As Southern Company and its longtime CEO Tom Fanning handed the baton to incoming chief executive Chris Womack on Wednesday, the pair told company investors that the first of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle could reach 100% power within a week, another sign the project is nearing completion.
The announcement came at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, held in a packed ballroom at Callaway Resort and Gardens, lit in a blue hue reminiscent of a nuclear reactor’s fuel pool.
With slick drone video of Plant Vogtle’s cooling towers playing on screens behind him, Fanning told the crowd of shareholders and the company’s board members that Unit 3 reached 90% power on Wednesday for the first time.
Later, Womack elaborated and said the unit could reach 100% power as soon as Saturday or early next week, but that engineers still have roughly 10 tests to complete before the unit syncs with the grid and begins sending electricity out to Georgians. The company’s most recent projection is still that the unit will be operational in June.
“Yes, we’ve had our challenges,” said Womack, who officially took over as Southern’s CEO from Fanning on Wednesday. “I am confident that the state of Georgia and our customers, our company and the world will be so proud of the work that we’ve done in bringing Vogtle online.”
Fanning, who took the top job at Southern in 2010 just after Vogtle construction began, will remain as the executive chairman of the company’s board of directors.
As the first new commercial nuclear reactor built in the U.S. in more than three decades, the completion of Unit 3 and its twin, Unit 4, will be a historic moment for Southern, its largest subsidiary — Georgia Power— and the country.
The reactors will produce enough electricity for 500,000 homes and businesses without contributing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But that power will come at a steep cost for Georgia Power’s ratepayers.
Both units are more than six years behind schedule and their total price tag has ballooned to more than $35 billion, more than double what the company initially forecast.
Witnesses told state utility regulators earlier this year that the average Georgia Power customer will have already paid about $913 in their monthly bills for Vogtle construction by the end of this year. And as soon as Unit 3 enters commercial service, Georgia Power estimates a rate increase of roughly $3.78 will roll into customers monthly bills.
On Wednesday, Womack said the “lessons” the company has learned from Unit 3 are smoothing the path to completion at Unit 4.
He said Unit 4 has begun receiving nuclear fuel and is working through inspections needed before federal regulators will clear it to place fuel rods in the reactor.
Womack also repeated the company’s forecast that Unit 4 will load fuel in July. After fuel load is complete, a set of hotly anticipated hearings are likely to commence at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), where regulators will decide how much of Vogtle’s remaining costs can be recovered from ratepayers.
Climate accountability proposal fails
During the shareholder meeting, Fanning and Womack faced tough questions from investors on a range of topics, from how the company accounts for greenhouse gas emissions to its plans for protecting customers from rising prices.
Southern Company has set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a stockholder proposal voted on Wednesday would have required that the company factor in its so-called “Scope 3″ greenhouse gas emissions as it measures progress toward that target.
But on Wednesday, the proposal failed to get the supermajority of votes needed to pass, receiving only 20% of shareholders’ support.
Southern does not currently account for its Scope 3 emissions, which include methane leaks that escape into the atmosphere from natural gas production to the emissions produced by customers heating their homes. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, those emissions often represent the majority generated by many organizations.
Other large utilities, including Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, have agreed to begin accounting for those emissions as they measure progress toward their net-zero goals.
Before the meeting, Southern’s board recommended shareholders vote “no” on the proposal, which was submitted by the environmental and climate-focused investor representative group As You Sow.
“Part of the investor concern here is that without having a net-zero target to cover that part of the business, Southern will be missing the signals needed to understand how the business progresses and how it deals with that risk,” said Daniel Stewart, As You Sow’s energy and climate program manager.
Fanning and Womack were asked Wednesday why the company did not support the proposal, and Fanning responded by saying the company did not feel it could accurately capture those emissions.
“When we commit to a goal... if we can’t measure it with credibility, then it’s hard for me to say that we’re committed to something,” he said.
Stewart acknowledged that Scope 3 emissions are harder to account for, but not impossible, and said there is value for shareholders in setting a target.
“I just completely disagree that it’s inopportune for the company to set a target when that one component is a bit more difficult to measure,” Stewart said.
Note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/