New hurdle for Plant Washington pitch

mlee@macon.comApril 13, 2014 

ATLANTA -- The backers of a plan for a coal plant in Sandersville are negotiating with state environmental regulators again in a permit wrangle that’s stretched for years and reaches from Sandersville to Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

This month, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Air Protection Branch in Atlanta opened a public comment period on a request from Power4Georgians.

The company wants an 18-month extension on a state air quality permit to build and operate what would be an 850-megawatt generating facility called Plant Washington.

Six years after the first announcement, the site at Mayview and Mathis roads outside Sandersville is the site of little activity besides some tree clearing, and the electric membership corporations that were first onboard have left the Power4Georgians partnership. Green legal challenges are ongoing.

Meanwhile, the company has its other eye on Washington, D. C., where the federal Environmental Protection Agency is working to enact nationwide greenhouse gas limits for new power plants.

The federal government must decide if the Georgia plant would be subject to any new rules or if it is far enough along to be grandfathered into some other framework.

The EPD ruminations begun in February 2012 are still not finished.

If the federal government decides Plant Washington would be subject to the most stringent version of the proposals yet seen, Power4Georgians may have to abandon the project altogether.

The company has argued to the feds that key contracts for pricey machinery and work put it far enough underway that it should not be subject to whatever rules eventually are passed for new power plants.

On the other hand, letters from Power4Georgians to the state asking for the permit extension say construction has not commenced.

“The regulatory morass created by the EPA that continues to prevent P4G from completing the design of the facility and commencing construction” is one justification for extending the state permit, according to a September 2013 letter from Power4Georgians asking the state for an extension.

A November letter from Power4Georgians to the state says the company is in a “difficult position.”

This past week Power4Georgians said it needs the state extension due to “regulatory lag and uncertainty,” according to a written statement from Robert Vickery, a vice president at Allied Energy Services, the putative plant developer.

Dean Alford, president and CEO of Allied who also is Power4Georgians’ point person, was traveling and unavailable for comment.

“I’m still very positive about it,” said Charles Lee, executive director of the Development Authority of Washington County. But he also said, “the number of us who are still encouraged by that possibility are dwindling. ... They’ve had one hurdle and roadblock after another.”

The Sierra Club plans to ask the EPD to hold hearings on the permit extension proposal.

“We see there are hundreds of people around the state concerned about the issue,” said Seth Gunning of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “People around the country are watching what’s going on in Georgia.”

Gunning also suggested the market is not behind the project. The company has “shown they don’t have the financial wherewithal to actually begin what they said they’re going to do,” he said.

An attempt to reach the Colorado-based Taylor Energy Fund, named last year as a project backer, was unsuccessful.

Indeed, Georgia Power is closing some of its oldest, dirtiest coal-burning facilities, switching to nuclear and cheaper natural gas.

The plant “will be a financial burden for anyone who is connected to it,” said Katherine Helms Cummings, longtime Plant Washington critic and executive director of the Fall Line Alliance For Clean Energy.

As for Washington County, other energy projects continue. The ribbon cutting for a new 7.7-megawatt solar farm is scheduled for May 2. Lee also said timber-based biofuel plans are in the works, though one key company also has run into federal regulatory hurdles.

“There is an increase in the use of biomass and biofuels ... a lot of these are exports,” Lee said.

Work is also starting on early stages of a short line railroad that could reach all the way to the Plant Washington site, Lee said. But with or without the plant, it has other potential customers on its path closer to town.

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