Is this the beginning of the Blame Game?

Today’s EPA ruling isn’t the reason Plant Washington won’t ever be built. It will, however, serve to drive home the fact that this project has always been  an exercise in bad business decisions in addition to the environmental and health impacts it would have on our area.

Supporters will say the EPA’s carbon control rules killed the plant. That will hardly be the case. The plant has never had a demonstrated need, and at every turn plant supporters have seen their weak arguments only grow weaker.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my 52 years,  and I’ll make plenty more in the future. Opposing Plant Washington isn’t one of them.

So many lessons to be learned

A recent article in The Chicago Tribune is one cautionary tale after another for supporters (and any Power Purchase Agreement signers) of Plant Washington.

The Tribune and other news outlets have reported on the cost overruns, rates, and decades-long contracts that the cities and municipal power providers contracted with Prairie State Energy Campus now find themselves drowning in. The Tribune’s article provides several current examples that communities and power purchasing agents of any size would be wise to consider.

Prairie State Energy Campus was announced with a $2B price tag. By the time construction began late in 2007, the Prairie State price was already $2.9B to construct. Plant Washington was announced in January 2008 with a $2.1B construction cost. In 2011 conservative independent estimates put Plant Washington construction costs at $3.9B.

Peabody Energy, the company behind Prairie State, shifted their financial risk to the contract holders. Peabody only has a five (5) percent stake in the plant because, according to the Tribune, Peabody “shifted most of the costs-and nearly all of the financial risks-to towns as small as 1,200 people.” Municipal leaders signed 28 year contracts for power purchases.

Most of the discussions and decisions about Prairie State were made behind closed doors the developer insisted upon. The Tribune reports, “Homeowners and other ratepayers have largely been kept in the dark about the higher costs. Municipal contracts with the coal plant’s operator require ‘any information of a technical, commercial or business nature’ be kept confidential from all but a few officials. Meeting minutes show that discussions about the plant mostly take place in closed-door executive sessions.” (emphasis added)

Washington EMC (WEMC) does not have open contract review for the co-op member/owners or any policies prohibiting no-bid contracts for any length of time. The WEMC Board of Directors refuse to hold open meetings, even where the members could just listen to the discussions, despite repeated requests from the member/owners. The owner/members don’t know about contracts until their co-op Board has already signed them.

The small town leaders making decisions in the Prairie State area are much like those in Washington County: hard-working plant employees, farmers, business owners, bankers, and retirees. Betsy Zinser, a former commercial banker who raised questions about paying for Prairie State said, “These people are car mechanics and insurance salesmen, not energy experts.” She added, “They were bamboozled by Peabody and the municipal power agencies.” (emphasis added)

We’ve heard a lot of promises locally about how low our power bills could be if we support Plant Washington. My WEMC Board Representative, Billy Helton, told me over two years ago it would be “great” if we could get rates of less than 10 cents an hour with Plant Washington . That would be great. The problem is there isn’t one pro forma review or independent analysis of Plant Washington in existence that makes the case for such low numbers. Hanging your hopes on a low number that sounds good isn’t sound business. Instead it is “cross your fingers” decision making.

Prairie State supporters sure did that, including leaders in St Charles. They’ve seen their power costs go up 51 percent as a result of contracts with Prairie State.

Prairie State Energy ratepayers know all too well how their story is unfolding: local leaders making decisions beyond their scope of knowledge, local dollars tied up for decades in an outdated investment, and power bills that have soared beyond even the most outlandish expectations. The only person not wringing their hands over Prairie State is the developer. Peabody made sure their monthly power bills and money weren’t tied to their new project.

Following in the path of Prairie State Energy is just like reading the same book over and over again hoping for a different ending each time. We already know how the story will end.

Coming full circle

President Obama’s announcement about carbon pollution controls Tuesday at Georgetown University closed the circle in some ways on the future of Plant Washington. It won’t matter whether Plant Washington belches carbon into the air as a new source or an existing source, it will have to reduce and control the amount of Greenhouse Gases (GHG, or most commonly called carbon) it emits.

And that won’t be cheap.

Plant Washington has never modeled for carbon control, so the already doubled price tag Co2_Smokestack-284x300just to construct it won’t be going down.

We have a surplus supply of cheap electricity on the market. Power generated from Plant Washington won’t be any “better” than what we can get today. All we’ve heard about buying power from this plant is a lot of talk about getting a “preferred position” for future power contracts.

