Settlement Forces Cancellation of Georgia Supercritical Coal Plant

Under a settlement agreement reached between environmental groups on Tuesday and Power4Georgians, the consortium of four electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) in Georgia will continue development of its $2.1 billion coal-fired Plant Washington but will shelve plans for its proposed 850-MW supercritical Ben Hill plant.

The agreement was reached after environmental groups challenged a Plant Washington permit issued by the Georgia Department of Environmental Protection. Along with cancelling the proposed Ben Hill plant, Power4Georgians agreed to meet stringent emission standards for mercury and other air pollutants and invest $5 million in energy efficiency and renewable projects. The settlement “clears the way for obtaining the final permits needed to design, build and operate the power facility,” it said in a statement.

The Sierra Club, the Fall Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE), Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and GreenLaw, said in a statement that Plant Washington now faced “its steepest challenge yet,” because a rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required new plants to curb their carbon dioxide emissions, and Power4Georgians had not considered carbon capture technology in the original Plant Washington proposal.

“Plant Washington continues to lack a complete and legally effective permit that authorizes construction, and it won’t have one until the mercury permit amendment is issued, which will take another 30 days at least,” said Kurt Ebersbach, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Based on filings by Power4Georgians in this case, it is clear that they have not done engineering, selected the boilers, lined up investors, or met any of the criteria that EPA is looking at to exempt a new source from complying with the carbon pollution rule.”

The $2.1 billion Plant Washington has been proposed for Washington County, near Sandersville, in rural east-central Georgia. The baseload 850-MW plant will use a supercritical boiler, a wet scrubber, selective catalytic reduction, fabric filter baghouses, and sorbent injection to control emissions, Power4Georgians says on its website. It is expected to burn a mixture of pulverized low-sulfur Powder River Basin and Illinois Basin coal.

According to Dean Alford, spokesperson of Power4Georgians, pending clearance of the agreement, construction of the plant could begin within the next 12 months. That would allow the project to be exempt from the EPA’s recently proposed requirement that new coal-fired power plants limit carbon dioxide emissions to 1,000 pounds/MWh, he told POWERnews.

The plant’s proposed water use from the Oconee River was a major concern for environmentalists. “We’ve fought this plant from day one, because this major new source of air pollution will also guzzle up to 16 million gallons of water a day from our already stressed water resources,” Katherine Helms Cummings, director of FACE, said in a statement.

According to Power4Georgians, the plant is expected to use about 13.6 million gallons per day (mgd) of water on average and up to 16.1 mgd during peak usage. About 1.5 mgd will be returned to the Oconee River. “The difference between water intake and return is attributable to the water used by the wet scrubbers and water lost through evaporation into the atmosphere in the cooling towers,” the coalition has said.

Plant Ben Hill, which was in the conceptual planning phase, was a supercritical coal-fired plant to be built in the same manner and at the same cost as Plant Washington. A location for the plant had not yet been proposed.

Beyond legal challenges, Power4Georgians could face financing difficulties to build Plant Washington. In January, the project lost a key backer, Cobb EMC, which opted to remove funding for Plant Washington. The Marietta cooperative, which had been expected to provide nearly 40% of the $2.1 billion project’s funding, left four other cooperatives—Snapping Shoals, Central Georgia, Upson, and Washington, part of the Power4Georgians coalition developing the project—scrambling to find new ways to keep the project alive. Since it was established in 2009, six EMCs have left Power4Georgians.

Power4Georgians’ Alford told POWERnews that the consortium hoped to announce a new partner in the next few days. Ideally, the partner would pick up Cobb’s 40% share, he said.

The two plants were integral to Georgia’s future reliability, Power4Georgians had said. Although Oglethorpe Power Corp. (OPC) provides baseload generation for 38 EMCs across Georgia, most also buy supplemental power from wholesalers to ensure reliable and affordable power to meet demand. But many of these supplemental contracts will expire in 2013, and wholesalers are expected to charge "substantially" higher prices for contracts that are renewed, the consortium’s forecasts show. "Within the next five years, there simply will not be enough generating capacity or wholesale power available to allow co-ops to continue providing affordable and reliable electricity to its residential and business members."

Helms Cummings said she doubted that Plant Washington would be built. “The demand for electricity just isn’t there, and since the plant was announced over four years ago, cheaper electricity from natural gas and renewables is now readily available. Still, any proposed coal plant must do the maximum to reduce toxic pollution and risk to Georgians. Nothing less is acceptable.”

The Sierra Club noted that the cancellation of Plant Ben Hill marked 168 total coal plant proposals that had met similar fates across the U.S. due to changing market conditions, legal challenges, and local opposition. In December 2011, New Jersey-based LS Power cancelled the Plant Longleaf coal plant proposal, which would have been built in Early County, Ga.

Sources: POWERnews, Power4Georgians, The Sierra Club

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