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New plant site dictated by history

John Seelmeyer

Effects of a forest fire on Donner Summit more than 45 years ago continue to ripple through northern Nevada history this time as Sierra Pacific Power Co.

starts work on a $420 million generating plant at Tracy.

The 514-megawatt facility, which will generate enough electricity to serve about 308,000 homes, is located along Interstate 80 about 13 miles east of Sparks because it’s close to a big natural gas line that will fuel the plant.

The location was chosen, too, because it’s close to the transmission infrastructure that Sierra Pacific Power needs to carry the power from the plant to its northern Nevada customers.

The infrastructure, in turn, is in place because Sierra Pacific started building power plants at Tracy in the early 1960s a cluster of plants that today produce about 522 megawatts of power.

The cluster had a modest beginning, however, as a 53-megawatt plant built at a cost of a mere $7.5 million in 1963.

Sierra Pacific Power began building at Tracy after a fire near Truckee in the summer of 1960 the Donner Ridge fire tore through transmission lines that carried power from northern California to Reno.

Because Sierra Pacific Power at the time had almost no generating capacity of its own a few diesel generators in Reno, some small hydroelectric facilities along the Truckee River the fire left residents of the Reno area in the dark for days, said Walt Higgins, the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Sierra Pacific Resources Corp., the utility’s parent company.

That provided some urgency to the development of the first generating station at Tracy, and Sierra Pacific officials again feel some urgency to get the newest plant built.

Even though it will be fired by natural gas a fuel whose price volatility is well-known to consumers as well as utility executives Higgins said the new plant is part of an effort to diversify Sierra Pacific’s power sources.

“We can’t rely on one source of fuel,” he said.

While it is building the new plant at Tracy, Sierra Pacific also will continue planning for a major coal-fired facility near Ely.

And it’s contracting with companies such as Reno-based Ormat Technologies to tap into Nevada’s geothermal resources.

Sierra Pacific also is doing some studies of possible expansion of its coal-fired Valmy plant in north-central Nevada, said Roberto Denis, the utility’s vice president of energy supply.

Denis said, however, the company’s first choice for more coal-fired generation is the proposed project near Ely.

Along with its push to diversify its fuel sources, Sierra Pacific looks to the Tracy project as a way to reduce its reliance on out-of-state suppliers of electricity.

Currently, the company can meet about half of the demand from its customers on the hottest summer days from its own generating plants.

It needs to buy the rest on the open market.

The new plant will increase the company’s generating capacity in northern Nevada by approximately 50 percent to 1,543 megawatts from the current 1,029.

The company’s strategy more diversity, more control over its own generation is supported by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada.

Don Soderberg, chairman of the PUC, said new technology reduces the environmental effects of new generating plants.

“These are not your grandfather’s power plants,” he said.

“These are not big Smokey Joes.”

Contractors on the project include LG Constructors, a CH2M Hill subsidiary that will handle engineering procurement and construction services; General Electric, which will provide combustion and steam turbine equipment; and Nooter/Eriksen, which will provide the heat-recovery steam generator.

About 500 people will work on the construction, Denis said.

It’s scheduled to come on line in mid-2008.