I am willing to bet that anyone who might consider financing this carbon fueled project will not just prefer a sound business plan with realistic returns on their investment, they will require it.

When that happens, Plant Washington will be nothing more than a failed hot air project in an economy and country already moving away coal.

‘Tis but a scratch

Five years ago there were 10 EMCs backing Dean Alford’s Plant Washington coal project. Now Alford has announced that there aren’t any EMCs left in the group, EMCs that had originally announced that they would own, operate, and buy power from the plant.

The little that we do know about Alford’s plans is that he still has Colorado based Taylor Energy Fund, LLC as a partner, but he won’t name any others. Nor has he announced any completed Power Purchase Agreements, which are critical to financing the project. Yet Alford continues to believe this project is viable.

I am reminded of the limbless Black Knight, who says to the sword yielding King Arthur,” ‘Tis but a scratch.”

Now the real work begins

The fight to stop Plant Washington is going to get very interesting because developer Dean Alford’s filings with the EPA will be subject to Open Records sunlight.

Alford claims he met EPA requirements to “commence construction” by midnight April 12 when he signed a boiler contract with IHI Corporation in Japan and a site erection contract with Zachry Industrial in the United States.

EPA “commence construction” requires more than signing a contract. Georgia EPD staffer Jac Capp told the Macon Telegraph earlier this month that commence construction, “means that the source has both ‘begun a continuous program of actual on-site construction’ and ‘entered into binding agreements or contractual obligations which cannot be canceled without a substantial loss.’

Last Saturday, a day drenched in brilliant sunlight, I drove past the plant site. There was a dead armadillo in the road, but except for some March storm damage, not much has changed on either side of the Mayview Road, which divides the plant site, since January 2008. The dirt roads crossing the plant have no tracks indicating heavy equipment has moved in for construction work ahead.

Meeting the requirement of a “substantial loss” will now require more than Alford saying there are “several” entities lined up for this project, which is all he offered to the Atlanta Journal Constitution in January 2012 when his largest backer, Cobb EMC walked from the project. Earlier this month Alford told the Macon Telegraph he has “way over the amount of money I need for this project.” Hopefully the contract documents will soon be made public so that we’ll finally get a chance to see what all this talk is made of, and who is willing to invest in it besides the latecomer to the game, designated hitter Taylor Energy Fund.

There are brand spanking new coal plants, some built and owned by EMCs, like Spiritwood in Minnesota, which have never powered a single light bulb because the operating costs were prohibitive. Other plants, like Prairie State in Illinois, have saddled ratepayers with higher rates before supplying them with any power.

Sure, I wish Alford had called it a day late last Friday night, but I am not surprised. He doesn’t live here, he doesn’t rely on the local groundwater when he wants a drink of water, and his grandchildren won’t be breathing Plant Washington toxins into their lungs when they play outside.

For those of us who have real skin in the game, the work has just begun.

Legislators step up for EMC customers

Remember in the not so distant past when Cobb EMC customers had to take their co-op to court over lots of really dirty deals and violations of the bylaws? It wasn’t pretty, having to hire lawyers out of their own pockets while the co-op, which actually belongs to the customers, was ringing up some pretty big attorneys’ bills at the co-op’s expense to  defending their actions that were in violation of the bylaws. And then there was that whole Cobb Energy “for-profit” spin-off that was a for-Sleeping with the Enemy wins a national awardprofit for a very few people, but a big money loser for the co-op owner/members.

There’s nothing quite like opening the Atlanta Journal Constitution and  seeing the GBI carrying boxes of records and documents out of the house of the CEO who is running the co-op you own.

It took years, but the customers won, and they, together with a fresh Board of Directors and a new CEO, are rebuilding their co-op to truly serve the interests of the members.

Some people would have put money on the other co-ops closely aligned with Cobb EMC to learn a lesson the easy way, and maybe try playing nice. It would have been easy too.

EMCs have nice community rooms where they could conduct their board meetings with the owner/members attending if they wanted too (Some co-ops in the Southwest even stream their meetings online to allow members hundreds of miles away to stay engaged).

They could post monthly financials on their web sites so members could stay current on the dollars and cents side of their co-op.

Georgia EMCs could choose to discuss and approve contracts in front of owner/members, just to keep everything above board (no pun intended) and transparent.

But Georgia’s EMCs didn’t choose to do that. In fact, some co-ops dug in their heels on closed-door operations.

At my co-op, Washington EMC, owner/members still have to fill out a form asking permission to attend a board meeting of the company we own. IF we are even allowed to attend, we are told when the Board should reach the very specific issue we would like to discuss. We have to wait outside in the lobby until we are ushered in, allowed to share our concern, and then ushered out of the meeting.

You may own us, but we won't let you in.
You may own us, but we won’t let you in.

I guess, when you run a co-op behind closed doors, and make commitments on multi-billion dollar power plant contracts that didn’t involve competitive bids, or a pro forma review, or any independent market analysis that would make the project a good invest of the co-op owner/members dollars, you might not want the members to see how decisions actually get made.

That could change now. Representative Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, has introduced H.B. 500, which would require power purchase agreements of five years or longer, to be reviewed by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).

Georgia Power customers know that rate increases and many other decisions impacting their power bills, must be reviewed by the PSC in an open meeting. If EMCs chose to play nice and open their meetings to the owner/members, just as many other co-ops have across the country, H.B. 500 might not be necessary.

H.B. 500 will provide consumer protection and public review of contracts to A LOT of Georgians. EMCs serve 73 percent of the land area in our state, and provide electricity to 50 percent of the people living in Georgia.

We deserve electric rate protection too.

But the time is very short to make this happen. Thursday, March 7, is Crossover Day in the General Assembly, and the bill must be voted on and passed in the House in order to move to the Senate.

You don’t have to be an EMC customer to call the person who represents you in the Georgia House. If you believe that all electric customers in Georgia deserve a fair chance at the lowest electric bills possible, call your House member today and ask them to vote YES on H.B. 500. 

Be The Lorax

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There is no time to wait.
Be The Lorax wherever you are.

White Stallion gallops away from proposed 1200 MW coal plant

Texas, a stalwart in using coal for electricity, has seen three proposed coal plants tank since the beginning of December. The Limestone 3 unit, which would have produced 745MW of power, went belly-up the first week of December. Developers spent six years trying to get that plant permitted and built before throwing in the towel.

In the last week of January Las Brisas Energy announced the cancellation of a 1320 MW proposed plant (the plant would have used a petroleum refinery product which is much like coal,  called pet coke).

On Thursday, February 14, White Stallion Energy gave plant opponents the sweetest Valentine possible by announcing that it isn’t going to pursue its 1200MW coal plant any longer.

Did they quit because of a lack of water? Air quality concerns? The impact on the health of local citizens?

Nope. It was all about the bottom line.

White Stallion said in a very short press release, the presently low price of natural gas has made the price of electricity from a new coal fired generator uncompetitive at this time”

That is COO speak for “this project is too expensive for us to make any money.”

Which brings us full circle to the questions people have been asking since January 2008: what makes Plant Washington such a good investment?

There is no pro-forma study to justify the project, in fact there is no independent information to support this multi-billion dollar plant,, and there never has been. Washington EMC officials have told us that much. They spent $1M of our money on a project which has no data or cost analysis to demonstrate that it is a sound way to spend our money (and it is our money since the co-op belongs to the members). 

The Texas Observer’s coverage the day after White Stallion bucked its project summed up the present status of the coal industry  with the article”Coal, an Obituary.” It included these observations and analyses:

  • coal stopped making economic sense. In short, coal got fracked.”
  • “The story for White Stallion is similar too: local opposition that started small but grew (it certainly helped that the conservative county judge turned against it); major regulatory impasses for the company; and a bottom-line that had the bottom fall out of it.”
  • “The White Stallion developers also didn’t do themselves any favors with ridiculous claims that the plant would lower electricity rates locally and that their traditional coal plant was a “clean coal” facility.”
  • “It’s weird to say, but get used to it: Coal is expensive.”

The Texas Observer also forecasts, “Wind power is cheaper. Even solar is fixing to eat coal’s lunch, if it isn’t already doing so. El Paso Electric Company recently agreed to buy power from a New Mexico solar farm for a little under 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. A new coal plant costs twice as much.”

Perhaps the most damning statement about White Stallion came from Eva Malina, with the local No Coal Coalition. Malina said, I think they thought that since we were a small rural community, they would not encounter opposition. They were wrong.”

 

A tribe of 40,000 strong

Washington County, where I live in Middle Georgia, is small, about 20,000 people living in a county with white clay, rolling hills, and woods filled with deer.

Yesterday I watched the area at the Washington Monument fill with twice as many people as those who call Washington County home to make their concerns about our natural resources, climate, and health, clear to the country.

Photo via 350.org
Photo via 350.org

I met fellow tribe members from Burlington College in Vermont on the DC Metro Sunday morning. The young man who chatted with me was wearing a tie, I suspect because the day was planned to be of historic proportions.

A father with his young son, perhaps four years old, wearing a Forward on Climate button, navigated Union Station. Travelers from New York and New Mexico jockeyed for hot coffee before setting out in the bitter cold for the Washington Monument.

On our way to the monument we walked past a small group of people wearing bright yellow t-shirts. imageThey weren’t smiling, and they seemed to want to debate and record people rather than participate. Clearly they weren’t there because of passion, and their sad, plain flyer with pro fossil-fuel data identified them as the hired hands the industry pays and outfits for events which threaten their profits.

We streamed in with signs and banners. We came by car, train, bus, and plane. Great-grandchildren perched on the laps of  their elders in wheelchairs. Children carried cheerful signs with bright suns and flowers, lettered in the distinct print young children use.

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We bounced on our toes to warm our feet. Couples held gloved hands. Before long we were a sea of fleece and down jackets.

And we marched, this river of people from across North America. Women from First Nations walked in front while men towards the back kept a steady beat on a large handmade drum. So many people, so many colors, shapes, ages, and reasons for being there to say, together, that the old ways must change.

We walked away from the yellow t-shirted few, greeting the people around us while we chanted and smiled. I walked with two women from Canada, then students from Earlham College and Appalachian State. New Yorkers opposed to fracking wore their signs over their chests and backs. Three men carried wooden numbers on tall stakes spelling out 350.

We cheered and chanted in front of the White House, calling for the President to make good on his words about Climate Change and how we will fuel our country. He had escaped the bitter cold for a weekend in Florida, but we were sure our voices were heard.

Jack Magoon, 14, and his brother Will, 12, wait for the train home to Virginia with their grandparents.
Jack Magoon, 14, and his brother Will, 12, wait for the train home to Virginia with their grandparents.

Our message was clear and our voices were strong. We made history yesterday standing shoulder to shoulder for the future we want for the youngest who were among us.

 

Tarbutton and Alford behind wildly unpopular Georgia Regents announcement

Rick McKee cartoon, Augusta Chronicle, August 7, 2012

Plant Washington profiteers Ben Tarbutton III and Dean Alford pal around at the taxpayer funded Georgia University Regents meetings, which Tarbutton chairs (Alford got a plum seat on the Board after Tarbutton ascended to its leadership)

Earlier this week, despite “widespread opposition” and a possible trademark law suit from the Virginia University Regents, Tarbutton’s board announced that Augusta State University, and the recently rebranded Georgia Health Sciences University, will now be called “Georgia Regents University.”

Regents Board Vice-Chair William NeSmith, who also serves as the area’s representative in the Georgia House, told the Augusta Chronicle, “To a person, I haven’t found anyone supportive in the 10th Congressional District that supports Georgia Regents University. It is widely unpopular to the people that I’ve talked to.”

Chris Gay, a sports writer with the Augusta paper, said this in an open letter to the Regents, “By naming this new school Georgia Regents University, you will essentially be naming this school after your own body. Which makes no sense. Why not name it “Georgia Board of Regents University” then? If you name it “Georgia Regents University,” we’re all going to add the word “Board” anyway. (And this is slightly off topic, but do you know what GRU is anyway? Have you seen the movie “Despicable Me?” If not, do a Google search.)

And the Georgia Regents response to what some might call outrage over the name announcement? Tarbutton essentially said, “Get over it.”

Tarbutton and Alford were mic checked in the spring when the Regents increased fees for students. Lately they can’t seem to drum up much support for Alford’s  no-bid coal plant which would be fed by the Tarbutton’s short line railroad.

Now, it seems they have made the entire city of Augusta, Augusta State Alums, and graduates of the Medical College of Georgia/Georgia Health Sciences University furious with their stubborn insistence on naming their alma maters after themselves.

 

 

A new back room deal

Based on the announcement Dean Alford made last week about Plant Washington and Taylor Energy Fund, the questions just keep building about what obligations the remaining four EMCs have to the project or P4G, what Taylor actually brings to the long embattled proposed coal plant, any contracts that will provide the EMCs with a “preferred position” if the plant ever gets built, and how much, if any, money will be returned to the co-ops.

