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Coal plants don't deserve our support
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While the nation mourns the deaths of 25, and possibly more, coal miners in West Virginia, on Thursday the state of Georgia decided to issue pollution permits for air and water needed to give the go-ahead to Power4Georgians for the construction of a coal-fired plant in Washington County, near Sandersville.  Lined up in the wings is the next Power4Georgians’ project: another coal plant, this one located in Ben Hill County.

Despite the fact that we mine no coal in our state, our policy makers and energy producers continue to rely on burning dirty coal instead of developing new alternative energy such as solar and promoting less waste and greater energy efficiency. How many more people must die, how many more lungs blackened by coal mining to feed our wasteful energy habits in Georgia?

There are alternatives and we should increase our investments in them. For starters, Georgia has more hours of sun than Germany, and yet we produce less of this clean solar energy. In the case of Plant Washington, energy efficiency savings for residential peak load reduction would cost less than 7 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh) and just 2 cents per kWh for commercial and industrial energy efficiency, compared to an average of 10 cents per kWh for estimates of outdated coal projected for Plant Washington, according to a recent study released last month by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies commissioned by Georgians for Smart Energy coalition.

How much energy do we need? In this modern day, we want and need reliable electricity. The most recent national Energy Information Administration data for Georgia show that net energy generation is down nearly 16 percent for the most recent period, 2007-2008. Despite this clear downward trend that reflects decreased energy consumption, coal plant developers continue to frighten us by what amounts to phantom energy demand, apparently in hopes of making the false claim that the plant is “needed.”  

Yet one percent of Georgians’ energy needs can be met through energy efficiency over each of the next ten years at a fraction of the cost of new power plants, according to research conducted by Southface Energy Institute and the World Resources Institute

Construction of outdated coal-fired plants proposed by Power4Georgians in middle Georgia near Milledgeville and in south central Georgia, outside Fitzgerald, will not provide us, the customers, with clean, cost-effective energy. These plants are profitable for plant developers, but dirty coal plants will leave mercury in our rivers and coal ash dumps on our land. Consumers will pay more for this electricity and its corrosive pollution which developers and regulators recognize as a costly addition to the bottom line.

We are beginning to measure the extensive damage that pollution from coal-fired plants causes to nature and our bodies. We have learned that burning coal releases mercury with severe consequences. In our south Georgia ecology, which includes a network of brackish, tannic-acid rivers with diverse aquatic life, mercury from coal plants is released from stacks and most of it falls within a 60-mile radius of a plant.  In our rivers a chemical reaction occurs between the mercury and the water which dramatically increases mercury’s toxicity. Fish consume mercury-laden plant life and people are at risk if we eat those fish.  We now know that small particulate matter from burning coal lodges in children’s lungs and is associated with increased asthma and asthma deaths.

So why are we allowing the bad idea of a coal-fired power plant to overrule the thousands of hours of city and county planning by leaders and citizens striving to ensure strong communities for our families? How do we find ourselves believing that the 19th century technology of coal burning is any sort of solution for the 21st century?

We continue along this path of antiquated energy production from coal because of inertia. Energy powers-that-be are familiar with and have the infrastructure for old coal production. In changing our energy production we are throwing a major wrench into the economics of energy. Yet innovation is the American way and it well deserves our support and encouragement. This is why it is of great concern that Georgia does not impose a sales tax on coal but does on other commodities. Dirty coal gets a tax break but solar and wind energy developers who are working to demonstrate better ways to power our state have to struggle to get attention, much less policy support.  

The five electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) that compose Power4Georgians have the opportunity to prioritize the health of their memberships rather than settling on traditional community gift-giving. These EMCs can reject the proposal brought to them by Dean Alford, president of Allied Energy Services, and say, “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re not investing in coal.” They can say, as communities and co-ops across the country have, “Bring us renewable energy options and include aggressive energy efficiency.” Central Georgia EMC, Cobb EMC, Snapping Shoals EMC, Upson EMC and Washington EMC are uniquely positioned to protect both the 43-counties in which their members live, as well as the counties surrounding Plant Ben Hill that would literally get the bulk of that plant’s pollution and none of the power.

It’s time Georgia stopped investing long-term dollars in this antiquated technology. It’s time for Georgia to be a leader in energy rather than the last stop for energy innovation. It’s time for an energy policy in Georgia that generates clean jobs, protects our children from a lifetime of increased health risks and preserves our precious water for fishing and drinking.

Midge Sweet is director of Georgians for Smart Energy

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