UPDATED: A battle burst into the public Tuesday between the biggest partners in Georgia’s controversial Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion, as pressure grew to save the nation’s only commercial nuclear project still under construction.
The dominant issue: growing certainty that potentially billions more in cost overruns are possible. Those overruns would affect customers of nearly every utility in Georgia, most of which are slated to get energy from the project.
As of late Tuesday evening, Vogtle’s owners hadn’t finalized how to bridge their differences and keep the multi-billion-dollar nuclear project alive.
UPDATE: Negotiations were slated to continue Wednesday, with a new deadline set for 5 p.m. “in order to finalize details of an agreement among the co-owners and seek necessary approvals,” according to a brief press release.
On Monday, the board of Oglethorpe Power — the project's second biggest owner — demanded that a cost cap be put on the project. It also insisted that Georgia Power's parent company, Southern Company, eventually take on the additional financial risk if it continues to be wrong about cost projections on the work it manages.
It was the first public call by a Vogtle owner to enact limits on project costs. Georgia Power, the lead owner on the project, quickly blasted that proposal.
In a press release the state’s largest utility accused Oglethorpe of attempting “to avoid obligations that it undertook when it became an owner of the project.”
Oglethorpe serves membership-based electric utilities in metro Atlanta and elsewhere in the state. Many serve rural areas.
If Oglethorpe didn’t vote to continue under Vogtle’s current ownership structure, Georgia Power wrote that “the project will be canceled to the detriment of the citizens of Georgia.”
“Instead of taking a long-term view, Oglethorpe Power is using the vote to try to burden others with its obligations and extract unreasonable concessions,” Georgia Power stated in its release.
It suggested Oglethorpe “abdicated its responsibilities to its customers” by relying on budget projections by Georgia Power’s sister company Southern Nuclear, which is leading construction.
Oglethorpe swiped back.
In a press release it accused Georgia Power of launching “a misinformation campaign” and stated “we want to reaffirm that we hope Plant Vogtle will become a reality and that the hardworking people on the project will not lose their jobs. However, we cannot abdicate our duty to our members.”
After nine years of construction, the project south of Augusta is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. It is now slated to go online in late 2022.
‘We have concerns’
Gary Miller, the chief executive of Greystone Power Corporation, which serves portions of Fulton, Cobb, Douglas and other counties, voiced concerns about the impact of Vogtle’s ballooning pricetag on his customers and those of other Oglethorpe members.
“We never signed up for a project where we would just be a blank checkbook for Southern Company or anybody else in this project,” Miller said. “We never said, ‘Build it no matter what the cost.’ ”
The Southern figures showed “every single category of budget was over budget” under the the company, Miller said. “We have concerns about their cost estimates and managing the project efficiently.”
Recently, Georgia Power announced another $2.3 billion in cost overruns, just eight months after its last announcement of increased costs. That automatically triggered a requirement that co-owners on the Vogtle project again vote on whether to continue the work.
Three of the project’s four owners — Georgia Power, Dalton Utilities and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, which represent city utilities around the state — voted to continue the expansion, apparently without conditions.
At least two of them are partially buffered from the pain of cost increases.
Southern Company is publicly traded and can pass along some of the costs to shareholders. Georgia Power, a state-regulated monopoly, is generally allowed to collect more profits the more it spends on construction. And MEAG has sold off much of its project energy rights — as well as cost responsibilities — to utilities in Alabama and Florida. (One of them, JEA in Jacksonville, Fla., is suing to extricate itself from the deal.)
Oglethorpe, though, faces more pressure.
Apparently anticipating that additional cost increases are likely, the cost cap Oglethorpe’s board proposed would be $800 million higher than Georgia Power’s latest estimates of what it will take to complete the project.
“Oglethorpe deserves credit for taking a stand to protect its customers and the economic future of Georgia’s rural communities,” Kurt Ebersbach of the Southern Environmental Law Center said in an emailed statement. “Georgia Power’s opposition to a cap says a lot about how it views its own customers and its ability to successfully manage the project. Georgians shouldn’t stand behind this project if Georgia Power can’t stand behind its current budget, even with this latest $2.3 billion spike.”
But pressure from politicians grew Tuesday.
Gov. Nathan Deal, in a tweet, called for Oglethorpe “to reconsider its decision before walking away from from 7,000 GA jobs,” a reference to temporary construction jobs on the site.
Sen. Johnny Isakson issued a statement encouraging “all parties to come together and find a way forward on an agreement to complete this critical project.”
Jay Powell, a state representative who chairs the house Ways & Means committee, said it appeared that Georgia Power was contacting state legislators to get them to help change the views of Oglethorpe and EMC leaders.
Powell was one of about 20 state legislators who recently wrote a letter pushing for a cap on how much customers pay for increasing costs at Vogtle.
Vogtle costs have been adjusted five times since the project got certified in 2009.
Summary of price changes on Georgia Power’s share over the years
- Georgia Power's share of the costs was $6.113 billion.
- Both untits were to be completed by March 2017.
- Georgia Power ask commission to increase project costs. Its share of costs rose to $6.850 billion, a $737 million increase.
- Completion dates extended to December 2017.
- Another cost adjustment raised Georgia Power's portion of the cost to $7.518 billion.
- Completion dates moved to June 2019 and June 2020.
- Further adjustments led to a cost for Georgia Power to $7.87 billion.
- Georgia Power estimates its portion of project costs increased to $10.3 billion- $7.3 billion in revised capital costs and $3.4 billion in financing costs.
- Completion dates at this point are November 2021 and November 2022.
- Georgia Power announces a $2.3 billion cost increase for project. Company to cover $700 million of its $1.1 billion share of the increase. The remaining $400 million in contingency costs may be handed down to customers.