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Plant Vogtle: Georgia’s shame

The placement of a 720,000-pound water storage tank atop Plant Vogtle Unit 4's containment vessel is the last major crane lift at the project site, according to Georgia Power. Credit: ©2021 Georgia Power Co. All rights reserved

By Guest Columnist PATTY DURAND, president of Cool Planet Solutions

Georgia Power has the only nuclear plant under construction in the United States, which I call “Georgia’s Shame.” It is shameful that the timeline the utility provided to regulators, investors and the public – those of us paying for this plant – is now six years behind schedule. And it is shameful that the utility’s cost estimates for this plant were off by a shocking 100%: The original cost estimate for the two new units was $14 billion, and 2021 costs are near or at $30 billion.

Patty Durand

Patty Durand

This is federal level money spent in one state on one power plant.

And what are we getting for all this money? These units will produce a relatively small 2,100 megawatts of electricity annually. Georgia regulators allowed Georgia Power to pursue an energy solution that is nine times more expensive than necessary. The pursuit of Plant Vogtle over the past 12 years happened at a time when renewables are at record low prices and natural gas is four times cheaper than nuclear.

When all is said and done, Georgians are likely to be paying the highest electric bills in the country, and we are already between fifth and eighth place in the U.S. for high bills, according to different rankings.

Georgia Power and the Georgia Public Service Commission like to say that electric rates are 15% below the national average, but that’s not true. Given that Georgia is the sixth-cheapest state in the United States and the cost of living in Georgia is 20% below the national average, the fact that rates are no longer below the national average and will rise more sharply still due to Plant Vogtle impacts should concern everybody.

When Plant Vogtle is complete, Georgia customers are likely to be paying the highest electric bills in the country, rising from between 5th and 8th place in the U.S. for high bills, according to different rankings. Credit: eia.gov/electricity/generatorcosts/archive/2017/

Furthermore, customers pay bills, not rates. Georgians’ bills continue to ratchet up relative to the rest of the country. And that was before Plant Vogtle, the most expensive power plant ever built on earth.

Why has the PSC allowed the most expensive power plant ever built on earth to happen here, a state in the bottom 10 in terms of wealth and income? And can anything be done about it now?

Before we answer that, let’s set the table:

The PSC, a state agency with five commissioners elected by voters, has given Georgia Power a dream boat of profits for 12 years, including the following:

  • A blank check on construction costs. There is no limit to how expensive this project can go;
  • Authorization to put Construction Work in Progress (CWIP) into rates. This means that Georgia Power customers are paying in advance for Vogtle costs prior to delivery of any electricity. If you move, or die, you or your family paid for something you never received;
  • A financial scheme that allows Georgia Power to profit handsomely from project delays. So far Georgia Power has earned over $6 billion just from the delays of their own project.

Average monthly bills rank in the Top 10 for three utilities affilated with the Southern Co. Credit: eia.gov

Now that we understand the setting, here are three steps that should be taken if we are to prevent this from happening again. And it will happen again unless we act to stop it, because why not? Building expensive things is how Georgia Power makes the most profit. These are the three steps:

  1. Disallow Georgia Power from placing all nuclear construction costs onto our bills, and share rate increases more fully between customer classes.

When the first new nuclear unit comes online, likely sometime in 2022, construction costs will be placed into rates, though not equally among customer classes. The majority of costs will go to residential rates. The Georgia PSC has the choice of putting 100% of these costs into rates, none of the costs into rates, or a portion into rates, and the commission can decide how much those costs are spread between customer classes;

  1. Voters should punish commissioners for allowing this to take place by ejecting them from their seats.

Every Georgia election includes at least one, and sometimes two PSC commissioners. There are always competitors making promises to reduce our power bills. You can be sure that no one is worse for keeping rates affordable than any commissioner already in that seat. They should not be rewarded with re-election. Vote them out.

Plant Vogtle is in the process of testing the reactor components and systems before fuel is loaded. This photo shows the containment (left) and turbine building (right) of Voglt Unit No. 4. Credit: ©2021 Georgia Power Co. All rights reserved

  1. The Georgia Legislature should fully fund a separate Consumer Utility Counsel (CUC).

Most states, including Georgia in the past, have a separate office mandated to protect consumers. For decades, the CUC, a division of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection, represented Georgians in cases before the PSC. However, the CUC was defunded in 2008 during the Great Recession. Although the state is flush with tax revenues and has passed tax cuts several times since then, including $140 million in cuts just this year, this division was never restored.

