Co-op members confront EMC on Plant Washington

This post was authored by Eriqah Foreman Williams, former Georgia Coal Diversity Organizer, with input from Amelia Shenstone, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | July 27, 2011 | Coal, Energy Policy

On July 21 Snapping Shoals EMC members, with support from SACE and our partners, stood up to the EMC’s board of directors to stop Plant Washington and Plant Ben Hill. Snapping Shoals EMC is one of the Georgia electric co-ops that’s partnering with Cobb EMC in the Power4Georgians consortium to “explore” building two new coal-fired power plants. These plants will not only increase the pollution and consequent respiratory diseases in Georgia, but also threaten to increase each household’s electric bill significantly. The response from Snapping Shoals (kicking out petitioners) indicates that we’re making some real headway.

Because it is a co-op, Snapping Shoals EMC’s customers are also member-owners. The annual meeting is a yearly event where SSEMC members are given the opportunity to ask pressing questions to the board, though few ever do. The event is clearly a big day for the EMC and every year, more than 1,000 people usually attend.

Several concerned citizens joined Environment Georgia, SACE, and fellows from the Southern Energy Network before the meeting to discuss and learn about why Plant Washington is not a good idea financially or environmentally, for Snapping Shoals EMC members or Georgia as a whole.

Three of these brave members volunteered to ask the Board of Directors about the coal plant proposals in front of about 1,500 of their fellow members, many of whom seemed to be hearing about the coal plant for the first time. While most of the questions and requests for research got elusive non-answers about “optionality” and promises to keep rates low, one question about the cost of the coal plants forced SSEMC’s president and CEO, Brad Thomas, to reveal that the co-op has spent 9 million dollars on a coal plant he said “they have not committed to building.”

And members were told that no, SSEMC members would not be allowed to vote (despite this being contradictory with the principles of co-op open democracy SSEMC espouses on its website) on whether or not to spend more money on the plants – no matter how high the bill gets. Mr. Thomas followed this admission by asking the members to trust its leadership (which had just been re-elected in uncontested elections) saying, “We have your best interest in mind and will do what is best for our members.”

Another volunteer tenaciously challenged the board with her question:

“Why is it even a good idea to pursue this [coal plant] when seemingly everyone else in the country is moving away from coal energy?”

Her question was based on the recent Georgia Watch report (download the PDF here) that cites the 153 new coal plant proposals that have been canceled over the past four years.

“Aren’t we going in the opposite direction of everyone else?” she concluded. “That should tell us something.”

Such strident opposition to the coal plants is starting to rattle feathers at Snapping Shoals. As the meeting began to wind down, six interns and fellows headed to the parking lot to speak with members returning to their cars. Attendees were asked to sign a petition against the coal plant and were handed information. Snapping Shoals and its allies called in the police, which is a classic opposition play of social movements. Apparently a photo of our group taken at the beginning of the meeting was circulated to event security. We were told we could not hand out anything because we were not allowed to “solicit” on government property, and asked to leave.

Despite the threatening presence from the police, great questions were asked and information collected. It was a productive day in this struggle to stop development of Plant Washington and Plant Ben Hill.

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