Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) proposed the construction of a $3.4 billion gas-to-methanol production plant to replace the Kaiser Aluminum Smelter on the Blair Waterway. Methanol is a toxic, colorless, flammable liquid alcohol that is made by oxidizing methane.
If the proposition passes, the plant will be the third and largest of NWIW’s proposed plants within the Pacific Northwest. The other plants were proposed in the Port of Kalama and Port of St. Helen, in Kalama, WA and Columbia City, OR.
The construction for the gas-to-methanol plant will begin as soon as 2017, with operation beginning in 2020. The plant would produce 20,000 tons of methanol through four production lines daily. The methanol would be transported by carrier ships to China, where it would be transformed to “olefins”—a plastic-like substance used in wallpaper, carpets, ropes, and vehicle interiors that is resistant to mildew, abrasions, sunlight, and staining. Some of these products will return to the United States, possibly through the Port of Tacoma.
To build the plant it will take a lot of electricity and water. NWIW officials told Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU) that the full production of the plant would require 400 megawatts of power, and 450 megawatts at its peak. According to the National Hydropower Association, 400 megawatts is equivalent to powering approximately 300,000 to 400,000 U.S. homes.
The plant would also use around 14.4 million gallons of water per day, which according to TPU could supply roughly 77,500 homes.
Tacoma Power’s customers used 543 megawatts on average in 2014, which is most of the city’s power supply.
In other words, it will take nearly as many megawatts to build the methanol plant as Tacoma Power users consumed in all of 2014. To compensate, TPU will have to purchase electricity from outside sources to supply NWIW with what it needs. This cost may go to TPU customers.
TPU Director Bill Gaines said although these costs may be dispersed evenly to customers; he recommends the new business pay for the increased costs.
NWIW signed a long term lease last year with the Port of Tacoma for the former Kaiser Aluminum Smelter property that has been out of business for more than 12 years. After the port bought the site they demolished the buildings and cleaned up the area.
Tacoma Port Commissioner, Connie Bacon, told The News Tribune she thinks it’s a worthy proposal that is great for jobs and the port’s finances.
According to NWIW spokesperson, Charla Skaggs, the $3.4 billion project will create 1,000 jobs during peak construction and 260 permanent jobs for workers in the region.
While building the plant would create additional jobs, it also raises hefty environmental concerns. Olefin manufacturers once produced methanol primarily from coal. Recently, manufacturers have been transitioning to natural gas.
China is attempting to reduce its reliance on coal and the growing demand for olefin. In North America, natural gas is inexpensive and abundant. Skaggs says creating methanol at the port for export to China is an economically feasible process. Skaggs says, the plant will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using technology called “ultra-low emissions” or ULE.
Tacoma residents David Mueller and his wife shared with The News Tribune their concerns about the negative impacts the plant will have on Tacoma’s environment. The couple is worried that the plant would lead to additional water and air pollution.
A nonprofit group called Citizens for a Healthy Bay is closely observing the process of the plant as it proceeds. Executive Director of the organization, Melissa Malott, says the group is “neutral but concerned.”
Malott met with NWIW and is waiting on a complete and thorough plan for the plant’s water use.
For more information about the proposed methanol plant go to healthybay.org or CHB’s Information Hub for Proposed Tacoma Methanol Plant Facebook page.