Plant Washington misses construction start deadline

A Georgia company that wants to counter national trends by building a new coal-fired power plant has missed a key deadline to start construction.

About eight years after Power4Georgians first announced plans for a plant in Washington County, the company is asking the state for another 18 months to get shovels in the ground. Its latest air permit from the state’s Environmental Protection Division expired April 14.

In an April 12 letter to the state, P4G said it cannot complete the design and commence construction of the plant until it knows the rules federal environmental regulators would set on its greenhouse gas emissions.

“If you know regulatory processes at all, you know trying to set a time for certain, that’s an impossible thing to do. I hope it doesn’t take too long,” said Dean Alford, the spokesman for P4G as well as the president and CEO of Allied Energy Services, the company tapped to develop the plant for P4G.

Alford’s letter echoes one he sent in 2013 requesting the extension that just expired. Among other things, he cited uncertainty about what was then a draft federal rule to limit greenhouse gases from new power plants.

Last October, the federal Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rules known as the “Clean Power Plan.” Deep in part of the official explanation of the rule, the EPA wrote that the design of Plant Washington would not meet the greenhouse gas standards for new plants. It said the new rules likely would apply to Plant Washington but that P4G has not asked for a formal ruling on the matter.

P4G counters that it has signed contracts for major parts of the plant that put it far enough along down the road that new rules would not apply to them.

Alford said company lawyers are trying to determine the next procedural steps for getting regulatory clarity since that rule was published.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court has hit pause on the new rules, pending the outcome of a legal challenge brought by a group of states, including Georgia.

The plant’s doubters still say it’s a bad idea.

Mercury and coal ash from the plant would taint both the Ogeechee and Oconee river basins, according to green groups, such as the Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.

“Plant Washington is trying to avoid being recognized for what it is, what it would be: a large new source of carbon pollution,” said Kurt Ebersbach, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

For years, the center and other critics have been fighting the plant and doubt it has the investors it needs. P4G started as a consortium of several electric membership corporations, though all have dropped out. Alford said it still has a backer in the Colorado-based Taylor Energy Fund, a deal first announced in 2012, and that Plant Washington can tap international financing. Efforts to reach Taylor Energy Fund for comment were not successful.

But utilities seem to be planning on a carbon-constrained future by shuttering coal plants. Georgia Power is asking for state permission to shut down some of its coal units, as it expands the nuclear-fueled Plant Vogtle on the Savannah River.

Marilyn Brown, a professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech, studies utilities, energy sustainability and policy. She said the outlook for coal-fired electricity generation looks bleak. She pointed out that Peabody Energy Corp., the St. Louis-based company that bills itself as the world’s largest private-sector coal company, fell into bankruptcy in April. Other major coal companies are in similar trouble.

She said she thinks the court likely will uphold the Clean Power Plan’s limitations on carbon dioxide pollution and said the South is awash in excess power capacity.

“This is not the time to invest in new polluting units,” Brown said.

P4G has said the plant would cost about $2.1 billion to build and would produce about 850 megawatts of power, enough for up to 850,000 homes per year.

Alford has long said that Plant Washington would be a much cleaner coal plant than the decades-old units that Georgia Power is shutting down. He said it is smart to have a diverse portfolio of base load power capacity and that there will be demand for Plant Washington.

The Georgia EPD has no deadline to rule on the permit extension, but similar decisions typically take at least 60 days and can take more than a year.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee