I've been feeling guilty for comparing the Seattle Monorail Project with the Washington Public Power Supply System. Not because the comparison...

Share story

I’ve been feeling guilty for comparing the Seattle Monorail Project with the Washington Public Power Supply System.

Not because the comparison is unfair to the monorail. No, my conscience is troubled because the comparison, in a way, maligns what WPPSS — a.k.a. Whoops! — became.

The Richland-based agency has turned itself around over the past decade, increasing efficiency at the one nuclear plant that was built and jumping into alternative-energy development, including a wind farm. In 1999, the consortium of 19 public utilities that make up the agency — including Seattle City Light, Snohomish County Public Utility District and Tacoma Public Utilities — embraced a new name, “Energy Northwest.”

“Monorail might be like WPPSS, but it’s nothing like Energy Northwest,” says Rudi Bertschi of Seattle. He served on the agency’s board for 10 years, two as chairman, and helped set the new course.

Like the monorail, WPPSS was overwhelmed by bad projections, spiraling construction costs and managers with no experience in building a project of the scale proposed. In 1983, it defaulted on $2.2 billion in bonds and canceled four nuclear plants.

More than two decades ago, Bertschi testified against WPPSS plant construction before a state commission. But he emphasizes there is a difference between building a new nuclear plant and operating one that already exists.

Energy Northwest has become a good environmental story, he says.

Now, dear readers, before you go all anti-nuclear on me, hear this out. Even some environmentalists suggest nuclear power needs another look. Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore recently argued before Congress that doubling the nation’s nuclear-power production would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Not sure I’m ready to go there. Don’t forget the question of what to do with the radioactive waste stream. (Energy Northwest has 20 years worth, waiting for shipment to the still-not-completed Yucca Mountain repository.)

Nevertheless, Energy Northwest’s nuclear plant has helped fuel the region since it went on line in 1984. Its output accounts for about 9 percent of Bonneville Power Administration’s resources. During the energy crisis, the boiling-water reactor’s electrons were like gold when prices soared and drought hindered hydropower production. Energy Northwest also operates the Packwood Lake Hydroelectric Project, which generates about 27 megawatts of electricity with minimal impact on fish. In recent years, the agency has added a wind farm, solar project and — cow manure.

No kidding. Energy Northwest is a partner in a program that generates about three megawatts of electricity at a large Pasco dairy farm. And it wants to buy the power from a planned biodigester in Snohomish County. The partnership between the Tulalip Tribes and farmers will also reduce waste, benefiting salmon. One farmer told me the project will take the stink out of dairy farming. Imagine!

Added up, Energy Northwest’s non-nuclear capacity — less than 100 megawatts — accounts for only about 7.5 percent of the total. (The nuclear plant can generate up to 1,157 megawatts.) But Vic Parrish, CEO since 1996, promises more: “My goal is to get to 50/50.”

This month, the Energy Northwest board will consider a major project that could move closer to that goal — a 600-megawatt Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant. Only two such plants exist in the United States. The technology “gasifies,” rather than burns, energy inputs — which likely would include coal. The result is power much cheaper than natural gas but with emissions almost as clean.

The kicker is that Energy Northwest wants to go one better. It is working with Montana State University, which recently won a federal grant to develop a way to sequester the new plant’s carbon-dioxide emissions underground, reducing emissions dramatically. About $200 million of the project’s $950 million cost would prepare the plant for the technology.

Parrish, who honed his no-nonsense style during 21 years in the nuclear Navy under Adm. H.G. Rickover, is a believer. His new house will be fueled by a three-kilowatt solar-panel system.

Does the nuke-turned-enviro — who helped right the WPPSS ship — have any advice for the monorail project?

“You damned well better be sure you have a good organization and a good governance model,” Parrish says. “Then you’ve got to get the business done.”

Hmmm. That might be a problem. Recently, the monorail board discarded its untenable financial plan — and two key leaders resigned. But judging from the Pollyanna comments from board members who remain — read: “denial” — I’m not so sure the agency is in better stead.

Bertschi is right. The Seattle Monorail Project doesn’t hold a candle to Energy Northwest.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com