Debate over Drake power plant gets personal

July 16, 2012
photo - The Martin Drake power plant on 10/18/01. Photo by The Gazette file
The Martin Drake power plant on 10/18/01. Photo by The Gazette file 

The debate over the future of the downtown Martin Drake Power Plant heated up Monday, as City Councilman Tim Leigh questioned the technology a local company, Neumann Systems Group, is installing to control emissions at the plant, and Neumann Systems’ CEO David Neumann questioned Leigh’s motives.

In a newsletter Leigh e-mailed to subscribers Monday, Leigh laid out a lengthy list of questions about why Utilities invested in Neumann Systems and pursued its technology instead of competing products. Leigh told The Gazette he hasn’t directly asked those questions of Utilities officials, but said they receive his newsletter.

Leigh suggested that City Council, acting as the Utilities board, should consider alternatives to Neumann’s NeuStream system, even though Utilities signed a $73.5 million contract with Neuman Systems last year.

“Based on the information at hand, with no proven operational experience and no performance specifications, this technology seems too experimental for investment or financing by a municipal utility,” Leigh wrote.

Neumann fired back in a letter addressed to all of the City Council members, saying that Leigh has a financial motivation in killing the deal and dismantling the Drake plant, because, as a commercial real estate agent, Leigh would stand to benefit from the redevelopment of the area.

“Based on an earlier conversation with Mr. Leigh, we believe that he currently has direct financial interests in downtown properties,” Neumann wrote. “We further believe this represents a conflict of interest in dealing with the Martin Drake plant closure and the disposition of NSG’s project.”

Leigh denied having a conflict of interest, saying that even if Drake is decommissioned, he will likely be long retired before the land is redeveloped.

“I’ll be out of the game before I derive any benefit,” Leigh said.

Neumann said in the letter that Leigh has made libelous statements about the company in making an allusion to Harold Hill, the fictional con man in the musical and film “The Music Man,” when discussing Neumann in a June newsletter.

“I’ve been here since 1970,” Neumann told The Gazette last week. “It’s kind of insulting to be accused of being a con man or of trying to put something over on the city.”

Neumann has been testing the NeuStream system at gradually increasing scales at Drake since 2007. It’s a modular design, Neumann said, so there is no technological barrier to scaling it up.

“In the end, we had well over 5,000 hours of testing on this,” he said. “This was done in the right way.”

Leigh said he hasn’t seen any independent evidence that the technology works as promised, although the process has been studied by the Electric Power Research Institute and Neumann last year won a Department of Energy grant to pursue removing carbon dioxide from coal emissions.

“It would be really easy to shut me up: Show me the answers, prove to me the technology works,” Leigh said.

The Electric Power Research Institute issued a report on the system in 2010 that said it performed as promised on a 20-megawatt test platform, although the report didn’t investigate whether the system would work at full scale. Last year, Neumann also won a Department of Energy grant to pursue removing carbon dioxide from coal emissions.

If installing the NeuStream system at Drake is delayed or canceled, Neumann said switching the installation to the Ray Nixon Power Plant south of the city would be the logical move, although doing so would require redesigning parts of the system and potentially cost several million dollars.

“If you have a good, solid solution to a problem, it survives and that’s what we expect here,” Neumann said.

City Council, acting as the Utilities board, plans to hire an independent company to investigate the options for the Martin Drake plant, with a report due around the end of the year. The board will discuss Drake again at Wednesday’s meeting.

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