This much is known, or being asked:

1. Alford started with ten EMCs in January 2008 when he announced Plant Washington with much bravado. At the beginning of last week he was down to four: Snapping Shoals, Central Georgia, Washington, and Upson. Last Wednesday, following media coverage of opposition candidates for the Snapping Shoals EMC Board of Directors in the Rockdale Citizen, Alford announced that the EMCs are “released” from any other expenses. In their place retired executive Tim Taylor steps in with a newly registered company that has a P.O. Box in Colorado and a disconnected phone line in Georgia.  There was no mention of exactly how, or how soon, the EMCs who have clung to this project will get their investment dollars back, if ever.

2. Now instead of ten co-ops Alford has one individual as a partner. His new partner has a history of expensive coal projects in Colorado and a recently registered company. No mention of any financial capacity has been announced to the public, and in fact in this latest round of interviews with the media, Alford refused even to provide contact information for Taylor (that’s fodder for another blog post)

3. Last week Dean Alford announced that the remaining four EMCs had signed a new agreement with P4G which releases them from any future financial investments, but which also provides them with a “preferred position” when the eventual (but to date unidentified or confirmed) owner of the plant begins to sell power. What type of back room deal has my co-op, Washington EMC (WEMC) agreed to? Have they agreed to buy power from Plant Washington, whose ultimate construction costs are unknown? What kind of rates have they been guaranteed, and how do those rates compare to other options? 

4. Alford told the Rockdale County paper, “The co-ops have always said their desire was the permitting of the plant and to find a strategic partner to own and operate the plant.”

Hmmm. In January 2008 he told the Marietta Daily Journal “These 10 cooperatives … are building this facility — 100 percent used by them, for them, — to keep energy rates affordable.”

And then under oath in court Alford said in response to an attorney’s question, “Now, when this facility is built, will Power4Georgians actually own the physical — the real  property? Will they actually own the power plant?” Dean Alford, “That is the plan at this time.” Testimony by Dean Alford, Fall-Line Alliance et al v. Georgia EPD September 9, 2010.

So was Dean Alford lying then or is he lying now? 

5. When Plant Washington was announced, P4G touted job numbers of 1,400 during construction. That number has increased to 1,600. With no engineering designs secured, how has the number of projected construction period jobs increased? Magic?

6. Alford and P4G continue to trot out a projected cost of $2.1B for the plant. That figure is over four years old, and construction costs have risen in that time. An independent report released by GeorgiaWatch, a consumer advocacy group, projects costs to be $3.9B, and that number doesn’t include the added expense of required mercury pollution and carbon pollution controls. If the number of workers goes up, then wouldn’t the payroll expenses go up too? What kind of math is this?

7. As pointed out in a recent edition of the Sandersville Progress, Alford has discussed the complex modeling P4G has done on the water demands and stress that Plant Washington will place on the aquifer. However, P4G has failed to file reports and information as required by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) water permit, and the EPD has not enforced these required filings. FOR TWO YEARS. (Why bother with a permit at all? But I digress.)

8. And in the Macon Telegraph’s coverage, Alford is quoted as saying that Plant Washington will be exempt from new carbon limits because it received its final permit before the new carbon regulations were proposed. This isn’t accurate, as a recent legal filing by the Environmental Protection Agency makes clear. Plant Washington’s permit was, at that time, still under legal challenge and still being amended to make Plant Washington subject to new EPA regulations governing mercury and other toxic pollutants. 

Alford has in the past referred to statements he disagrees with as “dishonest or intellectually naive.”

If P4G and WEMC leaders think that their owner/members and the public don’t see through their assertions, who is intellectually naive? And who is being honest about the facts?

Get your feet wet

The Friday Photo
A weekly photo inspired by art, community, and spontaneity
July 13, 2012

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The Ogeechee Riverkeeper staff, Board of Directors, and the members have stood with us shoulder to shoulder, led when we needed direction, and watch our back for over four years since Plant Washington was announced.

They have worked late nights, through weekends, interrupted vacations, and never failed to do the work of protecting the river.

I was honored and humbled to be chosen as their Big Cypress Volunteer of the Year. There is so much work to be done for the Ogeechee. Get your feet wet and help them.

WEMC: Quit calling the co-op owner/members liars

I don’t need to recount the way P4G got a water permit, but we all know, plant supporters and opponents alike, that appeals were filed and the permit requirements were significantly increased due to those appeals.

And friends, the Oconee was too low for withdrawals in May. Period. The data on water levels came from the USGS. No one rigged up questionable data for the recent press release on exceptional drought conditions or the careful research carried out by the Union of Concerned Scientists used in their report.

I know the only day we will all agree on Plant Washington is when the Washington EMC Board of Directors announce a decision that Plant Washington isn’t tenable and is cancelled.

