The Circle Continues

I have written about the Circle of Life a few times through the years in articles mainly focused on the deaths of my Dad and Mom and births of my grandchildren. Those articles discussed the expansion of our Circle of Life as we grow older and the intersection of our individual Circles with those of others as our lives became intertwined.

I was reminded of the Circle of Life as we finished the final steps of the hardest and saddest decision of my working career – closing the Lowman Power Plant in Leroy, Alabama at the end of October. Lowman was a coal plant on the Tombigbee River that generated affordable electricity for the people of rural Alabama and northwest Florida for more than 50 years. More importantly, it employed many people, allowing them to support their families, send their children to college, and support their communities.

I joined Alabama Electric Cooperative (AEC) in 1989, at age 35. Lowman Unit 1 was 21 years old, and the larger Lowman Units 2 and 3 were about 10 years old. My initial impression was that Lowman was an old plant, about worn out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but later learned Lowman was actually pretty young for a coal plant and had a lot of life left.

The Lowman Plant employed approximately 185 employees at its peak. Many of those employees were hired when Lowman 2 and 3 were added, and they were roughly my age. My Circle of Life and the Circles of those employees became more intertwined when I became CEO in 2000.

Lowman was AEC’s primary source of electricity from 1980 until 2000. Power was purchased from other utilities, but the largest majority of electricity to serve AEC’s distribution members for those decades came from Lowman. Lowman and the people that ran it were AEC’s most valuable assets, and the members’ cost of service rose or fell based on the success and costs of the Lowman Plant.

The initial AEC Risk Assessment after I became CEO indicated the greatest risk the organization and its members could experience would be an extended loss of the Lowman Plant. The estimated cost of the risk was bankruptcy of the company.

Lowman and its people earned their keep over the years. The company grew with the reliable and cheap electricity generated by Lowman. Wholesale power costs to our members dropped from 1986 until 2000, as the members grew their service areas with cheap electricity from Lowman. Wholesale power costs dropped consistently until Lowman became fully loaded in the late 1990’s, and AEC added new generation at the Vann and McIntosh Plants.

Still, Lowman continued as a valuable resource even as AEC (renamed PowerSouth in 2008) added other generation resources and diversified its generation portfolio. Lowman was the only PowerSouth plant that ran reliably through the 2014 Polar Vortex. Over the past 20 years, it provided cost stability as natural gas prices rose and fell.

Lowman was closed because legally managing water and coal ash under the Coal Combustion Residual (CCR) Rules promulgated by the EPA became impossible. The Lowman name and legacy will continue to live on with a new, large natural gas combined cycle plant that is being constructed on the site.

Sadly, many of the loyal, committed employees that I first came to know in 1989, and some hired since then, will not continue with PowerSouth. Natural gas plants require fewer employees than coal plants, and there is no longer a need for about 80 of the people employed at Lowman. Some, like me, are at retirement age. Unfortunately, some are not.

My Circle of Life is closely tied with the Circles of Lowman employees. My success at PowerSouth has been dependent upon their success. Now my Circle and the Circles of many of those employees leaving PowerSouth are separated. It is sad for me to realize my Circle will never again be as close with those employees as it was before the end of October.

I am proud PowerSouth has been able to provide good wages and benefits for its employees through the years. I am proud of all the things we accomplished together. I am also glad the PowerSouth Board provided generous severance packages for those employees leaving PowerSouth.

I have learned that all things change with deaths of family and friends. Our Circles of Life change. That doesn’t mean I have to like those changes.

I thank those departing employees for all they have done for PowerSouth. But more importantly, I thank them for their friendship. I wish them happiness and peace in everything they do.

I will miss my friends.

I hope you have a good month.