Last Nov. 29 at the downtown Athens theater and event space Ciné, the University of Georgia chapter of the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC) turned out around 85 concerned community members for a film and panel discussion about the hidden costs of coal-based energy production. The organizers were enthusiastic about the energy and excitement of the crowd attending the year-end event aimed at building more community support for a Beyond Coal campaign initiated in September.
At the event, which highlighted public health, ecological and climate change costs of coal energy production, what stood out most starkly was an intensely motivated, organized and mobilized group of students with a clear-eyed goal in sight. As Rich Rusk, an organizer with the Georgia Climate Change Coalition, explained, “It’s great what these young people are doing, and we’ve got to emulate them.”
Over the past few months, the SSC has garnered considerable support from students and faculty in a campaign pushing the university to retire the 46-year-old coal boiler in its steam plant. This push is part of a nationwide effort to encourage college campuses to be leaders in innovation and to set examples for their wider communities on the need to move beyond coal.
Responding to the mounting pressure on campus, UGA's vice president of finance, Tim Burgess, rather defensively attempted to "set the record straight” in a Nov. 2 Red and Black op-ed explaining the budgetary issues limiting the university’s options for ceasing the combustion of coal in the heart of Athens. Subsequently, in a Nov. 17 meeting with Burgess, Beyond Coal organizers requested that the administration commit to retiring the coal boiler, and to creating a task force that would ensure that community concerns are considered and that all alternatives to coal are diligently investigated.
"By retiring the coal boiler, UGA has an opportunity to set an example not only for the state, but also for the southeast region and across the country," says Ali Blumenstock, campus coordinator for the SSC. Since kicking off the Beyond Coal campaign again on campus last semester, the cause has received "immense support from students and faculty, including over 2,000 student signatures on a petition and over 80 faculty endorsements backing the push to retire the coal boiler," she says.
“Pollution doesn’t stop at the arch,” says Blumenstock, and the student-led negotiation with the administration needs the support and attention of the wider ACC community.
While the movement grows here in Athens to shut down the university’s old coal plant, Georgia is perhaps the place in the country—more than anywhere else—that people are fighting against the construction of new coal plants. One of the panellists at the November Ciné event, Sarah Block, a Georgia fellow of the Southern Energy Network, made the connection between coal on campus and the wider fight against coal going on across the state. For Block, Georgia is a “frontline community,” facing the addition of three proposed coal-fired plants to the 12 already operating across the state. As a member of the youth climate movement building a network to fight and win environmental struggles in the Southeast, Block highlighted the proposed construction near Sandersville, GA of the 850-megawatt Plant Washington, which, she stated, “if built, will be outdated on arrival… terribly inefficient and highly polluting.”
Plant Washington is fairly well along in its permitting phase, but not yet under construction. A proliferating body of coalitions and alliances across the state has adamantly opposed the $2.1 billion speculative project, which would draw as much as 16 million gallons of water from the Oconee River each day. In a state rattled by increasingly serious water woes and stricken by drought, the effects on water resources of coal power plants only add to concerns about contributions to climate change and detriments to public and environmental health.
At the 10th anniversary event for the more-than-180-member Georgia Water Coalition in November, Plant Washington was a focus of the organization’s “Dirty Dozen” report on the worst offenses against Georgia’s waters. The coalition report stressed both the harmful effects of mercury emissions on public health and the increased stresses that the plant would mean for the already ailing Oconee River. Indeed, the proposed plant has put the Oconee front and center in a report recently authored by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report documents the manner in which power plants drive water-supply stress, and lists the Upper Oconee as one of several key watersheds across the nation that “warrants closer scrutiny to assess and minimize the risk of future energy-water collisions.”
Advocates of the plant argue that this is a question of balancing demand for energy, environmental concerns and costs for rate payers. But the Georgia Water Coalition and Sierra Club believe that the plant is unnecessary. Because its true costs to the environment and public health are making coal power less economically tenable, most utilities are looking to alternatives. The Sierra Club cites an integrated resource plan that suggests Georgia Power—a division of Southern Company, the leading energy producer in the region—expects to take 2000 megawatts of coal power production offline by 2015, in part through the decertification of two coal-fired units at Plant Branch in Milledgeville.
So, if Plant Washington doesn’t seem to make economic or environmental sense for Georgians, who has been behind it and why? The driving force behind the proposed plant has been the Power4Geogians consortium of EMCs (electric membership corporations or cooperatives—non-profit, member-owned power distribution companies), previously led by its largest member, Cobb EMC. Following major corruption scandals beginning in 2007, Cobb EMC has recently elected four new members to its board, and six more board seats will be filled in two elections early this year. This turn of events means that Plant Washington’s future is hotly contested.
According to Seth Gunning of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, “it’s the same corruption plaguing Cobb EMC that has been pushing for these coal plants.” The indicted former CEO of Cobb EMC, Dwight Brown, is at the heart of a scandal involving charges of financial malfeasance, racketeering, theft and intimidation. Brown and his longstanding associate Dean Alford have been central to creating the Power4Georgians initiative. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, investigations into these corruption charges are likely to increasingly expose an unsavory rationale behind these coal power proposals, further justifying the argument the Alliance has been making since 2009: that “Plant Washington is inextricably compromised by mismanagement at Cobb EMC.”
While this coalition of EMCs is moving forward with Plant Washington and a similar plant in nearby Ben Hill County, “… all the other utilities see the writing on the wall,” says Gunning. “It’s just Power4Georgians who believe that somehow building multibillion-dollar plants on the backs of rate payers will be economically feasible.” And the catch is that, if the member-owned EMCs go into the business of speculative energy production and “fail” because the plant is not economically feasible, they will simply pass the losses on to their rate payers. For the speculators, building a plant that might not be needed could still be a cash cow, even if it will mean huge environmental and public health costs along with higher rates for EMC members.
David Tennant, recently elected to the Cobb EMC board on a platform of greater transparency and the need to stop the corruption, tends to agree that the recent shift to speculative energy production is cause for concern. Originally, EMCs were set up to get electricity out to rural areas, but now many of them, like the Cobb utility, primarily serve suburban customers. Tennant sees a need for caution at Cobb EMC in moving ahead with Plant Washington and Plant Ben Hill because "traditionally, EMC business is to buy power and distribute it, not to produce it. Developing production facilities as an EMC would be a fundamental change in their core business.”
Ironically, given EMCs' traditional role of providing rural access to power, the Power4Georgians initiative has created a situation in which the considerable environmental and public health costs of coal energy production, not to mention the greater stresses to water resources, would be distributed out to rural areas like Sandersville on the basis of decisions made in Metro Atlanta.
Tennant, who has years of international experience in energy production, understands this. "I'm on the board, so I've got to look after the members' interests,” he explains, “and a total change in the business model toward investment in power production is not something they need to rush into." That said, Tennant also notes that it would be "prudent to wait to get the rest of the board seated before they make any major decisions on proposed power plants."
According to Gunning, “Institutions of higher education should be exemplars of 21st-century energy solutions.” If the energy at last November's Beyond Coal event—and others, like the Moving Planet rally put on here by the Georgia Climate Change Coalition in September—is any indication, Athens and student activists in the youth climate movement are likely to have increasingly important roles in untangling the mess of corruption and coal plants that situate Georgia at the front lines of the struggle for climate justice. The question remains as to whether the University of Georgia will be inspired by these student leaders, or if it will resist this opportunity to follow their lead at a critical juncture of the future of coal production in Georgia. Certainly, a commitment by the administration to moving UGA and Athens beyond burning coal would be an important step away from dirty energy and greater stresses on water in a state that can ill afford them.