by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder
State regulators heard familiar complaints on Monday about Georgia Power customers paying more for electricity after years of being saddled with runaway nuclear expansion costs.
Plant Vogtle’s two nuclear reactors took center stage as the Georgia Public Service Commission began a hearing to determine how to divide the project’s expenses among Georgia Power shareholders and customers.
The five member PSC is set to have the final say at a Dec. 19 meeting on whether to approve a stipulated agreement reached in August among Georgia Power, PSC staff, and several advocacy groups that would see the utility company cover $2.6 billion of an expected $10 billion in construction costs for the Vogtle project.
If the stipulated agreement is approved by the PSC, Georgia Power’s typical residential customer would begin paying an estimated additional $9 in utility bills the month following the completion of Unit 4. The final reactor is expected to be operational in 2024, according to Georgia Power officials.
The settlement calls for capping the maximum amount paid by Georgia Power customers at $7.6 billion, just north of the $7.3 billion threshold agreed to in 2018 by state regulators and Georgia Power. Under the 2018 order, the company could ask the PSC for the right to recover above-cap expenses from ratepayer if commissioners deemed the charges to be reasonable.
According to the agreement, Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Co., will cover any expenses exceeding $7.6 billion. The Vogtle expansion is just one in a series of rate hikes that Georgia Power customers are expected to see take effect in the next couple of years.
Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund organizing director Michael Hawthorne said he doesn’t think the proposed settlement is a good deal for Georgians.
“As you make these decisions, think about hard working Georgia families,” Hawthorne said. “Think about the mother who’s raising her kids by herself. Think about our teachers who are severely underpaid, who have to deal with so much and go home and still pay more for energy bills.”
Georgia Power on Monday defended the process of reviewing costs for Vogtle, which led to a stipulated agreement signed by consumer and environmental watchdog groups, such as Georgia Watch and the Georgia Interfaith Power & Light and Partnership for Southern Equity.
Georgia Power executives said the stipulated agreement takes into consideration the impact on ratepayers’ wallets. Lane Kollen, a longtime Vogtle consultant for the PSC, said Monday that Georgia Power’s average customer would see their rates increase by 8% under the agreement.
“This open and transparent process has involved 29 (Vogtle monitoring) reports and proceedings, thousands of pages of testimony and reports, and countless hours of review by (PSC) staff, the independent construction monitor, commissioners and stakeholders,” the testimony reads.
Bryan Jacob, director of solar programs for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, questioned if there was not enough public information about Vogtle’s costs to accurately determine whether Georgia Power should pay more than the proposed $2.6 billion.
“Does the fact that some parties have agreed to stipulate a certain amount as prudent and reasonable relieve the commission itself from the responsibility to independently determine that value,” Jacob asked at Monday’s hearing.
The PSC’s lead analyst for Vogtle, Steve Roetger, responded that the PSC commission is “within its rights to accept or reject it in its entirety or to modify” the terms of the agreement.
During Monday’s public hearing, the president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, a local union for professional electricians, and a Sumter County teacher commended the nuclear expansion project for creating jobs and its other economic benefits.
Robert Searfoss, who is a stockholder with Georgia Power and Southern Co, urged the commissioners to hold Georgia Power more accountable in paying for what he says are Vogtle’s unreasonable costs incurred over the 14 years that its been under construction.
“A lot of people here seem to support this vocal venture, but not so many have any good ideas of who’s supposed to pay for the staggering, staggering cost overruns of this massive, massive project that will actually for the money that’s been spent on it produces a relatively small amount of power,” said Searfoss about the $35 billion project.
The Vogtle expansion is the first new nuclear reactor to be built in the United States in more than 30 years.
On Monday, PSC Commissioner Tim Echols referenced the growing prospects of more nuclear power.
Last week, the U.S. joined more than 20 countries in agreeing to triple nuclear energy capacity in order to help reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“Georgia really has jumpstarted a world trend,” Echols said.
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