By Tom Baxter

Where do we go from here, in the struggle to keep the lights on and the factories humming, while insuring the earth doesn’t become an oven and the water we drink a luxury? A satisfactory answer to that question is still a long distance away, but Georgia is looking more and more like the “here” referred to in that question.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency made available a new database showing the nation’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and the top two sites – the Southern Company’s Plant Scherer in Juliette and Plant Bowen near Cartersville – are in Georgia, and within a 65-mile radius of Atlanta. Along with the nation’s third-largest emitter — Southern’s Plant Miller near Birmingham, Ala. — these sources for the electricity which lights the screen this is being written on account for more carbon emissions than the entire nation of Finland, according to one report.

Since nearly all the largest sources of greenhouse gases are coal-fired power plants and Bowen and Scherer are the largest and fifth-largest, respectively, in the country, this news was in some respects a restating of the obvious. That at least is the way the Southern Company sees it. The emissions “are indicative of those being among the nation’s largest generators of electricity,” the company said in a statement to the AJC, noting its cooperation in gathering the information used in the database.

The utility’s size and influence were also decisive last week, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Southern the first license for construction of a nuclear plant – work has already begun on two reactors at Plant Vogtle – since 1978, the year before the nuclear accident and partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility outside Harrisburg, Pa.

Ever since those tense days immediately following the Three Mile Island accident, when there were serious questions about whether it could be contained, and the potential impact on public health, there’s been the loose impression that safety concerns stirred by the accident derailed the nuclear power industry. That’s not exactly accurate. The NRC tightened up on safety standards after the accident, and there was minute scrutiny of milk samples and cancer rates around the site for evidence of any impact. But these issues alone did not stop nuclear plant construction for more than three decades.

More than a safety issue, Three Mile raised a liability issue. When the zirconium cladding inside the overheated Three Mile Unit 2 became embrittled and fell in a heap on the reactor floor, the three utilities which shared ownership were left with a cleanup job which took 16 years and nearly $1 billion to accomplish. That’s chicken feed compared to the cleanup costs of Chernobyl and Fukushima, but it was enough to scare U.S. utilities away from nuclear expansion for many years.

Thus, only a utility with the influence to swing an $8.3 billion loan guarantee from the Obama administration, and get the Georgia General Assembly to approve letting utilities charge consumers in advance for the project, could hope to surmount those liability problems.

The argument for passing these financial risks along to the American taxpayer and (primarily) Georgia consumer is based on the proposition that a dynamic region like the one Southern Company has grown with over several decades can’t continue to depend on aging, carbon-belching plants like Scherer and Bowen much longer, so nuclear construction has to go forward.

But there can be liabilities on the demand side as well. The recent report  by the Corporation for Enterprise Development paints a daunting picture of a state whose citizens have the lowest level of financial security in the country. That’s not the rosy optimism which generated the increasing power demand of decades past.

Appropriately for a state where so many of the nation’s big energy and environmental questions have swung into the spotlight, there’s a bill, SB 401, before a state Senate committee which would take certain basic steps toward making it possible for individuals and businesses to use solar power to meet their energy needs.

It’s currently in the cat’s paw of Senate politics: As David Pendered details here,   Senate President Tommie Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers, along with several Democrats, are for it. But that might automatically create a conflict with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, even if Cagle’s campaign manager, Charles K. Tarbutton, didn’t sit on the Georgia Power board.

If the potential for solar energy production is as small as skeptics think it is, and the continued explosive growth of the Sunbelt as sure as the economic projections for the expansion of Plant Vogtle, a simple little bill like this shouldn’t be that much of a problem, but old monopolies die hard.

The sponsors of 401 may have missed a bet by not insisting it be called the solar power deregulation bill. Certainly, the prevailing conservative dogma about the success of deregulation in other sectors doesn’t square very easily with a regulatory system which limits the potential for an energy source. With the gate lifted again on nuclear expansion, the state may be a good place to start a different kind of debate about how government and business interests control that pathway from here to where ever we’re going.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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  1. SB 401 also includes biomass, which the state has promoted vigorously. It’s a shame that our elected officials would let personal rivalries limit the state’s economic development potential at a time when new opportunities are so badly needed.

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