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Plant offers electrical and economic boost

You might not know that it's there, quietly buzzing between the county's incinerator and waste water treatment plant.

But on a scorching summer day or a chilly winter night, you would certainly know if it wasn't.

Mirant Corp. turned on its 474-megawatt natural gas-powered plant last week in Shady Hills, plugging in a source of excess electricity for Tampa Bay, and one of Pasco's biggest capital investments in recent history.

The $160-million plant provides electricity to other power companies that need it during peak service times, such as hot days when residents turn on their air conditioners, and cold mornings, when people crank up the heat.

Mirant has a five-year contract to provide electricity wholesale to a utility, the name of which Mirant would not disclose citing a confidentiality agreement.

The plant could add millions in tax revenues to the county's coffers without straining county services. Pasco's property appraiser values the 30-acre site and office at $617,245 and Mirant will pay $12,552 in property taxes this year. The power generation facility, which will encompass most of the plant's taxable value, won't be on the tax rolls until next year.

"It's a huge ad valorem tax advantage to the county," said Mary Jane Stanley, executive director of Pasco's Economic Development Council. The plant employs a staff of nine, and the jobs pay an average of $35,000, well above the county average, she said.

"It wouldn't be the same as if a 2,000-employee company came in, it's a different kind of development."

By comparison, Florida Power's Anclote power plant, which is more than 20 years old and much bigger than the Shady Hills plant, pays about $3.7-million in county taxes each year.

Another benefit, Stanley said, is having a national company in Pasco County.

"Pasco could get national exposure that way, in their annual reports and publications," she said.

This is how the Shady Hills plant works: The plant has three natural gas-fired combustion turbines. Once a power company needs the extra energy, the plant's natural gas stores are burned to spin the turbine's blades, which in turn crank the generators and create electricity.

That electricity is then transmitted through Florida Power's transmission lines, to a utility, which then provides that power to its customers.

As for what local utility Mirant is doing business with, officials contacted this week from Tampa Electric Co., Florida Power and Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative all said that their companies have not contracted with Mirant for power from its new peaker plant.

Atlanta-based Mirant has 28 other plants throughout the United States, but this is its first in Florida.

Mirant is based in Atlanta but has operations worldwide, and approximately 10,000 employees. It bought the Shady Hills plant from El Paso Energy in October, while the plant was still under construction.

Peaker plants are not regulated by the Public Service Commission because they sell the energy wholesale to utilities. But the plants must adhere to state and federal environmental restrictions.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the emissions from Mirant's plant more than meet state and federal guidelines.

The plant emits nine parts per million of nitrous oxide _ far below the DEP's limit of 75 parts per million for these sorts of plants. The plant's fuel oil contains 0.05 percent sulfur, far below the DEP's limit of 0.8 percent.

Peaker plants are expected to keep sprouting up with the growth in population and demand for power. There are about 20 peaker plants planned or under construction in Florida over the next decade (three of them are in Polk County).

"This Mirant plant is a good example that there's clearly a need for more capacity and energy in the state," said Mike Green, vice president of Florida operations for Duke Energy. "Florida is still the fourth largest state and growing as fast even with the recessionary times, the load is still growing at 1,000 megawatts per year," Green added. "And I think everybody is looking at Tampa as one of the major growth areas."

Merchant providers such as Duke and Mirant can only build peaker plants in Florida. But Green is also chairman of the Partnership for Affordable Competitive Energy, a group of merchant power plant providers lobbying the state for permission to build regular power plants.

_ Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is