Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tough Decision in Truckee

Coal or green power, certainty or faith…

Coal fuels energy debate
Truckee-area residents split over whether potential price or environmental threat should dictate choice in power deal.
By Edie Lau - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PST Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tonight, with a single vote on a single controversial contract, the board that governs the power supply in Truckee may determine the energy future of the mountain town for the next two generations.

The Truckee Donner Public Utility District is wrestling with a dilemma: It can follow a lure of cheap power by committing for 50 years to buy electricity from a plant fueled by coal. Or it can keep buying more expensive power on the open market on faith that electricity from cleaner, renewable sources will be available soon.

Either way, the district is taking a gamble that energy providers and users are facing -- how to navigate an utility industry undergoing profound changes driven by worries about global warming.

"Nobody has the crystal ball to tell us about this, either way: coal or green power," said utility district board member Joe R. Aguera.

The board directs the utility that brings water and electricity to Truckee, a historic Sierra Nevada town off Interstate 80 near Donner Summit.

Once obscure, the utility district board has captured the attention of many of its 12,000 ratepayers and made headlines beyond Truckee since the proposed 50-year coal deal was aired publicly in November, spurring immediate controversy.

"A lot of people up here are not happy with, mainly, the length of the contract," said Bryan DeVoe, a 28-year Truckee resident and retired telephone service repairman. "We think there are alternatives not that far down the road."

Ron Hemig, a utility district board member for 12 years, said the outpouring of community objections took him by surprise.

"Until a month ago, we never heard anything from our public except 'keep rates down,' " Hemig said. "The community never spoke to the board ever ... on the subject of coal."

What many townspeople apparently didn't realize, he said, is that Truckee already relies on coal to keep the lights on.

"Because we've got no generation (of our own), we're at the mercy of the markets," Hemig said.

Located a few miles on the California side of the state line with Nevada, Truckee largely is cut off from the rest of California's power distribution because of the way the power grid is structured, Hemig said.