Tide begins to turn against coal-fired Plant Washington

Guest Blog | January 19, 2012 | Coal, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Utilities
In Georgia, another coal plant is dead, and murmurs from Cobb EMC indicate that the tide may be turning against construction and pursuit of Plant Washington and its twin coal-fired power plant proposal, Plant Ben Hill.

Plant Longleaf, a coal-fired power plant proposed near Blakely, GA, was canceled in December 2011 after millions of dollars and more than ten years were spent attempting to acquire state permits. LS Power, the independent generator behind the proposal, said, “economic conditions right now just don’t support continuing development.” The announcement marks a huge victory for environmental groups, citizens, and electricity customers.

Additionally, according to a January 13 article in the Marietta Daily Journal, Cobb EMC’s board of directors and CEO Chip Nelson have “cooled” on the Power4Georgians (P4G) consortium’s proposal to build Plant Washington and Plant Ben Hill, and have begun to seek alternative sources to meet the utility co-op’s future energy needs. Cobb EMC is the lead utility behind P4G, and if they pull out, the four other utility co-ops backing the coal plants would likely find themselves with a choice: cancel the plants, or face an impossibly huge financial commitment.

The change of heart on Plant Washington seems to be a direct result of new leadership on Cobb EMC’s board and years of controversy stemming from questionable actions by the former CEO, Dwight Brown. After a 2007 civil suit alleged fiscal mismanagement by the board and Dwight Brown, EMC customers (who are also co-op member-owners) dogged the EMC to schedule long-delayed board elections. When the first round was finally held last November, they gave the boot to two of ten incumbents – two others declined even to run.

The four new leaders promised transparency and fiscal accountability, and now members (and even public opinion leader Don McKee in his recent piece on the issue) are calling for that accountability to include pulling out of coal plant proposals that consumer advocate Georgia Watch estimates could cost upward of $4 billion (each) to build. SACE and our allies backed the new decision-makers on Cobb EMC’s board with valuable research on Plant Washington and P4G, including the questionable ties between the individuals giving and receiving development contracts (see our previous blog), and the harsh realities of financing a coal plant in today’s economy.

Cobb EMC member and retired utility planner Mark Hackett, who educated board candidates about generation planning, told the MDJ:

“All of the evidence that I have reviewed indicates that continuing to build Plant Washington is a bad idea. I encourage the Cobb EMC Board to stop throwing good money after bad before hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted. The members of Cobb EMC have already stated emphatically that they want a new evaluation of Plant Washington by electing four new directors at their Nov. 12 election. Now is the time for each EMC involved in Plant Washington to stall further investment, re-evaluate their power supply needs and reconsider their participation in this project.”

The Cobb EMC board is expected to take up an official discussion of its future support for P4G and the coal plant proposals at its next board meeting on January 24. We encourage the board members to officially seal the deal and end Cobb EMC’s involvement with the project, though we do hope no final decisions will be made on other long-term power supply matters until new leadership is elected to the remaining six seats on the board on March 31. Pulling out of Plant Washington would be another huge victory for our air and water, and for Georgians who would ultimately be the ones paying for the coal plants.

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