Georgia Power vs. the law of holes

By Lyle Harris

Georgia Power is likely to get another shot-in-the-arm after announcing plans to complete construction on those ill-fated nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro.

A more appropriate response to this epic boondoggle, of course, would be a swift kick in the pants. But don’t count on it.

The Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) has scheduled hearings on November 6 to discuss the troubled project, Along with the Southern Company (Georgia Power’s corporate parent) and the smaller utilities that are partners on the Plant Vogtle expansion, there’s little reason to worry about some silly old hearings. While the PSC is ostensibly charged with balancing the interests of the utility with those of its customers, the scales are reliably tipped in Georgia Power’s favor.

The planned reactors at Plant Vogtle were supposed to be up and running by now but they’re only about one-third complete. A series of major snafus and setbacks (including the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric which designed and was building the reactors) has increased chances that Georgia households will be picking up more of the tab.

Bear in mind, Georgia Power and its project partners have already been collecting about $100 a year in construction prepayments from millions of its customers (including you and me). They were granted the authority to do so after the state legislature let the utility take our money in advance for an unproven, untested product. With lawmakers and regulators asleep at the switch, the cost of the Plant Vogtle expansion has more than doubled from $12 to $25 billion and the work is now five years behind schedule.

Now, the U.S. Department of Energy is planning to grant $3.7 billion in loan guarantees for Plant Vogtle. That’s in addition to the $8.3 billion the federal agency had already pledged for the project. (Remember the hysterical cries of “corporate welfare,” when the same federal loan guarantee program was used to spur development of renewable fuels?  Solyndra anyone?)

Like many others, I have been openly critical of this project from the gitgo. It was rushed through the General Assembly with unseemly back-slapping and customary deal-making by corporate lobbyists. What’s been missing all along, unfortunately, is serious consideration or rigorous oversight by our elected officials.

As critics of my coverage have pointed out, the mind-blowingly complicated details involved in nuclear plant construction are not in my wheelhouse, and I completely agree. I’d rather split infinitives than atoms.

Although lacking in nuclear power bonafides, my family of humble Jamaican immigrants thankfully taught me the power of common wisdom. While chronicling this still-unfolding train wreck over the last eight years, some of my all-time favorite sayings have bubbled up, including:

  • Don’t.Buy.This.Pig.

    “Don’t buy a pig in a poke” – Investing blindly on a nuclear construction design from Westinghouse – a design that has never been built anywhere in the U.S. – should have been our first clue that this project would devolve into a nightmare. What’s worse: this particular pig was bought in advance with Georgians’ hard-earned money so we won’t even be tasting any bacon for years to come – if ever.

  • “Don’t throw good money after bad” (aka the Sunk Cost Fallacy) – Georgia Power’s decision to proceed full-speed ahead is rooted in the time-honored human impulse that often leads to pain and penury. Doubling down on a bad bet is a powerful urge that Georgia Power/Southern Company seem genetically unable to resist. I guess it’s easier when you’re gambling with other people’s money. Ours.

Plant Vogtle; more money down the drain

  • “Obey the First Law of Holes” – It’s an immutable truth, right? If you find yourself in a deep, dark place of your own making, stop digging. Please. Granted, canceling construction of the Plant Vogtle reactors could cost more than $400 million and be an embarrassment of Biblical proportions. But changing course is a relative bargain compared to the billions it will cost to complete the project as originally planned. On top of that, a recent analysis by PSC consultants indicates the nuke reactors aren’t really necessary because of waning customer demand for electricity coupled with the falling costs of other fuels, such as natural gas and renewables.

(Note: I originally wrote this column several weeks ago but posting was delayed by computer problems. As it turns out, Steve Huntoon of RTO Insider, an energy trade newsletter, posted a very similar, far more detailed column that makes for great reading. Well struck, Steve!)

Georgia Power can still learn this lesson. He did.

10 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Georgia needs additional baseload generation capacity. If the Vogtle expansion is not completed, how do you propose to provide the needed capacity?Report

    Reply
    • Lyle Harris
      Lyle Harris says:

      Oh, I dunno. How about taking even more money from poor and middle class Georgians who can’t afford it? Your call.

      BTW: I read your tasteless and implicitly racist comment on my colleague’s Decatur public housing story, To paraphrase my favorite NBA coach (in response to my least favorite president), I will no longer banter with “soulless cowards” who hide behind lame pseudonyms to help conceal their Klan robes. We woke and we see you.Report

      Reply
      • Burroughston Broch says:

        In response to your first paragraph, where do you suggest poor and middle class Georgians get electricity at night and when the wind isn’t blowing?
        In response to your second paragraph, I worked around public housing for decades and know what happens. If you think the tenants will take care of the buildings, then you have been smoking too much of your favorite weed. Baby mammas and baby daddies are not all of one race.Report

        Reply
    • atomdotgirl says:

      Actually Burroghston Broch Georgia Power’s sales have remained the same for almost 10 years, despite a surge of 1,200,000 new Georgia residents. Meanwhile, despite the closure of 3,000 Mw of coal-powered baseload generation, the company’s own figures show that it has an excess capacity of 30%. The sun and wind, which Georgia Power is also able to use, and is using, have become cheaper than nuclear. Since sun and wind plants don’t require emergency evacuation planning and radioactive waste storage, they are a better bet for a modern smart grid.Report

      Reply
  2. Hampster says:

    Even if GP’s sales have remained stagnant, (which I highly doubt they haven’t seen ANY growth with all the industry moving to GA), wind and solar are for peak shaving and pocket loads, at best. They are not suitable as baseload sources. With coal-fired plants facing extinction, and the natural gas market being very volatile over long periods of time, nuclear is the only other practical baseload solution.Report

    Reply
  3. Jeff Kling says:

    Very few if any power companies are investing in caseload generation, so either get with the program or don’t respond like a GAP shill. I almost fell off my seat reading this ludicrous statement about our General Assembly. When have they ever been out in front of anything except protecting your guns and bibles? “Like many others, I have been openly critical of this project from the gitgo. It was rushed through the General Assembly with unseemly back-slapping and customary deal-making by corporate lobbyists. What’s been missing all along, unfortunately, is serious consideration or rigorous oversight by our elected officials.”Report

    Reply
    • atomdotgirl says:

      Enter now the opportunity to address the Public Service Commission, five guys who have total power to shut the Vogtle boondoggle down. Hearings commence at 10AM, Monday, November 6 at 244 Washington Street SW, Atlanta 30334. Additional days of hearings will be held Nov. 7-9 starting at 9AM as necessary to accommodate Georgia Power’s dozen witnesses. Public testimony (three minutes per speaker) will be entered into the record at the beginning of each day. The hearing is to decide whether or not to stop construction on the 30% complete, completely unneeded Vogtle nuclear reactors, estimated to cost an additional $20 billion (to be collected up front of course from the public) and with an estimated 70% probability of ever being completed. Let’s call it PUBLIC VS. GEORGIA POWER VOGTLE SMACKDOWN! There has never been a better time to SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER.Report

      Reply

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