Georgia Power’s Garrett gives business update in Gwinnett

By Maria Saporta

Georgia Power President and CEO Mike Garrett painted a broad brush of business issues at a luncheon meeting of the Gwinnett Chamber earlier today.

From the economy to energy to water to economic development, Garrett shared his thoughts.

Because of his multiple roles, he is in a unique position to talk about all of them. He is chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He is chairman of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. He is heading a water negotiations task force for Gov. Sonny Perdue. And then there’s his day job — running the largest utility in the state.

So here is what Garrett had to say about the economy:

“In 2006, we were growing faster than any one else, so any recession will have more of an impact on us. In our territory alone, we have 147,000 vacant homes. Housing starts were down 84 percent in metro Atlanta. And we lost 200,000 jobs. Am I being positive yet?” Garrett asked Gwinnett Chamber CEO Jim Maran.

Earlier in the year, Garrett put up these four letters: NWBB. They stand for: Normal Won’t Be Back.

“If you think 2005, 2006, 2007 was normal, you will be disappointed,” Garrett said. “Frankly we were living on a bubble.”

Looking forward, Garrett said Georgia will continue to be one of the fastest growing states in the country. He credited part of that growth to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which handles 90 million passengers a year — about a third more than the second largest airport.

Later in his talk, Garrett expressed optimism on the economy.

“I think this economy is going to come back,” Garrett said. “We are starting to see some movement in housing and commercial. My greatest concern is on the industrial and manufacturing side of things.”

On the future of energy in Georgia:

Garrett said that 60 percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal, 18 percent from nuclear and almost 7 percent from natural gas. The rest comes from hydro power and renewables.

“I don’t think you can get a coal plant permitted in this state, and I don’t want to,” Garrett said.

But if Georgia is going to be able to house an additional 3.5 million people in the next couple of decades, Garrett said the best and cleanest energy source is nuclear.

“We want to be leaders in the nuclear renaissance,” Garrett said, adding that in April he signed papers approving the building of new generation nuclear plants estimated to cost $14.5 billion.

Garrett hopes to get the early site permit by the end of August, and to receive the Construction and Operating License in 2011. Once they have that permit, construction can begin with the first unit scheduled to become operational in 2016 and the second unit in 2017.

Garrett said conservation and energy efficiency also are a priority as well as renewables, particularly biomass.

“People always ask me about solar and wind,” Garrett said. “I tell you that I think solar is beginning to get somewhere, especially with incentives. We don’t have the solar intensity here as out in the Southwest. But clearly there is a market for solar here.”

Garrett was less optimistic about the future of wind, saying that Georgia just doesn not have enough wind velocity.

Asked about the “cap-and-trade” legislation in Congress (aimed at reducing carbon emissions), Garrett said: “Cap-and-trade has fallen victim to health care.”

If the House bill were to become law, Garrett said Georgia Power’s energy costs would increase by 40 percent by 2020. “That’s not something we want to do,” he said. “We feel very good about our representation in the Senate. The same bill (as the House) is not going to come out of the Senate if it comes out of the Senate at all.”

On transportation, Garrett said it is a more critical issue for metro Atlanta than the rest of the state. “We’ve been working to try to find the right piece of legislation,” he said. “My concern now is that if you get in a situation and you use the tax word, you’ll be in trouble.”

But Garrett said he remains “pretty confiencent” that there will be progress on transportation funding during the upcoming legislative session.

Water, however, was foremost on the minds of Gwinnett business leaders. Gwinnett receives all of its drinking water from Lake Lanier, but a federal judge ruled last month that drinking water was not an authorized use for the reservoir.

In a phone conversation after the talk, Garrett said he expects to have more information on water in the next couple of weeks. Part of his role is to try to get Georgia, Alabama and Florida to reach a water allocation agreement — something that hasn’t succeeded in the past two decades.

If the three states can reach an agreement, Garrett said he is confident Congress would reauthorize the use of Lake Lanier for drinking water.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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