Power plant concerns analysts

OAK CREEK, WISCONSIN - Wisconsin Energy Corp.'s construction of a $2.3 billion coal-fired power plant in Oak Creek is on schedule, but the fight over one environmental permit for the project stirred interest from investment analysts.

At issue is the water intake structure in Lake Michigan that would provide water to cool the plant. Environmental groups Clean Wisconsin and Sierra Club - as well as Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan - oppose the structure. They say it relies on old technology that would cause more damage to Lake Michigan fish than a modern system requiring cooling towers.

The dispute over the plant was kept alive earlier this year when a federal appeals court threw out an Environmental Protection Agency rule that Wisconsin regulators relied on in approving the water intake structure. Discussion of the project came after Wisconsin Energy announced third-quarter earnings rose 17 percent, boosted by higher collection of fuel costs from its customers, as well as customer growth.

The contested water intake structure led to a series of questions from analysts about whether construction of the coal plants would be delayed if the utility is required to build cooling towers.

"It seems this process has been going on. It seems to be a slight overhang on the stock," said Andrew Levi of Brencourt Advisors in New York City during a company conference call with stock analysts. Wisconsin Energy executives said plant construction would be delayed a year or more if the utility is required to spend $300 million to build cooling towers for the Oak Creek plant. But Chairman Gale Klappa and Executive Vice President Rick Kuester said that isn't likely to happen.

"We feel pretty confident with our argument, and we think the (judge) will see it our way," Kuester said. "If not, we'll take it to appeal." After a hearing last week before administrative law Judge William Coleman, a decision is expected by the end of November, Klappa said. Meanwhile, construction of the $2.3 billion project is 42 percent complete, with construction of the water intake pipe virtually finished, Klappa said.

A new coal-handling facility that would serve both the existing Oak Creek power plant and the new project is almost finished, as well. Company executives say they believe their method of drawing water from Lake Michigan is environmentally more sound than cooling towers because it would draw in less lake water and result in fewer emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas.

But national environmental groups and the Illinois attorney general have weighed in against the use of so-called once-through cooling systems and in favor of cooling towers, resulting in a legal victory for the environmental group Riverkeeper in a close y watched federal court case earlier this year. Katie Nekola, energy program director at Clean Wisconsin, said her group and others have been raising questions about the legality of the water intake structure since the project was first proposed several years ago.

"Ratepayers shouldn't be on the hook for the cost of the cooling towers if that should prove necessary," she said.

The Milwaukee-based utility holding company reported net income rose to $83 million, or 70 cents a share, from $71 million, or 60 cents a share, a year ago.


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