New Ga. nuke plant study approved

PSC also OK’s plan to boost solar, wind in coming years.

Georgia Power won approval Thursday to spend $99 million by mid-2019 studying a site south of Columbus where it may someday build the state's third nuclear power plant.

The cost of that study, which will grow significantly in coming years due to financing costs, will eventually come out of customers’ pockets.

The Atlanta utility also will triple its reliance on solar power and other renewable energy under a long-term plan approved by state regulators Thursday.

At a sometimes contentious hearing of the Georgia Public Service Commission, two commissioners, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Tim Echols, pushed for bigger expansion into so-called “green” energy, but were voted down.

McDonald also proposed, unsuccessfully, delaying approving Georgia Power’s nuclear plant study request until 2019, when the first new Plant Vogtle reactor is supposed to be completed. That project is years behind schedule and billions over budget.

“If they are so sure about the prospects of another nuclear program … let their investors make the first investment,” said McDonald. “I don’t see putting ratepayers’ money at risk right now.”

His remarks won applause from many in the audience, but no other commissioners backed his proposal.

Under a compromise agreement on renewable fuel growth approved by the PSC, Georgia Power will add as much as 1,600 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity — most of it within six years — or roughly enough to power about 264,000 homes.

Georgia Power originally sought $175 million for the nuclear study and proposed a much smaller investment in solar and wind power.

The utility originally proposed 525 megawatts of solar, wind and other alternative energy to be added over three years in its so-called Integrated Resources Plan. The plan is a 20-year blueprint for the utility's power generation projects, conservation programs, power plant retirements and other goals that is reviewed every three years by state regulators.

But a spokesman said the utility welcomed the plan that was finally approved as a good compromise with the PSC, environmental groups and others that pushed for more.

“We’re very pleased with today’s decision. It balances all of the elements of our long-term energy plan,” said Jacob Hawkins, a Georgia Power spokesman.

Regarding the funding of the nuclear study, he said, “We appreciate the commission’s recognition of the importance of preserving new nuclear as an option.”

The site to be studied is in rural Stewart County near the Chattahoochee River.

Georgia Power is the lead partner in adding two new reactors at the Vogtle plant near Augusta. They are expected to begin operation between 2019 and 2020. Plant Hatch, another nulcear facility, is in South Georgia.

Georgia Power argues that it needs to begin preliminary work toward another nuclear plant partly to avoid losing a core of experienced nuclear engineers and other personnel.