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Eaton makes first trip to Covington, meets with city officials
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 Chuck Eaton, commissioner of the Georgia Public Service Commission, made his first visit to Covington on Friday to meet with city officials and take a tour of the city's municipal gas system.

The Georgia PSC regulates many aspects of investor-owned gas operations but does not set market rates. The PSC also regulates municipal gas systems on safety practices and some territorial issues. The Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia, of which Covington is a member, coordinated Eaton's visit.

During his visit, Eaton briefed city officials on his thoughts of the future of energy sources in the state. Eaton said the state was at somewhat of an impasse as it waited for direction from Congress on future carbon emission standards.

While plans for additional coal-fired energy plants and nuclear energy plants are in the works, uncertainty remains on how active a role the next presidential administration and Congress will take in trying to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. At this time though, Eaton said the state still looked with favor at coal and nuclear energy sources due to their lower production costs than renewable energy sources such as biomass, solar and wind.

"The general public doesn't always make the connection between the environmental side and the cost side," Eaton said. "More than likely it's going to be coal and nuclear."

As a member of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, Covington is taking part in negotiations to invest in a Georgia Power expansion of its Plant Vogtle nuclear facility. Eaton said the PSC would begin negotiating with Georgia Power in May for its Plant Vogtle expansion certification.

Last week business magazine Portfolio named Southern Company, of which Georgia Power is a subsidiary, one of the top 10 corporate polluters in the nation. Georgia Power's coal-fired Plant Bowen in Eurharlee, Ga. was also named the biggest American sulfur-dioxide polluter.

Eaton said the state was also pursuing cellulose-based ethanol plants. At this point, Eaton said he believed solar power was still too cost-prohibitive to bring to the state.

In pursuing environmentally clean energy options, Eaton said the state needed to also keep in mind the (sometimes higher) cost of alternative energies, which could lead to manufacturing facilities leaving the state, and going oversees where there are not as many environmental regulations.

"A lot of these manufacturing companies are teetering on the edge," Eaton said.

The city of Covington provides natural gas to approximately 8,500 residential, commercial and industrial customers, according to City Manager Steve Horton. Less than half of the city's customers are inside city limits. The city's coverage area covers approximately two thirds of Newton County as well as a portion of Walton County, south of Walnut Grove.

"We're more than a utility provider, we're a community based partner," Horton said.

Horton echoed comments made by Eaton saying the city needed to work to keep energy costs affordable for its industry customers in order to retain the jobs they provide to county and city residents.

Utility Director Bill Meehcam said the city had plans to extend its gas service to Mount Pleasant once construction on the college town, located next to Georgia Perimeter College, begins.

According to Meecham, the city's gas service currently has 7,400 residential customers, 1,050 commercial customers and 18 industrial customers.