The Arkansas Public Service Commission is holding an evidentiary hearing on a proposed plan to keep Northwest Arkansas only base load power plant open after strict new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on emissions take effect in 2015.
"The regulations pose a deadline for us, so we're going to have to do something one way or another," says Peter Main, a spokesman for Southwestern Electric Power Company. "We looked at natural gas options, we looked at (a) retrofit for the existing plant... as well as a number of other options we were asked to look at."
SWEPCO co-owns the plant with Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, and Main says the best option is to keep the coal burning using retrofit technology to cut emissions.
"We believe that based on the analysis that we've done,that it is the most reliable and the lowest cost alternative for our customers and for the cooperative," he says. "Our plan is going to meet those regulations, or exceed them and it's going to do so in a very tight time frame."
The fix would cost about $408 million, to be split between the two companies, and would eventually be paid off by a rate increase on customers. The Public Service Commission must approve any rate increase.
"The retrofit is expensive,the other options are gonna be more expensive," Main says. "Given the size of that investment we wanted to go before the commission have them evaluate the information that we've assembled and we've asked them to make a determination that this is in the public interest."
Lev Guter, associate organizing representative for the Arkansas Sierra Club will be at the hearing too, presenting alternative options to the commissioners.
"Coal is an absolute dirty fossil fuel from cradle to grave," Guter says. "Across the country there are so many opportunities for wind, solar and energy efficiency. These are cleaner and cheaper alternatives that are available right now."
He says the state is at a crossroads, and has a chance to choose a cleaner direction.
"We want to make sure that Arkansas is put on a path for energy efficiency and renewable energy," he says. "Now is the opportunity, not before we lock ourselves into thirty more years of dirty coal energy."
Guter says the company can buy wind generated electricity from neighboring states.
"We are neighbors right next door to one of the largest wind resources in the country, Oklahoma and northern Texas," Guter says. "It is not that they need to create renewable energy from the ground up, what we have are enormous renewable wind energy options right now and what we're looking at is make sure that the Public Service Commission knows that SWEPCO has an alternative."
Main says keeping the coal burning is a more reliable option.
"We've got a large customer base in this area, and we had to look at reliability issues," he says. "The Flint Creek Power Plant is the only base load power plant providing 24 hour, seven day a week power for the Northwest Arkansas' load center."
The hearing starts Tuesday morning at 9:30 and is scheduled to last three days. Main hopes to have a decision by the end of the year, and says if environmental permits are approved construction could start in 2014 and be completed by 2016.