Plant Washington future unclear due to emissions fight

mlee@macon.comApril 14, 2013 

ATLANTA -- The failure of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize the nation’s first proposed carbon dioxide emission limits for new power plants by a Saturday deadline shifted little between the parties that are warring over a proposed power plant in Washington County.

Environmental opponents of the project say new carbon dioxide rules will apply to Plant Washington, and they are pondering a lawsuit to push the point. They also say the coal-fired plant is a financial gamble, especially under those green rules.

But the plant’s developer signed key contracts on April 12 to purchase and erect a boiler, which he said means Plant Washington remains in compliance with a certain part of the rule that allows them to bypass any new carbon dioxide limits.

“The proposed rule is still the proposed rule until the final rule comes out, ... and so we’re operating under the proposed rule and we are a transitional source,” said Dean Alford, president and CEO of Allied Energy Services, the developer engaged by Power4Georgians, as well as its spokesman. Power4Georgians plans an 850-megawatt power plant outside Sandersville in east central Georgia.

A so-called “transitional source” is a plant that had its permits issued and construction started in time to be exempted from proposed caps on carbon dioxide emissions per unit of power produced. Those limits are expected to make new coal-fired power plants more expensive. The limits do not apply to existing plants or those substantially under way by April 13.

The EPA has often delayed finalizing its rules, however -- sometimes for years. None of the requirements would be enforceable until then.

And it’s possible that the proposal will never be finalized. The Washington Post reported last month that the EPA might rewrite the rule. That could help power companies by delaying new requirements, and such a delay would further increase the likelihood that Plant Washington would not be affected.

A Power4Georgians statement said the company plans to sign a construction contract for the rest of the facility by September. The plant would create 200 to 300 permanent jobs and take five years to build, according to the statement.

It said the boiler manufacturer contract is with Japan-based IHI Corp. and the contract to erect it is with Zachry Industrial, a U.S. company..

But Southern Environmental Law Center attorney John Suttles said he thinks calling Plant Washington a transitional source is out of line with how the EPA has interpreted the rule before. The center is considering a legal challenge based in part on what it says is a federal Clean Air Act permit that’s too new to be fit into the exemption.

“The fact is Plant Washington cannot meet all of the legal requirements that will apply to the plant,” Suttles said.

Though nobody now knows what the final carbon dioxide rule will be, “it would be an extremely risky and perhaps even a reckless gamble for any developer to make a bet that the EPA will never finalize these standards,” said Seth Gunning, conservation organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Georgia. He said the federal Clean Air Act obligates the EPA to set up greenhouse gas emission rules.

Indeed, the expected arrival of greener rules is part of why the aged coal-burning Plant Branch in adjacent Putnam County is easing toward 2015 closure. Georgia Power is shutting off it and several other coal- or oil-burning power plant units statewide.

The company cited falling natural gas prices, the cost of environmental regulations and a move toward a more diverse energy portfolio as reasons for the closures.

The Development Authority of Washington County supports Plant Washington and is negotiating some potential financial incentive, which could include a tax abatement.

“We strongly encourage that type of development here in the county because it means jobs and it means capital investment and therefore ad valorem taxes,” said Charles Lee, the authority’s executive director. He declined to discuss any figures related to Plant Washington.

Earlier this month, the authority approved up to $30 million in tax abatement bonds for a 7.7-megawatt solar power farm planned by Dominion, a Virginia-based energy producer.

Plant Washington would be a medium-size, fossil-fuel-powered plant for Georgia. Georgia Power’s biggest such plant has a capacity of more than 3,000 megawatts, but all others are about half that size or smaller.

Alford declined to name any of the financial backers for the construction phase of Plant Washington or to confirm any customers who have signed up to buy power from the plant.

To contact reporter Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.

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