In the mean time, WEMC Board Members, and in particular my Board Representative, Billy Helton, please tell your spokesman and “no bid” contractor to stop calling your members “dishonest.”

As a result YOU are also calling us, your owner/members, friends, and neighbors, well, liars.

And you can’t hide behind some thin “excuse” like, “I can’t control what anyone says.” You are paying your spokesman and you can put a stop to the inaccurate things he is saying about your owner/members by cutting him off at the checkbook.

Please remember, we are the same people who have held you up while you grieved, brought you food when there was an illness in your family, prayed with you in church, and cheered your children on to victories on the ball field. We are leaders in our shared community of churches, civic groups, businesses, and schools.

Quit stooping to name calling and inaccurate statements about what we all know didn’t happen and the veracity of data.

Those tactics will not be forgotten long after Plant Washington’s pursuit is just a bad memory for our community and co-op.

You know better. Would your mother be proud?

One simple reason the EPD shouldn’t issue a final permit for Plant Washington

May 15, 2012

To: Georgia Environmental Protection Division

RE:  Amendment 4911-303-0051-P-01-2

When Plant Washington was announced over four years ago the plant was expected to pump 122 lbs of mercury per year into the local airshed. The EPD approved that amount of toxins in a permit which local residents and organizations across the state challenged. The result was a second permit reducing the mercury emissions to 55.6 lbs per year.

The developer of Plant Washington, Dean Alford, acquiesced on meeting the MATS rules at start up. The much needed and long awaited MATS regulations reduce the allowable mercury emissions to 1.69 lbs per year.

Please allow me to pat myself and other plant opponents on the back for standing firm on lower emissions in a community which already teeters on non-attainment, and whose citizens suffer the health ramifications of poor air quality. If your agency is truly committed to protecting the health of Georgia’s citizens and our natural resources permits with such high emission levels should never have been issued.

Now that Mr. Alford has agreed to meet the MATS emissions sooner rather than later, he seems to have had a change of heart. In interviews with Politico Pro and The Sandersville Progress, Alford said he can meet the emissions standards at start up. That is what the amended permit requires. Period.

I hope you can appreciate my concern about Alford’s ability to meet these standards when he joined a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stating that the emission regulations are unattainable.

The EPD permit amendment makes no mention of any technical or engineering requirements, or fuel mix, to assure that the emission standards will be met.

Is your agency in the business of issuing permits to companies who announce, before they have secured a final permit, that they can’t meet the requirements of the permit?

Rightly so, the confidence of local citizens in Alford’s ability to meet the standards has been deflated.

The taxpayers and citizens of Georgia expect, deserve, and demand that all companies issued a permit for emissions of any type, are able to meet those standards and maintain them in demonstrable and measurable ways.

Alford’s assurances that Plant Washington can meet the MATS rule are now hollow. I urge and request that the EPD do its duty to protect the health of my community as it is described in your mission and vision statements, and require Alford and Power4Georgians to demonstrate their ability to meet the MATS standards before a final permit is issued.

Sincerely,

Katherine Helms Cummings

Dwight Brown wants to run the Cobb EMC faucet dry

Don McKee, who has closely followed the years long battle between Cobb EMC owner-members and management, notes in his column that for once the co-op is in agreement with the owner-members. Dwight Brown, the former CEO at Cobb EMC, has a complicated history with the co-op and the for-profit company, Cobb Energy, he helped create. Last week his attorneys were in court over contract payments Brown believes the co-op owes him (at the tune of  $13,800 per week). That Brown thinks the money faucet at Cobb EMC should continue to run for him is unbelievable.

That’s a hefty weekly check, but perhaps what makes it even worse is that former Cobb EMC Board Chair Larry Chadwick signed the contract without the board’s approval. There is a long and ugly history about closed-door operations at the co-op, much of which may be detailed when Brown is in court to defend himself on the 35 indictments against him (He hasn’t been in court for other proceedings, so noted Judge Schuster in his ruling concerning Brown’s pay last week).

Long story short, if co-op board meetings are open to the members, along with financial and meeting materials posted online and easily available to members, one would hope that such shenanigans would be much less likely to occur.

Some of my fellow EMC members in Middle Georgia have begun to pay attention to the closed-door, back room dealings that seem to control Washington EMC. Proponents of coal fired Plant Washington say they want to provide cheap electricity to members so we can keep the lights on. Instead it seems that Plant Washington has shined a bright light on the fact that the Board of Directors and Senior Staff prefer to keep the co-op owner members in the dark.

