Senate OKs Georgia Power Nuke Financing Plan|
Georgia Online News Service
ATLANTA – By a 2-1 margin, the state Senate has passed a controversial bill that would allow Georgia Power to start raising residential customers' power bills in 2011 for two nuclear reactors that won't come online until 2016 or later.
Senate Bill 31 allows Georgia Power to tack a fee on so-called "ratepayers" – generally households and small businesses, not industrial customers – to finance the construction of two new nuclear power plants near Augusta. The fees are expected to start at $1.30 per month in 2011 for an average family, rising to $9.10 in 2017. The bill is controversial in part because the elected Public Service Commission vets rate hikes on Georgia Power ratepayers. But this time, Georgia Power is appealing to the legislature in an effort to detour around the PSC.
The vote was 38-16.
The opposition on the Senate floor focused on two questions:
- First, whether the bill is a sweetheart deal for big business.
- Second, if legislators are competent enough at the intricacies of nuclear plant finance to intelligently consider such a bill.
Bill sponsor Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville) contends that Georgia Power customers will absorb the bill for the new plants as they always do – and that the normal breakdown does exempt some big industrial customers.
According to Georgia Power figures, some 14 percent of its energy revenue is exempt from the 2011 rate hike – meaning that some customers won't pay it. The Public Service Commission estimates that a much higher percentage of customers, mostly large industries, will escape paying the hike. The PSC analysis of the bill finds the figure is more like 37.7 percent.
But Sen. Robert Brown (D-Macon) says the evidence of a sweet deal for big business is in the Capitol hallways.
"The Gucci shoes, they would be out in the hall," Brown said, referring to the absence of well-heeled business lobbyists. "You don't see a single one of 'em out here. Not one! … They got a deal. They got carved out."
Other Democrats like Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) and Lester G. Jackson (D-Savannah) joined Brown in questioning the fairness of the deal for ratepayers versus industrial customers.
Sen. David Adelman argued that the PSC alone, with its elected leaders and specialist staff, have the knowledge to preserve the "regulatory compact" which balances the needs and rights of ratepayers against Georgia Power's profit-seeking shareholders and the company's unique role as a monopoly provider of an essential service.
Balfour said there are cost savings in the plan that legislators ought to deliver to their constituents. Financing some of the construction with ratepayers' dollars could shave $300 million off the project, according to Georgia Power figures. The paying starts earlier according to the figures, but eventually costs less over the life of the plants.
However, as the Senate approves SB 31, the PSC is considering almost exactly the same proposal from Georgia Power. The utility argues that it must be fully "confident" in full funding. While the approach to the legislature is seen by some critics as an "end run" around the PSC, a law rather than a PSC ruling could also save the all-Republican PSC Commissioners from having to do some explaining when ratepayers start seeing the hike.
Georgia Power is allowed to recoup plant construction and finance costs from ratepayers only after the plants come online, according to precedents governed by the PSC. That way, only people who actually use the plant pay for it.
The bill only affects Georgia Power ratepayers. The state's electric membership cooperatives and municipally owned utilities' domestic customers are not regulated by the PSC and may start billing for their portion of costs on the two nuclear plants at any time.
The bill has not yet been considered by the House; there is no timeframe yet for House action.
Maggie Lee specializes in quality of life topics, Atlanta's international communities and general reporting. She covers Georgia economic development and the Chinese community as a stringer for China Daily and chronicles life in Georgia's most diverse county for the DeKalb Champion. [full bio]