Coal-Fired Power Plants - Put focus on renewable, clean sources

By Justine Thompson
For the Journal-Constitution

Published on: 07/16/08 in The Atlanta Journal Constitution

We are taking a good first step in energy conservation efforts when we exchange an incandescent light bulb for an energy-efficient compact fluorescent one. But we need to think back from the bulb.

Where does electricity come from? We flip a switch and lights turn on, computers run, furnaces heat and air conditioners chill -- often without a thought about the source that powers them. Our understanding, however, is about to get a whole lot clearer.

On June 30, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore sent Dynegy's Longleaf air pollution permit, needed to build a coal-fired power plant in southwest Georgia, back to the drawing board. The decision puts all power companies -- local electric membership cooperatives as well as state and national energy conglomerates -- on notice that they must comply with the federal Clean Air Act and take reasonable steps to protect human health and the well-being of the planet.

A few fearmongers are peddling the notion that this decision will mean a loss of power or a loss of jobs in Georgia. They are wrong. This decision simply means that another coal-fired power plant cannot be built in our state unless it has adequate pollution controls to protect public health and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In fact, this decision could signal the beginning of an economic boom in Georgia, the dawn of clean energy production, which could make us the leader of the Southeast -- maybe even of the world -- if only we seize the initiative.

Clean, renewable energy is clearly the future of the world. If we want to lead that economic revolution, we need to move fast. Otherwise, we will be buying energy technology from other countries. If we think "foreign oil dependence" has been bad, try foreign dependence for all our future energy.

Our state has needed a kick-start, a smart start, to the development of our renewable-energy sector. All the pieces are in place, starting with world-class research well under way at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, where legions of professors and graduate students are linked with their counterparts around the world developing the opportunities of renewable sources like solar, wind, biomass and geothermal.

There will be plenty of new jobs in Georgia when American entrepreneurs and businesses embrace the challenge to produce energy in new ways. And there will be plenty of power when we increase our conservation of the energy we do produce. We now waste an enormous amount, especially in the heating and cooling of our poorly insulated buildings, even though the technology and design capability to build differently are available to us now. The construction industry just needs a little motivation to change like the power industry does.

Twenty-first-century environmentalists and business leaders will become partners in building a sustainable energy economy. Our natural resources must be fairly guided by stewards concerned for the health and well-being of all species, including our own. Our interconnections have never been more apparent. We cannot escape our asthma-inducing air and the tidal wave of global warming from carbon dioxide emissions alone - it's a team effort.

At GreenLaw, we call June 30, the day of Judge Moore's decision, "the day the lights came on in Georgia," because the most important light bulb we can turn on is the one in our heads that makes the connection between the energy we use and where it comes from. That's illumination.

Justine Thompson is executive director of GreenLaw, the public interest law firm representing the environmental groups that challenged the Dynegy plant permit.