Talking out of both sides of your mouth

Since the end of January Plant Washington has been a hot topic at barber and beauty shops, grocery store lines, and church. In just over three months time local residents of Washington County, Washington EMC owner-members, and others involved in Power4Georgians (P4G) have read in newspapers and online various, and often conflicting, versions of what’s going on with the proposed dirty coal plant.

Recently, the Marietta Daily Journal reported on the minutes of the Cobb EMC Board of Directors meeting on January 24, 2012: “Power4Georgians owns the permits but he (Dean Alford) stated that P4G never intended to build Plant Washington. He stated P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.”

On the heels of this eye-popping revelation, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy released Follow the Money,  a report outlining and charting the complicated and circuitous connections among Plant Washington supporters.

This week The Sandersville Progress has an article about the remaining four EMCs in P4G. The article reports that all calls to the remaining four EMCs were unreturned or they declined to comment. Not one member of Power4Georgians will speak out in support of the project that has cost over 25 million dollars. . Central Georgia EMC referred the reporter to Dean Alford, and said that he will answer provide a statement for the co-op.

EMC owner-members, at least at my co-op, have long felt shut out and distanced from the Board of Directors. I doubt they will be any happier with our co-op’s leaders saying that our questions should go directly to Alford- or remain unanswered.

Dapper Dean isn’t on the Board of Directors at WEMC or any of the other EMCs. None of the owner-members have ever had a chance to vote for him, or the money and water sucking coal plant he continues to insist we need.

The members of these Board of Directors need to be mindful that they accepted a fiduciary responsibility for co-op operations, and that Plant Washington certainly falls in that category. They can’t necessarily count on being shielded by the co-op if they do their jobs poorly.

What am I doing to be a good co-op owner-member? I have sent information to them as well as questions. I’ve asked for answers via letter to the local papers and here in this blog.

Since the end of January I have emailed the officers of Washington EMC-Frank Askew (CEO), Wendy Sellers (CFO), Mike McCoy, (Board Chair), and Billy Helton (my rep to the Board) each three times (I finally got an email address for Mike McDonald, another board member, who was copied in the third email I sent).

I got one response from Mr. Helton concerning news about Dwight Brown’s legal battle with Cobb EMC over $2.1M he thinks his former employer owes him, and an article on  profits soaring 20 percent since 2008 at King & Spalding, the law firm representing P4G (Plant Washington was announced in January 2008)

And now, in this week’s Sandersville Progress (which isn’t available onlinethe paper reports that none of the EMCs involved in P4G will answer questions from  reporters. Instead, Dean Alford speaks for them.

So, to smooth out some of this tangled mess: leaders at Washington EMC want Dean Alford, who testified under oath in 2010 that the P4G EMCs intend to own and operate Plant Washington, but according to the Cobb EMC January 2012 Board Minutes, Alford told Cobb EMC leaders that P4G never intended to own or build the plant. And now WEMC leaders have chosen Alford to speak for them.

And just to remove any doubt about the ownership of Plant Washington, Dean was quoted in the Marietta Daily Journal immediately after the plant was announced over four years ago, saying, “These 10 cooperatives (P4G)… are building this facility — 100 percent used by them, for them, — to keep energy rates affordable.” (I can’t find any record of him disagreeing with the quote).

Developed, built, and owned by the EMCs- or not. Do the leaders in Washington County and our EMC know?

 

The fog is lifting on a “smoke and mirrors guy”

The Marietta Daily Journal’s “Around Town” column confirms what many of us have suspected for almost four years: Dean Alford never intended to build Plant Washington.

Cobb EMC is now posting board meeting minutes on its web site for access by co-op owner-members (pass word protected with no ability to electronically copy or print). The minutes from the January 24 meeting where Dapper Dean made a final pitch to convince the co-op to continue bankrolling his project have now been posted.

The MDJ reports from the minutes, “Mr. Alford … commented that coal is still the backbone of the country and that it is important to have a diversified portfolio of energy. Power4Georgians owns the permits but he stated that P4G never intended to build Plant Washington. He stated P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.” (emphasis added).

The MDJ goes on to say about the project. which Cobb EMC spent at least $13.5M on,  “The power plant was the ‘baby’ of now-indicted ex-Cobb EMC head Dwight Brown and his sidekick Alford, who also served as vice chairman of corporate spinoff Cobb Energy. ”

The Marietta newspaper quotes a power industry expert in “Around Town” about the possibility of selling the permits if they could be secured, “As for the argument that the permits could be sold? “Good luck,” our first industry source said. “Who would buy those, if Cobb and others are saying they don’t need all that power?”

