Monday, February 4, 2008

Sun News Steps Out

Yesterday the Sun News in Myrtle Beach published an editorial asking for what those opposed to the coal plant have long been asking for:

A public conversation about the need for this coal plant, its true costs and benefits to South Carolina, and the real alternatives available to us.

There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue, but no one should shy away from an independent review of this project. Tough questions need to be asked and answered before we commit ourselves to 50 years of coal in the Pee Dee.

Hopefully this is the beginning of that necessary process.

Coal Plant Conundrum
'We have met the enemy and they are us'

On Jan. 22, seven attorneys general from across the nation asked the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to shoot down Santee Cooper's plan to build a 600-megawatt coal-fire power plant in Florence County. The attorneys general in question may know how things work in their home venues: California, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, D.C. But they obviously don't understand how things work in South Carolina.

DHEC is conducting an environmental review of the Santee Cooper proposal to erect the plant on the banks of the Pee Dee River. But DHEC doesn't have the authority to accept or reject any Santee Cooper project.

No one except the Santee Cooper board has that power, and its members have already approved the plant. Were Santee Cooper an investor-owned utility like Duke Energy or SCANA, it would have to obtain permission to expand its generating capacity from the S.C. Public Utilities Commission. But because Santee Cooper is a state-owned utility started with a $1 million federal grant in the 1930s, it is exempt from Public Utilities Commission oversight.

The attorneys general argue that Santee Cooper's planned "Pee Dee Energy Campus" would issue 9 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. Carbon dioxide, as any middle-school science student could tell you, is no respecter of political boundaries. Emissions that originate in South Carolina really could taint the air in their states and the District of Columbia, and other states as well.

The Santee Cooper leadership, however, argues that without the new plant, brownouts - electric-service lapses at times of peak customer demand - could become commonplace in its service area within five years. That service area includes the most populous parts of Horry, Georgetown and Berkeley counties. The service area also includes most of the rural and small-town parts of South Carolina because Santee Cooper's biggest customer is electric cooperatives - such as the Horry Electric Cooperative.

Here's what makes judging this project really hard: The main force driving Santee Cooper's decision to build the plant is rampant growth on the Grand Strand. (As Walt Kelly's famous cartoon character Pogo once observed: "We have met the enemy and they are us.")

The S.C. conservation community argues, persuasively, that a combination of energy-savings strategies and alternative generation technologies - solar, wind, etc. - could eliminate the need for the plant. Or, failing that, Santee Cooper could redesign the plant to run on gasified coal or to include sequestration technology that keeps carbon from reaching the atmosphere.

Santee Cooper argues, equally persuasively, that it is touting energy conservation and exploring alternative-generation technologies. Utility leadership also promises to use the best coal-fired technology available to minimize carbon and mercury emissions, but adds that coal-gasification and carbon-sequestration are unreliable and cost too much.

Who's right? Who knows? That's why Gov. Mark Sanford, as a born-again environmentalist and chief state executive, should conduct - top to bottom - an independent review of the Santee Cooper proposal and report his findings to the people of South Carolina. No other state official or entity can do this. Better he than the outside attorneys general to tell us whether we can get by without Santee Cooper's Pee Dee Energy Campus.

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