Thursday, April 8, 1999
Mine could mean millions for Norton
By Rick Neale
A Texas company is fighting to build a powerplant that runs on compressed air in the old PPG limestone mine in Norton. Haddington Ventures, of Houston, wants to build a 347-megawatt plant that could be operational as early as 2001. Future expansion could increase the output to 1,388 megawatts, which would generate enough electricity for over 1.3 million people. No estimates are yet available for the amount of taxes that would be generated by the powerplant, but it stands to reason it would be an earth-shaking economic boon for the City of Norton. The company and PPG Industries are battling to secure a mandatory Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for the project. However, there is no guarantee they get their wish.
The ghost of SES
The rights to develop a powerplant in the PPG-owned mine (which is 2,200 feet below Lake Dorothy) are still owned by Summit Energy Storage (SES), of Connecticut. In the late 1980's, SES had planned to build a 1,500-megawatt hydroelectric plant on the site. This plant would have cost about $1.5 billion, taken 560 workers seven years to build and would have generated an estimated $623 million in tax revenue during its operating lifetime. FERC gave SES an operating license for the site in 1991. That license is still valid, and it gives SES the sole right to build a powerplant on the property. This license is practically the only part of the project still alive today. SES's office on Cleveland-Massillon Road closed in January, and the company's option to actually buy the mine from PPG died this summer. SES' majority owner, Consolidated Hydro, Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection in late 1997. Regardless, SES, has filed for a two-year extension of its FERC license. This would essentially tie up the property and repel any potential businesses from moving in (this also includes 92 above-ground acres along Limestone Road).
Haddington Ventures wants to convert PPG limestone mine into a compressed air storage facility. The plans call for the mine shafts to be closed and sealed. Air would be pumped into the mine by motor-driven compressors. During periods of peak electrical demand, this air would be heated and forced through turbine generators to create electricity. According to their FERC protest, the company has already begun preliminary design, legal and environmental work on the project. The plant would be projected to go online as early as 2001. The nation's only other compressed air-run powerplant is in McIntosh, Ala. This 336 megawatt plant, operated by Alabama Electric Cooperative (AES), began operations in 1991. AES plant manager Lee Davis said the air compressed inside a saltdome 1,500 feet underground. The cavern had to be mined out, a process that took 629 days. "We went through several years of start-up pains, but everything's run real well over the last four or five years," Davis said. The plant employs 14 full-time on-site workers. The salt cavern is about 19 million cubic feet, which is much smaller that the Norton mine.
PPG fights back
In response to SES' move, PPG filed a protest with FERC Feb. 18, asking for the commission to reject the two-year extension. This would make the mine easier to sell. The reason we filed the protest is because an extension would encumber the property with an eminent domain feature," said Ted Ladd, PPG managers of environmental affairs. "Anyone trying to come in to develop the property would have trouble getting a loan." Ladd said PPG is exploring all its options regarding the mines. "Right, now, everything is in the hands of FERC." Haddington Ventures followed PPG's lead by filing a 101-page protest against the SES license extension the following day. This protest accuses SES of "banking" the property and making it unusable because of a "regulatory cloud." The company says it has $72 million in capital for investment in energy projects around the country. John A. Strom of Haddington Ventures said he could not comment on the mine situation until FERC make up its mind. He said he expects a ruling over the next six weeks or so. A front-page article, headlined "Plug pulled from SES project," appeared in the Herald Sept. 17. This article prompted a letter from SES Vice President Christopher Hocker to Norton City Administrator John Morgan. In the letter, Hocker, states: "From our point of view, the status of the Project is unchanged: it is 'on hold' pending more favorable conditions in the energy market."
FERC to decide fate
FERC's decision on whether to renew SES' license could either make the compressed air plant a reality or kill it outright. Haddington Ventures and PPG have had months of discussion on the proposed powerplant, and an undisclosed offer to buy the mine is on the table. This offer is probably higher than the $805,000 offered by the City of Norton to buy the property in January. Norton and Barberton officials met in October to discuss building an industrial park on the site. The SES hydroelectric plant was projected to generate an average of $15 million per year in tax revenues, of which $10 million would go to Norton Schools.