Regulator OKs $99 million Georgia Power study for possible nuke plant

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.

Under a compromise agreement approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission's board, 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.

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

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.”

Georgia Power is the lead partner in an expansion adding two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant near Augusta. They are expected to begin operation between 2019 and 2020. The utility argues that it needs to begin preliminary work toward a second nuclear plant partly to avoid losing a core of experienced nuclear engineers and other personnel. Georgia Power is also the main partner in Plant Hatch, another nuclear plant completed in 1975 near Baxley in South Georgia.

At the PSC’s sometimes contentious hearing before its final vote on the plan, two commissioners, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Tim Echols, pushed for even bigger expansion into so-called “green” energy, but were voted down.

McDonald also proposed, unsuccessfully, to delay approving Georgia Power’s nuclear plant study request until 2019, when the first new Vogtle reactor is supposed to be completed. The 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,” he said, winning applause from many in the audience. But none of the other commissioners backed his proposal.