The MDJ quotes a second industry expert saying, “I questioned myself if they ever intended to build it, and I’m convinced that if they had pursued that course, it would have driven Cobb EMC into bankruptcy. But I think Dean’s a smoke-and-mirrors guy who’ll say anything to keep his business going.”

I saw the smiling faces at the Washington EMC when Plant Washington was announced in January 2008 because I was invited to the very hush-hush event. The Washington EMC Board of Directors, CEO Frank Askew, Dean Alford, Chamber President Theo McDonald, and Hugh Tarbutton Sr. were all grins despite Dean’s statement that they were counting on “some environmentalists” trying to stop the plant.

My eyes, like those of others in the room, were opened wide that day. We heard the promises ourselves: Plant Washington would be built, owned, and operated by the co-ops.

I didn’t know much about energy production that afternoon, and no one would have accused me of being an environmentalist. And I sure didn’t know anything about being a good co-op owner-member.

I still have a lot to learn about energy production. But now I am a flag waving, treehugging, dirt worshipping environmentalist. And the good co-op owner-member? I’m working tooth and nail on that too.

Good governance isn’t just for co-op owner-members

The cows are still coming home to Cobb EMC. The Marietta Daily Journal is reporting that Dwight Brown is taking legal action against Cobb EMC because he thinks he is due the full $2.1M from a consulting contract.

If I were Dwight Brown I would do the same: who wouldn’t want to collect $13,800 per week plus expenses for three years (plus attorney’s fees of $5,000 for the contract he had drawn up).

This is a perfect example of how open meetings and transparency help Board members too. Larry Chadwick, the Board Chair of Cobb EMC, signed the contract without the approval or authorization of the co-op’s Board of Directors. That wouldn’t happen if business and voting take place in an open meeting, along with access to documents and records (and there are co-ops that discuss personnel and  contractual matters in executive session but vote in an open meeting. It can and is done successfully) .

Maybe the previous rubber stamp board would have agreed to the contract too, but we will never know. Now the co-op has to spend yet more of the owner-member dollars in an effort to break the contract and recover some of what has been paid.

All of the “doing and deals” cooked up by Brown and the Board of Directors in control prior to November 2011 defy good business practices. A court agreement between owner-members and the Board required that Brown leave the co-op at the end of February 2011. After insisting that Brown was the only person on the planet who could effectively run the co-op, the Board hired him as a consultant on March 1, 2011 to work as a consultant where, according to the MDJ, he essentially continued to work as the CEO.

It is stunning to watch the machinations of people who have long lost sight of what is best for the community they live in, the co-op they work for, and the owner-members who elected them to conduct business on their behalf.

It bears repeating: open meetings and transparency held Board members too.

What say you now Washington EMC leaders? Still think keeping the door slammed shut to members is in the co-op’s best interest? What about your best interest?

Power4Georgians law firm reports “fat” profits

The going rate for attorneys like the ones at King and Spalding, who represent Washington EMC and the remaining three co-ops in Power4Georgians, is about $650 per hour, per attorney. They usually have no fewer than three attorneys at their table. Billing just under $2000 per hour isn’t chump change.

So how did last year go for King and Spalding? According to the American Law site, the firm’s revenue increased 9 percent, jumping from $718M to $781.5M. The cut per equity partner (lawyers in the firm eligible for distribution of profits) went up 12 percent from the previous year, falling just short of $2M at $1.975M.  The article reports that K&S’s revenue has increased 20 percent since 2008, and the profit per equity partners (lawyers in the firm eligible for distribution of profits) soared by 56 percent.

When was Plant Washington announced? January 2008. 

Every Washington EMC owner member contributed directly to those profits when they paid their bill or bought an appliance. It just doesn’t seem right that “our” attorneys are making out like bandits with our money.

Do the phones at K&S sound like a cash register when Dean Alford calls? Just wonderin’

 

You may own us, but we won’t let you in

The Friday Photo
A weekly photo inspired by spontaneity, art, and community.
February 24, 2012 

The sun was shining brightly on the sign at my electric co-op yesterday.
It needs to shine brightly on operations and decisions made there.
The owner members must request, in writing, permission to attend
any part of a board meeting.
It is the same as owning your own company
(because the customers are the owners)
but being told you can’t come to the Executive Committee meetings.