More nuclear power in Georgia? It's 'pro America,' sponsor says|
Georgia Online News Service
Georgia state representatives took their first look Wednesday at a controversial bill that would raise Georgia Power bills and will soon decide if the state has more nuclear power in its future.
Senate Bill 31 allows Georgia Power to tack a surcharge on ratepayers – mostly households and small businesses – 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. That's a change from usual policy that recoups construction costs after a plant is built.
In the first House hearing – before the Regulatory and Utility Affairs Subcommittee – Senate sponsor Don Bafour (R-Snellvile) Wednesday framed the bill as a "pro-America" stand against foreign oil and for jobs in the form of $14 billion in capital investment.
The bill only concerns financing, not approval of the nuclear plants, but Georgia Power today made a connection between these two plants and Georgia's long-term future.
If the bill doesn't pass, "you run the risk of pulling nuclear as a viable option off the table as a future option for Georgia," said Oscar Harper, Georgia Power vice president of nuclear development.
But "would this be customer-friendly, to keep these funds?" asked Rep. Earnest "Coach" Williams (D-Avondale Estates) over the possibility that Georgia Power could use ratepayers' pre-paid money to earn money in some other kinds of investments. Balfour says an annual "true-up" – returning money to ratepayers if Georgia power can get cheaper credit – will solve that issue.
"True," Allison Wall, executive director of consumer protection group Georgia Watch testified to the subcommittee. But there's never been a case of a nuclear power plant coming in under budget, she says.
Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville) and head of the Regulatory and Utility Affairs subcommittee pointed that during the building of Georgia's last power plant, construction costs kept escalating.
But both Smith and Rep. Billy Horne (R-Newnan) wonder if Georgia Watch, the bill's main opponent, is simply an opponent of nuclear power.
"Are you going to show up here in 2017 and not want to pay?" Horne asked. Smith asked if Georgia Watch is anti-nuclear. Wall said her organization has no nuclear stance and only seeks the best deal for consumers.
Under this bill, Georgia Power bypasses the elected Public Service Commission, which usually must vet rate hikes on ratepayers. Bill critics call it an "end run" because the utility is appealing straight to the PSC's bosses in the legislature.
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.
Bill opponents also say big businesses get a carve-out – no surcharge on their bills.
Senate sponsor Balfour admits that the breakdown does in fact exempt some big industrial customers, but argues that division matches Georgia Power's usual pattern for new plant bills.
According to Georgia Power figures, some 14 percent of its energy revenue is exempt from the 2011 rate hike. In new testimony today, Georgia Watch's Wall said the figure is more like 14 to 20 percent. The Public Service Commission analysis of the bill previously put the figure at 37.7 percent.
But financing some of the construction with ratepayers' dollars could shave $300 million off the project, according to Georgia Power figures. The paying starts earlier, but eventually costs less over the life of the plants, according to those calculations.
The bill will be carried in the House by Rep. Ben Harbin (R- Evans).
And as the House considers the bill, the PSC is considering almost exactly the same proposal from Georgia Power. The utility argues that it's going to both because it must be fully "confident" in full funding. Of the two bodies, Georgia Power needs only one to put its signature on the early surcharge.
In a 38-16 vote last week, the Senate passed the bill with a modification submitted by Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) that allows the PSC more flexibility to set rates. Under the approved language, the PSC is allowed to consider the impact of the surcharge when it sets rates. The original language required the PSC to disregard the surcharge when considering an appropriate rate for ratepayers.
The bill only affects Georgia Power customers. 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.
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]