In 2009 Georgia Power and the nuclear industry promised a new day. Because of streamlined changes in the licensing of nuclear plants, new unit designs, and the advent of modular construction, Georgia Power said it would deliver Vogtle units Nos. 3 and 4 “on-budget and on-time.” Yet here we are again, in the same place as we were when Plant Vogtle unit Nos. 1 and 2 went vastly overbudget.

This outcome was absolutely foreseeable. It is especially egregious in the Southeast, where more than $50 billion in failed nuclear power plants dot the landscape and damage the wallets of citizens in one of the lowest-income areas in the country.

Georgia Power is a monopoly granted by the people of Georgia through their state Legislature. In exchange for having no competition and a guaranteed profit, the utility agrees to serve the public interest with regulatory oversite. Going forward, perhaps it is time to examine how a competitive market will better serve the public interest.

Note to readers: Patty Durand, in addition to serving as president of Cool Planet Solutions, has 15 years of experience educating consumers about energy

 

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8 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Kay Pinder June 20, 2021 8:21 pm

    This is a sad and quite distressing situation that I’m sure many Georgians are unaware of. The fact that this has been done under our noses is upsetting. How are these elected officials getting away with this? And thinking of the many lower-income GA Power customers paying dearly (because they will be hit hard by the rate increases) for everyone’s ignorance—frustrating. Maddening.Report

    Reply
  2. S Nicely June 21, 2021 1:33 pm

    Most Georgians (myself included) aren’t aware of what’s driving our power bills to be so high, so this article was eye-opening. And it’s shocking to learn we don’t have a Consumer Utility Counsel (CUC) anymore! The author offers three practical steps to help protect Georgians from decisions that will adversely affect our pocketbooks in the future, and step two is one we can all exercise in the voting booth. Insightful and important article highlighting things we as Georgians and voters need to know!Report

    Reply
  3. Debi Hinerfeld June 22, 2021 8:22 am

    This is very sad and frustrating. It’s hard to believe that our elected officials have not considered how these inflated rates are impacting everyone, but mostly those in low income brackets. I appreciate this author’s candid information and will consider this when I go to the polls.Report

    Reply
  4. Robert searfoss June 22, 2021 12:35 pm

    .
    .
    One of the best reports so far on Georgia’s Big Sick Pig, the Vogtle Vortex. Won’t be the last.

    Remember, it was Governor Perdue who signed the “Georgia Power vortex money” bill to law, making this very big disgraceful mess possible.

    Georgia is really snookered and screwed for many years by the Big Sick Pig, the Vogtle Vortex. It is a world class example of misrepresentation, lies, gullibility, corporate capture of regulators, flat misuse of school tax money, theft from elderly citizens, enrichment of corporate executives, externalization of costs, fooling elected representatives, and ought to be felony theft by misrepresentation.

    At least schools or the state should try to clawback the millions billed and paid in advance for the “lower cost electricity” that was the sandy foundation promise of the Vogtle Vortex.

    .Report

    Reply
  5. Noel M June 22, 2021 2:56 pm

    Thank you for covering this. Nuclear almost certainly has to be part of our future, but we must handle it better.Report

    Reply
    1. Robert Searfoss June 22, 2021 4:23 pm

      No it doesn’t.Report

      Reply
  6. writes_of_weigh June 22, 2021 6:05 pm

    Even a blind being could see what the ultimate game of GAPOWCO/Southern shall be. They obviously have decided to perform an end run around Florida and Carolina interests which are both “cooking with gas” on developing (diesel-electric) high speed rail….and return to their “roots” of providing public transit by way of pre-fronting the costs of Georgia’s soon -to-be-announced H-S-R Georgia Cracker Limited….an electrified train to operate from Jacksonville to Chattanooga via Savannah Macon and Atlanta(with sub-routes to Augusta, Albany and Columbus! This 286kmph train will feature Ready Kilowatt as it’s honorary engineer and Hunter Biden(who happens to have Amtrak Board experience)as a visiting conductor! The new trains will feature GADome service via glass roofed observation carriages and will also feature fine dining featuring an Georgia AgTour menu (think Varsity style fried Vidalia Onions, with chicken pate’ hors de ouvres , Abbeville Spring Water, Richland Distilleries bourbon, Coca Cola, and Georgia peach cobbler and Pecan pie!…..and you just surmised that it was all a scam on the rate/bill payers! I can’t wait for THIS RIDE!?!Report

    Reply
  7. McKay88 July 21, 2021 5:23 pm

    Remember the old nuclear industry clarion call from the 1960s that electricity from nuclear plants would be, “Too cheap to meter”? That along with the fact how solar, wind, and battery storage continue to fall in price, faster to install and use virtually no water in construction or their energy production.Report

    Reply

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