With ever changing federal environmental regulations, the PSC will soon have to decide if we close some of our old coal facilities, or bring them into EPA compliance with new standards by putting "controls" on them in order to further remove sulfur, mercury and NOx. And if we close those units, should we sign agreements with power plants in Alabama or build our own cleaner, gas-fired units. These decisions impact your rates, the state's air and water quality, ever important energy reliability, and local jobs.
Let's start with jobs. Georgia Power is the largest tax payer in Putnam County, and their request to shut down two coal units there will certainly impact the local economies of Eatonton and nearby Milledgeville. A decision by the PSC to "control" the units at Plant Branch would bring hundreds of temporary construction jobs to the area, but these jobs would go away in several years. By doing the upgrade though, the plant retains its employees many years into the future and the area gets a shot in the arm from the construction workers and the millions of dollars they will spend on food, lodging and the like.
So why is this decision so hard when the benefits seem so obvious?
Because it cost more money than other choices we have before us. Plant Branch sits beside Lake Sinclair just off US Highway 441, and the unusual footprint of the plant, along with the age and size of the units, makes it pricey to install the massive pollution controls required. After careful analysis, Georgia Power is recommending to the Commission that we instead sign "Power Purchase Agreements" with two large plants in Alabama and several small Georgia "gas-fired" plants.
These lengthy contracts supply the needed power at a slightly better price-for now at least.
In fact, this decision about whether to keep the coal units or close them will come up over and over again in Georgia and across the country over the next five years unless the EPA establishes more reasonable compliance requirements for their rulemaking. I can't speak for the other four PSC Commissioners, but this policy decision worth billions of dollars is something I want to hear from voters on.
On the one hand, we save money on your monthly bill by taking the least cost option and shutting the units down, but with the same stroke of the pen we potentially devastate the economy of a county like Putnam. Penny pinching rate payers around the state, already upset about higher power bills, seem ambivalent about where we get the power as long as it is there when they need it. Meanwhile, Putnam County residents are shaking in their boots.
Environmentalists, who normally don't side with Georgia Power, may find themselves in favor of an opportunity to curtail the use of coal. The replacement fuel of natural gas, while much cleaner in burning, is not without its share of controversy as hydraulic fracturing continues to come under more and more scrutiny for possible drinking water contamination.
As your newest elected regulator though, this decision has enormous ramifications.
Do we upgrade these power coal units in our state and keep local jobs, or do we pursue the least cost option of natural gas from out-of-state sources? How can we add more renewables to the mix?
Can we build more carbon-free nuclear in the future? Oh well, no one said this job would be easy. I hope to hear from you soon.
Tim Echols, Georgia's newest Public Service Commissioner, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 404-656-4515.