Georgia’s public utility regulator voted Tuesday to approve a settlement with Georgia Power to allow more cost overruns and delays at a project to expand the Vogtle nuclear power plant in exchange for lower upfront costs and stiffer penalties if it busts a new deadline at the end of 2020. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Who pays Vogtle’s higher costs? Mostly you, Georgia regulator decides.

Georgia’s utility commission approved a settlement Tuesday that will saddle customers with billions of dollars of cost overruns at a much-delayed nuclear plant expansion in exchange for up-front cost savings.

The five-member Public Service Commission, which unanimously approved the pact, said it benefits customers because it avoid potential litigation with Georgia Power over who has to pay for costs overruns, and sets stiff penalties if the Atlanta utility doesn’t complete the project by the end of 2020.

“I think what we’ve done is remove the threat of litigation and front-load a lot of savings,” said Chuck Eaton, PSC chairman.

The deal is the result of a settlement the PSC’s staff negotiated with Georgia Power, the lead partner in the project to build two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta.

The PSC staff and Georgia Power say the Oct. 20 pact will save ratepayers about $185 million over the next four years.

But critics say the PSC’s board, after a one-day hearing earlier this month, accepted a deal that gives scant up-front savings to customers compared to the project’s billions of dollars in cost overruns they will eventually have to absorb.

The tentative deal “creates the largest revenue requirement imposed on Georgia Power ratepayers based on the least amount of public review by the commission in its history,” said the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy group, in a filing.

The group said the proposed deal short-circuits the agency’s chances to disallow almost $1.6 billion for Georgia Power’s share of the cost overruns under a previously planned “prudency hearing” once the project is finished.

Georgia Power’s customers can’t be billed for costs that the PSC decides are “imprudent.” Georgia Power owns about half of the Vogtle expansion.

The commission had ordered its staff more than 10 months ago to begin meeting with Georgia Power to reach a settlement.

The settlement gives Georgia Power an additional 18 months to complete the first new unit and six months to complete the second one.

However, customers’ rates won’t go down as a result of the proposed deal. They just won’t go up next year, because a surcharge on customers’ bills that finances the Vogtle project is expected to stay at this year’s level.

As part of the settlement, Georgia Power withdrew a request to increase in the surcharge next year. In another action Tuesday, the PSC board approved an order for Georgia Power to tell customers in their bills next year how much they’re saving due to the settlement.

The surcharge typically adds about $100 a year to most residential customers’ bill.

Meanwhile, customers’ future rates are still expected to go up once the Vogtle expansion is completed. They just won’t go up as as much.

In the hearing on the settlement earlier this month, Commissioner Stan Wise noted the Vogtle project is now expected to result in a 6-8 percent increase in customers’ rates once the project is done, well below the 12 percent increase that was originally projected.

About 4.5 percent of that increase is already included in customers’ bills through the financing surcharges, according to Georgia Power.

The agreement doesn’t give “either party everything it wanted (but) is in the public interest and provides (Georgia Power) a clear way forward to complete construction,” the company and PSC said in a joint filing.

But in its filing, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the deal is a rush job with little public oversight compared to how the PSC scrutinized the original Vogtle power plant’s costs after it was completed almost 30 years ago.

“The prudency review for Vogtle Units 1 and 2 took weeks of public hearings, contained extensive testimony from senior Georgia Power Co. officials, consultants and accounting experts and created an enormous public record on which the commission based its decision,” SACE said in a filing to the PSC before the hearing.

The group said the “de facto” prudency hearing, if the PSC approved the deal, effectively gives its blessing for customers to eventually be billed $8 billion for Georgia Power’s share of the project, rather than the currently certified $6.1 billion.

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