Plant Vogtle cost overruns once again an issue in Georgia PSC races

Two seats are up for vote on the Georgia Public Service Commission, the body that regulates rates of Georgia Power and sister company Atlanta Gas Light. One of the biggest issues facing the PSC in coming years is who will pay for cost overruns on Georgia Power's nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle near Augusta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Two seats are up for vote on the Georgia Public Service Commission, the body that regulates rates of Georgia Power and sister company Atlanta Gas Light. One of the biggest issues facing the PSC in coming years is who will pay for cost overruns on Georgia Power's nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle near Augusta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgia’s public service commissioners are often caught in a vise. On one side is the state’s powerful, politically connected electric company. On the other, consumers of electricity.

The company pushes for the rates it says are needed to operate safely and reliably. Consumers push for rates they believe are fair and affordable. It’s the job of the commissioners, who are elected to serve as regulators of the state’s utilities, to work it out.

In this election, voters statewide will choose who will occupy two of the five seats on the Public Service Commission, decisions that could play into future energy generation sources, air quality issues and customer power bills for decades to come. That includes setting rates charged by Georgia Power and sister company Atlanta Gas Light. One of the PSC’s biggest upcoming decisions is who will pay for Georgia Power’s billions of dollars in overruns once its nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle is completed.

Among state bodies, the PSC “has the most impact on residential and small commercial customers' pocketbook,” said Robert Baker, a former PSC member.

Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, has praised state regulators for maintaining a “constructive” relationship, crediting them for wise decisions and strengthening the company’s financial results. Consumer and environmental groups have complained about some commission decisions that added costs to customers’ bills or fell short of hopes for a cleaner environment.

Running to remain on the PSC are Republicans Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, in District 4, and Jason Shaw, in District 1.

McDonald, 81, of Clarkesville, faces opposition from Forsyth County Democrat Daniel Blackman, a 41-year-old former business consultant, and Libertarian Nathan Wilson, a 35-year-old Bartow County cabinet maker and former executive director of the state Libertarian Party.

Shaw is running against Robert Bryant, a 42-year-old Savannah Democrat who previously held higher education management positions, and Elizabeth Melton, a 53-year-old Columbus Libertarian and freelance technical writer.

While all the PSC candidates say they will hold down power bills as much as possible, doing so may be difficult.

Georgia Power’s residential rates and fees per kilowatt-hour remained below the national average last year, according to analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

But the company’s rates were higher than the overall average for Georgia electric providers, most of which have prices that the PSC doesn’t regulate. And Georgia Power rates are on the rise: It is early in a phased-in, three-year rate increase approved by the PSC last year.

Rates are expected to increase further when more costs of the company’s nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle are included in customer bills. Work at the plant is years behind schedule.

Beyond rates, Georgians tend to have higher energy bills compared to the country as a whole, in part due to hot, steamy weather that causes people to crank up air conditioners.

Shaw and McDonald have each reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions this election cycle. Much of the giving was from businesses and people with ties to the energy and telecommunications industries, including some top leaders in Southern’s organization.

The other candidates have reported far less in campaign donations of any kind.

Rep. Jason Shaw appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to serve at the Georgia Public Service Commission, effective January 1, 2019.
Rep. Jason Shaw appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to serve at the Georgia Public Service Commission, effective January 1, 2019.

Shaw is a former state legislator and insurance company owner from Lakeland in South Georgia. Last year, he was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to fill the unexpired term of a commissioner who resigned. Most big decisions on Vogtle were made long before Shaw joined the PSC.

Shaw said he has dug deeply into complex energy issues and puts consumers first in his decisions. He said he’s focused on encouraging wider broadband service in rural Georgia, which the PSC has limited sway over, and increasing biomass energy, which typically relies on burning wood or other plant debris.

PSC member Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a Republican, is running to keep his position on the Georgia Public Service Commission in a district that includes north Georgia.
PSC member Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a Republican, is running to keep his position on the Georgia Public Service Commission in a district that includes north Georgia.

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

The other incumbent, McDonald, is a funeral home owner, former state legislator and long-time PSC member. More than a decade ago, he voted with the majority of the PSC to back Georgia Power’s Vogtle expansion. McDonald said he continues to support the project as a long-term, stable generator of carbon-free energy.

He describes himself as “an independent conservative voice,” and he has challenged Georgia Power on some fronts. He successfully and repeatedly pushed to increase solar power. And last year, he proposed a significantly smaller rate increase for Georgia Power, but the PSC went with bigger increases that covered more company costs and set profit rates well above the industry average.

If McDonald wins reelection, he would be 82 by the time he starts a new six-year term.

McDonald’s and Shaw’s challengers have been critical of the PSC’s handling of the Vogtle expansion, but none favor trying to halt the project so far into its construction.

Despite recommendations from state staffers and independent monitors, the commission has cleared some hurdles for a large portion of the extra costs to potentially end up in customer bills. And it set a new cost cap. But some approvals are still required before costs can be passed along.

Shaw said Georgia Power officials “are going to have a hard time convincing me to increase that cap. ... I’m going to put a lot of faith in what our independent monitors and staff tell us."

Said McDonald, “I don’t plan on changing that cap.”

Daniel Blackman, a Forsyth County Democrat, is running for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission. Photo courtesy of Blackman’s campaign.
Daniel Blackman, a Forsyth County Democrat, is running for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission. Photo courtesy of Blackman’s campaign.

Blackman, the Democrat challenging McDonald, said Vogtle’s cost overruns to customers should have been limited years ago. “I don’t think in good faith I could vote for those costs to be passed on to ratepayers.”

During a candidate debate, he said he has no problem with utilities being profitable, but he will be “a fearless voice that will stand up to utility companies, let them know when they are right but correct them when they are wrong.”

Nathan Wilson is a Libertarian running for the Georgia Public Service Commission's District 4 seat. Photo courtesy of Wilson's campaign.
Nathan Wilson is a Libertarian running for the Georgia Public Service Commission's District 4 seat. Photo courtesy of Wilson's campaign.

Wilson, the Libertarian candidate in the district race, said he supports more nuclear power if additional energy generation is needed, but he said Georgia Power shouldn’t be allowed to profit more as a result of overruns on the Vogtle project.

And he said he doesn’t think consumers should have to make up the cost difference from what Georgia Power initially estimated the Vogtle expansion would cost.

Robert Bryant is a Democrat running for the Georgia Public Service Commission in District 1. Photo courtesy of the Bryant campaign
Robert Bryant is a Democrat running for the Georgia Public Service Commission in District 1. Photo courtesy of the Bryant campaign

In the District 1 race, the Democrat Bryant said none of the Vogtle’s overruns should be passed on to consumers. “That’s not how we treat the working class. I am here to stand for every community in Georgia, every citizen in Georgia, including the most vulnerable communities.”

He said he was troubled by the PSC’s decision to end its moratorium on Georgia Power disconnecting homes for non-payment of bills during the pandemic. The company said it has shifted customers to installment plans that give them six more months to pay, without late fees.

Elizabeth Melton is running as a Libertarian for the Georgia Public Service Commission in District 1. Photo courtesy of Melton's campaign.
Elizabeth Melton is running as a Libertarian for the Georgia Public Service Commission in District 1. Photo courtesy of Melton's campaign.

Melton, the Libertarian candidate in the district race, said not all of Georgia Power’s Vogtle overruns should be covered by customers. Too often, costs of mistakes are passed along to consumers, she said. Ultimately, she said, Georgia needs to allow all consumers to freely choose among competing electric providers.

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