson Electric officials have refused all comment on the issue since the Weekly first reported on the risky Mexico connection in September.

Meanwhile, Public Service Co. of New Mexico will soon unveil its own plans for a border-connecting line, at public meetings on June 12 in Rio Rico and June 13 in Marana. The utility hopes to run large power lines near the brand new Ironwood and Sonoran Desert national monuments, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

More fires are burning to the north. Houston-based Reliant Energy Inc.--recently attacked by California Gov. Gray Davis for price gouging--is putting the finishing touches on its new Desert Basin Plant in Casa Grande.

And a little-known group called the Toltec Power Station LLC hopes to build a humongous 2,000-megawatt plant near Eloy, to sell electricity on the wholesale market. If approved by the ACC, this plant will permanently mar majestic views from Picacho Peak and the Ironwood National Monument, affect bighorn sheep habitat in the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, and spew pollution throughout the area, says plant opponent Jon Schumaker.

"The proposed 2,000-megawatt plant will forever alter the cultural and visual landscape of Ironwood National Monument and the surrounding area," he says. "The plant is completely unnecessary for Arizona's power needs and will foul our air and use vast quantities of our precious groundwater."

Given Arizona's rush toward plant approval, the Toltec folks will certainly have plenty of company.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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