Georgia Senate bill aims to protect consumers’ pocketbooks from Vogtle

By Mary Landers – Savannah Morning News

Legislation co-sponsored by state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, seeks to limit the money paid by ratepayers — particularly schools — for Georgia Power’s expansion of Plant Vogtle.

If enacted as written, it would immediately reduce monthly residential power bills. And it could provide big rebates if the project isn’t completed.

The troubled expansion is five years behind schedule and its price tag has nearly doubled to $27 billion. Despite a staff recommendation that the project is uneconomic and a finding that the company will make $5 billion in profits from the delays, the Georgia Public Service Commission in December gave the green light to complete the expansion with few added consumer safeguards.

Senate Bill 355, sponsored by Rome Republican Chuck Hufstetler and introduced Wednesday, would amend the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act to limit in several ways the ongoing collection of a nuclear fee while these reactors are being built and prevent the utility from automatically collecting the same nuclear fee on future projects. It would also provide for a refund if the reactors never become operational.

Specifically, it would require Georgia Power to return to the Legislature for reauthorization for any future projects to collect a nuclear fee during construction as it’s doing for the Vogtle expansion. Ratepayers have already paid more than $2 billion for units 3 and 4 at Vogtle. A typical homeowner pays about $100 a year in the fee.

Jackson, one of the few lawmakers who voted against the 2009 bill that authorized the utility to collect nuclear fees while the expansion is still under construction, said it’s time for the utility’s stockholders to step up.

“Georgia Power needs some skin in the game,” he said. “This legislation puts that skin in the game and makes them better stewards of their money.”

Georgia Power, which is building the new reactors with a group of public power companies, owns a 45.7 percent share of the project. The bill is not needed, spokesman John Kraft said.

“Since the beginning of the Vogtle 3 and 4 project, Georgia Power has worked with the Georgia Public Service Commission to minimize the impact on customer bills, which is why we believe Senate Bill 355 is not necessary due to measures that are already in place to protect all customers, including schools,” Kraft said.

Jackson, who said he hears complaints from those customers “only when I wake up,” noted that no other industry would be allowed similar cost overruns without better oversight.

“I’d argue that if Plant Vogtle stockholders were paying it would have finished on time,” he said.

School systems currently pay the nuclear fee, too. The Savannah-Chatham County Public School System reported it paid more than $271,000 toward the Vogtle expansion in the last fiscal year, which ended July 1.

That rankles Jackson. The bill seeks to put an end to the collection of these financing costs from public schools during construction.

“Public education needs every dime they say they need,” Jackson said.

He views the nuclear fee as a double whammy on ratepayers.

“The families that go to public schools already pay that fee and schools should be excused from paying that fee,” Jackson said.

State Sen. Ben Watson on Friday declined to take a position on the bill, saying he had not yet read it. He did note that the project had met with hurdles not of its own making, including tightened regulations after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the bankruptcy of contractor Westinghouse, and plummeting natural gas prices. Comparisons to a failed Vogtle twin project at the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina aren’t entirely apt, he said.

“Georgia is growing, unlike South Carolina,” he said. “They’ve lost half their demand.”

Electricity demand in Georgia hasn’t kept pace with that growth, though. The Public Service Commission staff testified late last year that if the Vogtle expansion were canceled, Georgia Power would need new capacity in 2024 because of increased demand, planned retirement of coal-fired plants and the expiration of power purchase agreements. The company could build a new natural gas power plant, enter into new purchase agreements or buy electricity from a supplier with excess capacity, staff wrote.

Like schools, municipal governments also pay the nuclear fee, though they are not targeted for relief in the bill. The city of Savannah estimated it paid close to $1 million in nuclear fees to Georgia Power in 2016. Meanwhile, big industrial ratepayers get a better deal from the utility. In fact, an analysis by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy showed residential customers subsidize industrial ones on the nuclear fee.

“The average residential customer, using 1,081 kWh per month, has paid $484 toward the cost of Plant Vogtle through September 2017,” SACE’s John D. Wilson wrote in a blog at “Of that total, residential customers have paid about $153 per household to provide industrial customers with $319 million in rate savings.”

S.B. 355 would also stop Georgia Power from collecting the nuclear tariff from all customers past the date when Units 3 &4 should have been placed into service. Both units were originally scheduled for completion by April 2017. If this bill is enacted, tariff collections will stop when it becomes law.

There’s also a provision for a rebate. The bill requires Georgia Power to return all pre-collected nuclear fees to customers within five years if the Vogtle 3 &4 project is cancelled or abandoned. For the average residential customer, that refund would amount to more than $500.

Georgia Watch, a nonprofit consumer advocacy agency, provided encouragement and input on the bill, said executive director Liz Coyle.

“I will say that we know folks at the Capitol are very concerned about what’s happening at Vogtle,” she said. “There’s a good chance that something will get done legislatively this year to provide relief for consumers in Georgia.”

Jackson agreed.

“It’s an election year,” he said. “This matter needs to be explored.”

Read the bill here:


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Source: Savannah Morning News