Some asked about potential health hazards; some were concerned with the long-term costs to ratepayers; while others wanted lots of specific detail on what exactly happens to heavy metals.
Residents Monday night also wanted to know what guarantees there were the backer's claims would come to pass exactly as promised. Many were quizzical, and a few were plainly hostile to Alpine Energy Group's proposed plants for St. Thomas and St. Croix.
One woman asked what kind of environmental studies have been done on the plant's impact on wetlands? Amy Dempsey of environmental consulting firm Bio-Impact is conducting studies right now, in preparation for Coastal Zone Management (CZM) permit applications. There is a wetland on the property on the south shore of St. Croix where the plant has been proposed, and alternative plans to mitigate the impact are being worked out now, Dempsey said. Those plans will have to be completed and approved by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources' CZM committee and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Another resident asked if Alpine had ever built such a plant before.
The company was created in 2007, said Alpine President James Beach. It is an investment company and has not built such a plant before, but its individual partners have.
"I've built scores of similar projects in the last 15 years," Beach said, adding that the equipment and its technology is well tested and off-the-shelf. According to Beach, BNP Paribas, a well-known European commercial bank, is putting up both the financing to build the plant and letters of credit guaranteeing performance. If Alpine does not meet all of the environmental and operational performance requirements promised, its lender can remove them as operators of the plant and put in a different operator, he said.
"With a $350 million investment at stake, you can be assured they will, too," he said. WAPA can also step in and take over operations if Alpine is not compliant with emissions or permitting or any other requirements, he said.
More questions, more answers
Who owns the land on St. Croix?
The land is partly owned by both the V.I. Water and Power Authority and the V.I. Port Authority; if the plant is built, it will be leased to Alpine.
What happens to sulfur, heavy metals, carbon monoxide and potential byproducts, like dioxin, from the burning of the petroleum coke?
Limestone injected into the very hot furnace reacts with sulfur to form calcium sulfate, the base material of gypsum board or drywall. Some heavy metals are oxidized and caught in a fiber bag filter as fine powder. According to consultant Jack Lauber, the powder is chemically similar to Portland Cement and can be used as a cement aggregate component. Once used this way, the metals are inert and do not leach out of the concrete, according to Lauber. The St. Croix and St. Thomas plants will produce about 75,000 tons of ash a year, said Alpine Vice President Don Hurd.
"That would be equivalent to about 15 percent of all the cement aggregate used in the territory on an annual basis," Hurd said.
While he and others said the ash could be used this way, there was no mention of any agreement in place to, in fact, use the ash as aggregate.
Other metals, such as mercury are caught by activated carbon filters, Lauber said. A small amount of the sulfur will be emitted from the plant's stacks. Emissions will be much lower than the existing WAPA oil-fired generators, but there will be some emissions of sulfur and carbon dioxide, he and Hurd said.
Nitrous oxide emissions are scrubbed by injecting ammonia into the hot waste gasses. They combine, leaving nitrogen gas and water. Carbon monoxide is eliminated by very high combustion temperatures, leaving only the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
What happens if there is a pet coke spill in the water?
The pet coke is inert and solid, and would not leach out into the water or spread far, said Hurd. It can be vacuumed and shoveled up. WAPA Director Hugo Hodge then interjected that the fuel oil used now can also spill and poses greater risk to the environment.
What will the electricity generated by Alpine cost?
About 14 cents a kilowatt hour at first, rising to close to 24 cents at the end of the 20-year purchase agreement, Hodge said. The pet coke itself is vastly cheaper than fuel oil.
"Pet coke is 10 percent of the price of the fuel oil we use now," Hodge said. "That's a 90 percent savings."
But the fuel is only one component of the cost of power. Using conservative estimates, assuming fairly large increases in the price of petroleum coke and pessimistic estimates of the cost of eventual carbon emission taxes, adding these plants to the power supply mix should lower power bills by at least 10 percent, Hodge said.
Several audience members said they would prefer wind, solar or some other renewable energy source rather than burning pet coke. Hodge said he agreed, adding that WAPA would be issuing requests for proposals on a solar power project later in the year. While solar can provide a portion of the power supply, it cannot be the primary source because wind and solar are intermittent and WAPA needs a steady, predictable base power supply, he said. From the responses to WAPA's request for proposals, the Alpine plan offered the best combination of reduced cost and reliable power, Hodge said.
As far as job creation goes, the plants will hire about 120 to 130 permanent employees, with an annual payroll of roughly $2.5 million, Hurd said. Roughly 500 workers will be needed at the peak of construction.
Monday's question-and-answer session was the first of three this week. A similar meeting is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Charlotte Amalie High School on St. Thomas. And, finally on St. John, a government-sponsored meeting will be held at the Legislature from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Alpine officials will testify before Sen. Barshinger’s Committee on Economic Development, Energy and Technology on St. Thomas at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Crucians in Focus have announced plans to debate the issue at 6 p.m. that same night at Gertrude’s Restaurant on St. Croix.