Friday, April 9, 2010

Washington County coal plant gets green light

Posted By on Fri, Apr 9, 2010 at 4:55 PM

When everyone's talking about climate change legislation and nuclear power, six Georgia EMCs are charging ahead in a dash to build the state's first coal plant in 20 years.

The state Environmental Protection Division yesterday granted permits to Power4Georgians that, barring any challenges, will allow the coalition to break ground on its proposed 850-MW plant in middle Georgia — and eventually start pumping out carbon dioxide, mercury and some other delightful emissions.

Dean Alford, CEO of the company that's managing the $2.1-billion project, the Washington County plant would generate enough electricity to power up to 700,000 homes. More than 1,600 jobs would be created during the plant's four-year construction phase, he said, and nearly 130 on-site jobs would be available once the plant starts operations. According to press materials, the proposed facility boasts some of the most advanced technology and safeguards available.

But if you take a look at today's energy landscape, a coal plant is a rather bold business venture. As I said to Alford yesterday, it's kind of like starting a newspaper.

Congress is reportedly set to consider legislation that would force industries and power plants to curtail their CO2 emissions. In a filing with the state Public Service Commission last month, Georgia Power signaled it's scaling back its use of coal. The utility's Plant Mitchell is being converted to burn biomass. No coal plants broke ground on projects in the United States last year. Nuclear, solar, wind and biomass energy are considered the safest — albeit slightly more expensive — bets.

When asked why the coalition is plowing ahead with a coal plant at such a time, Alford said that coal remains the most cost-effective solution for EMCs. He said the nonprofit utilities are focused on providing the most cost-effective and lowest priced energy for their operations and members, respectively.

"We haven't stuck our heads in the sand when it comes to a possible 'climate tax,'" Alford told CL. "And even with what's proposed, [the Washington County plant]'s still the most cost effective. And the alternatives are still more expensive than the carbon tax. It's a great question, and one we would've been naive not to consider."

The plant is also necessary because many of the participating EMCs purchase power from other sources. Some of those contracts are set to expire as early as next year. The Washington County plant, Alford said, would primarily replace those sources. When asked if the EMCs considered simple energy efficiency programs, which a recent report suggests could save as much energy as a new carbon belcher would produce, he said the groups have spent millions of dollars on such initiatives.

"At the end of the day, [energy-efficiency alone] won't meet the needs of the people," Alford said. "It doesn't 100 percent replace the need for electricity. Sounds good in theory, but reality of it is that the economics doesn't work."

Alford said the group modified the plant's design after meeting with EPD officials and the public. Stormwater run-off from the plant won't be released into the Ogechee River. The plant will remove approximately 13.5 million gallons of water per day from the Oconee River. Anywhere from one to four million gallons would be returned to the basin and none of the water will come into contact with coal or gypsum, he said. Levels of mercury, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen flouride emissions have also been reduced. Alford adds that the plant's advanced design could result in 40 to 50 percent less carbon emissions compared to older coal plants. (More specifics about the plant's modifications can be found in a thorough piece by the Macon Telegraph's S. Heather Duncan. Courtesy of Power4Georgians, here are additional details about the plant.)

Citizens have until May 10 to appeal the permits. Justine Thompson of GreenLaw, an environmental law firm that recently challenged air permits for Plant Longleaf, another proposed coal plant in Southwest Georgia, said official documents won't be available for review until Monday. If permits are a reflection of the media comments and indications she's seen so far, she says, a challenge is likely.

Even with all those modifications, Thompson says, "this will still be one of the largest new pollution sources in Georgia in decades. It's still going to emit six million tons of carbon dioxide every year. It's still going to be releasing high levels of mercury — and will be one of the top mercury emitters in Georgia — near many of our rivers where the fish aren't safe to eat because of mercury contamination."

If GreenLaw or another organization decides to appeal the permits, they'll be in a crunch. EPD Director Allen Barnes is expected to decide whether to issue new permits for Plant Longleaf soon. Two bills that would have given Power4Georgians an advantage during such an appeal — and for which Alford could be seen lobbying for down at the Gold Dome — failed in both chambers and are effectively dead for the session.

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