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Nuclear costs loom over races for Georgia PSC races

Public Service Commission must deal with $25 billion Plant Vogtle’s impact on electric rates

An American flag flies on a construction site at Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, a nuclear power plant, in Waynesboro, Ga.
An American flag flies on a construction site at Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, a nuclear power plant, in Waynesboro, Ga. (2019 Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATLANTA – The shadow of two nuclear reactors that Georgia Power Co. is building near Waynesboro hangs over two statewide elections for the Georgia Public Service Commission. Although the reactors are now getting so close to completion that they are likely to enter service, whoever is elected will have to deal with the $25 billion project’s ultimate impact on customer bills.

Electric customers statewide and even in Jacksonville will help pay for Plant Vogtle, as Georgia Power has contracts to provide power from the plant around the Southeast.

The five-person utility regulatory body is currently all Republican, with two members up for reelection this year. In District 1, Republican Jason Shaw is seeking a full six-year term after the former state lawmaker was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2019. He’s being challenged by Democrat Robert Bryant and Libertarian Elizabeth Melton.

In District 4, Republican Lauren “Bubba” McDonald is seeking his fourth full term on the commission, with Democrat Daniel Blackman and Libertarian Nathan Wilson seeking to unseat him.

Although all the candidates run statewide, each must live in one of five districts. District 1 includes Savannah, Columbus and areas south to the Florida state line. District 4 includes Augusta, Gainesville, Rome and areas north to the state line.

Amid rising costs, the plan to add a third and fourth nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle survived a cost-overrun scare in 2018 with the heavy support of the state’s Republican establishment. Georgia Power, the largest subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Co. is now building the only new nuclear plants in the U.S.

McDonald expresses pride in the Vogtle project, saying nuclear energy is the perfect partner for increasing solar generation in the state.

“We are on the cutting edge with the first two nuclear plants in the nation in over 36 years,” the Republican said in an Atlanta Press Club debate earlier this month.

He and Shaw note that Georgia Power’s rates are lower than the nationwide average. But rates have been going up. In December, the commission voted 4-1 to raise rates by $1.77 billion over three years for Georgia Power’s 2.6 million customers. That will mean a more than 10% increase in a prototypical residential customer’s bill by 2022.

McDonald voted against the increase, wanting a lower rate of return that would have cumulatively cost customers $500 million less.

Shaw said during a debate earlier this month that he makes decisions based on “striking the right balance” between ratepayers and ensuring utilities are strong enough to finance expensive projects. Challengers to Shaw and McDonald say the balance is too tilted to utilities.

Commissioners last year also approved a rate increase for Atlanta Gas Light, another Southern Co. subsidiary, saying it needed more money to upgrade pipes.

“I agree to a point with a balance, but the balance should always tip to the side of the public,” Bryant said. “We’re here to protect Georgia’s rate-paying public.”

The incumbents also point with pride to a growing expansion of solar generation in Georgia, but challengers say the rooftop solar program, limited to 5,000 homes statewide, is also too catered to the interests of Georgia Power. Wilson said it’s unfair for Georgia Power to buy excess solar cheaply from rooftop generation and then sell it to other customers at higher expense. The Democrats say they want to be more aggressive on solar and look at more options for community solar installations.

McDonald, though, said the commission has avoided shifting costs to customers who don’t have solar.

“This issue is no upward pressure on our ratepayers and no state mandate,” McDonald said. “It’s all been market-driven. That’s the capitalist form of government.”

Democratic challengers also rip Republican incumbents for letting utilities resume cutting off service for unpaid bills.

“I will give Georgia Power credit for offering a repayment plan,” Blackman said. “But I don’t think it was the right thing to assume that consumers around this state were back in a position to be able to meet those needs.”

Shaw said he was proud of the payment plans utilities had implemented allowing customers to delay bills, while McDonald warned that it was unfair to make someone else pay.

“There is no free electricity,” McDonald said. “Somebody is going to pay for it.”