In March, the century-old Blount Street power plant Downtown will make natural gas - not coal - its primary fuel.

The change will cut down on air pollution in the city but will also mean the elimination of nine jobs at the Madison Gas & Electric plant, employees were told last week.

"The amount of coal we plan to burn this year (at the Blount plant) compared to just a few years ago is significantly less. It is way, way down," MGE spokesman Steve Kraus said Monday.

That's not so much due to a conscious effort by the Madison utility company to scale back, prior to plans - announced in 2006 - to stop burning coal at Blount altogether by the end of 2011.

The power plant has burned less and less coal over the past couple of years as demand for elecricity has shrunk with the stunted economy, and as the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, which runs the Great Lakes-area power grid, has called the plant into service less often, Kraus said.

"So our need to buy coal has gone down to virtually nothing," he said.

Built in 1903, the Blount Street power plant was a baseload plant for decades, supplying electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to Madison. But as new generation has been built in recent years - including the natural gas-fueled power plant on the UW-Madison campus that provides steam and chilled water to heat and cool campus buildings, in addition to generating up to 150 megawatts of electricity - the Blount Street plant has been relegated to secondary status.

As a complicating factor, coal-fired plants are more expensive to operate than natural gas, Kraus said, adding that the planned Mar. 12 switch to natural gas as the No. 1 fuel is "a way to control costs."

Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said the plan sounds like a good move.

"Natural gas prices are fairly reasonable right now. Plus it has fewer emissions of pollutants," Higley said.

Kraus said MGE is on track to eliminate coal altogether as a fuel for the Blount plant within two years.

By then, the utility company will have ended 70 jobs. So far, 43 positions at Blount have been cut since 2006, with 13 of those employees moving to other jobs within the company and the others left vacant, for the most part, through attrition, said Joe Pellitteri, assistant vice president of human resources.

The Blount Street plant can generate up to 190 megawatts of power; when it is switched to all natural gas, its capacity will be 100 megawatts, enough for 50,000 homes.

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