Plant Washington, the $2 billion coal-fired power plant slated for Washington County, lost its biggest backer Tuesday when the board of Cobb EMC voted to stop funding the project.
The Marietta cooperative was providing almost 40 percent of the funding for the 850-megawatt plant, planned as the first new coal-fired plant in Georgia in a quarter century.
Although it was one of five Georgia EMCs left participating, Cobb EMC has been the primary mover behind the four-year-old project, which is being developed by POWER4Georgians.
Although environmental groups were celebrating Wednesday, Dean Alford with POWER4Georgians said in an interview that the company remains dedicated to the Plant Washington project, and the remaining EMCs have all said they still want to participate.
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“This doesn’t change any of our strategy or approaches,” he said. “We are full speed ahead.”
Three of the remaining cooperatives -- Central Georgia, Upson and Washington -- are based in Middle Georgia. (The fourth is Covington-based Snapping Shoals EMC.)
Upson EMC had a board meeting Wednesday, at which Cobb EMC’s decision was discussed, said Neil Trice, CEO of Upson EMC.
“We’re committed to continue,” he said.
He and Christy Chewning, manager of marketing at Central Georgia EMC, said Wednesday that their cooperatives had not been asked to contribute any additional funding now that Cobb EMC has pulled out.
“We regret Cobb EMC’s decision,” Chewning said. “At this moment, we are full speed ahead on (the project).” Central Georgia EMC has about 50,000 meters in 14 counties, including Bibb, Jones, Monroe, Putnam, Lamar, Jasper and Butts.
Washington EMC officials did not return calls Wednesday.
Snapping Shoals EMC is still committed to the Plant Washington project, said Leigh-Anne Burgess, EMC communications specialist. "The effects of Cobb EMC's decision to exit the project are currently unclear," she said in an email. "We will be exploring all our options over the next few months."
Alford and Trice said POWER4Georgians is disappointed with Cobb EMC’s choice, but was not surprised by it.
POWER4Georgians has been negotiating for several months to add new partners “because we anticipated this might occur due to the political and transitional climate within Cobb EMC,” Alford said.
The four new members of Cobb EMC’s board campaigned on the promise to re-evaluate the Plant Washington project.
Alford would not say whether POWER4Georgians’ potential new partners are all cooperatives or whether they are based in Georgia. But he said the new partnerships are likely to be announced soon.
Starting in 2009, POWER4Georgians has survived the defection of 6 EMCs representing more than half the stake in the plant.
But Cobb EMC was the primary instigator of the project. POWER4Georgians was initially owned by Cobb Energy, a for-profit company that was under contract to run Cobb EMC. Dwight Brown, who was CEO of both Cobb EMC and Cobb Energy, was charged last year with more than 30 counts of theft, racketeering and intimidation of witnesses related to the way the companies were run.
Cobb EMC’s Tuesday vote, held at a regular meeting of the EMC board of directors, removes any obligation for it to contribute $1.7 million to POWER4Georgians in its 2012 budget, according to a Cobb EMC press release.
Over the past four years, Cobb EMC has contributed $13 million to the Plant Washington project, said Sam Kelly, senior vice president for public relations.
The release says the decision was based primarily on two concerns: New federal environmental rules make the costs of the project uncertain, and the fact that the co-operative doesn’t currently need the energy enough to justify spending more on permits for the plant.
Although the state has granted the plant the environmental permits it needs, environmental groups continue to challenge aspects of those permits. Appeals have tied up the permits for several years.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club praised Cobb EMC for voting against continued involvement with Plant Washington.
Amelia Shenstone, Georgia coal organizer for the law center, said the vote “could be a fatal blow to Plant Washington, but we won’t know for sure until the other four EMCs pull out, which I hope they will do.”
Of Cobb EMC, she said, “We’ve felt for a long time that the economics didn’t stand up for them (to be involved in Plant Washington) and if they had a reasonable, transparent board, they would see that. We knew some board members were pretty skeptical of the project and its merits, and it sounds like they were able to convince others.”
Washington EMC has a board meeting Thursday. Katherine Cummings, director of the Sandersville-based Fall Line Alliance for a Clean Environment, said she plans to ask the EMC board -- again -- to abandon its involvement in the plant. The alliance was created to fight the Plant Washington project.
Cummings said Mark Hackett, who once headed power system planning at Oglethorpe Power and is the former owner of a consulting firm that did power supply planning for major utilities, will offer the board a short presentation on cost and revenue estimates for the Plant Washington project compared to buying the energy.
“In the meantime, we’re trying to get co-op members to call our board representatives and ask them to withdraw from the project,” said Cummings, who is also a co-op member. “Our little co-op can’t afford to foot the bill on this project.”
She said she and many other members want a full accounting of the money that has been spent on POWER4Georgians and a forensic audit of the EMC’s accounts. “We need to know the truth, and the time to do that is now,” she said.
Cobb’s decision comes in the wake of the cancellation of the only other new coal-fired power plant in Georgia, Plant Longleaf. As part of a legal settlement with environmental groups in December, energy developer LLS Power Development abandoned its plans to build the plant in west Georgia.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.