The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Can City Council ‘steam team’ solve steam issue for industries near downtown, the hospitals, Coe College and the downtown? Is a city power plant in the offing?

In Alliant Energy, City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon, Pat Shey on January 27, 2009 at 2:43 pm

At council member Monica Vernon’s urging, the City Council last week created a four-member “steam team” to try to see if City Hall might help salvage a low-cost steam utility for industries near the downtown, the downtown itself, the city’s two hospitals and Coe College.

The council has expressed worry about the future of steam system before, but has little action to show for it.

Vernon – fresh off a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., with council colleagues Justin Shields and flood victim Jerry McGrane – said more action than talk would be in the offing.

But it was McGrane, known as a specialist in neighborhood and housing issues, not utility issues, who stepped out and provided a glimpse of what might be coming.

McGrane reported last week and repeated at the council meeting that federal officials told the Cedar Rapids contingent during their visit to D.C. that federal dollars might be available for a new city-owned municipal steam power operation, particularly one that might be on the cutting edge environmentally.

Let’s wait and see.

It was back in September that the council first commented publicly about steam when some members contemplated subsidizing steam rates. The council had learned then that Alliant Energy had told steam customers dependent on the utility’s flood-damaged Sixth Street Generating Station that it would provide steam from temporary boilers this winter for four to five times the previous cost.

Suffice to say the customers can’t endure such a price hike for long. Some building owners in the downtown already have abandoned Alliant’s steam system, installing their own boilers to provide heat.

In early January, Alliant announced that it had not reached an agreement with its eight large customers – which include Quaker, Cargill, the two hospitals and Coe College — to provide steam for next winter. Steam is used for heat, sterilization and industrial processing.

However, last week, Alliant announced to the City Council that it had met with the eight big customers again with a new offer that was now under consideration by the customers. The new offer would provide steam for the next three to five years at rates significantly lower than the current ones but still significantly higher than the rates that the customers had paid prior to the June flood.

At the same time last week, though, Coe College and St. Luke’s Hospital told the council that they both were considering Alliant’s new offer even as they were heading out to try to secure $4.65 million in federal money to build their own steam operation.

Coe and St. Luke’s both said they still were interested in a solution that would provide reasonably priced steam and that would keep the existing group of steam users together.

Alliant representatives said the value of the utility’s latest offer to the large customers is that it would keep them together and the steam infrastructure in place to buy some time for a longer-term solution to be found.

One idea that the City Council wants to investigate is the burning of municipal solid waste and sludge from its waste-water treatment plant to generate energy.

The council has given approval for a $1-million study to see if it makes sense to burn solid waste and sewage sludge to generate power.

As for the council’s steam team, its members are Vernon, McGrane, Shields and Pat Shey.

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