House passes Georgia Power’s nuclear funding plan|
K. Patrick Jensen
Georgia Online News Service
After three hours of sometimes contentious debate, the Georgia House on Wednesday approved, 107-66, a measure that will result in rate hikes for most Georgia Power customers to fund future nuclear power plants.
The bill, already approved by the Senate, goes to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The measure would allow Georgia Power to start charging "ratepayers" – which bill opponents said are mostly households and small businesses – a surcharge to pay financing charges on construction of two new nuclear reactors planned at Plant Vogtle near Augusta.
Collection would start in 2011, but the reactors wouldn't go online until 2016. Usually Georgia Power can only recoup plant construction costs when plants come online, according to precedents governed by its regulator for ratepayers, the Public Service Commission. The hike is calculated to start at $1.30 per month on an average family in 2011, growing to $9.30 by 2017.
Rep. Ben Harbin (R-Evans) told legislators the measure would save constituents $300 million by paying less interest over the life of the multi-billion dollar project. "It's a good way to pay for nuclear energy," he said.
Harbin emphasized the measure is just concerning funding while actual approval for construction would be decided by the federal government and the Public Service Commission. He said the action would help get better interest rates since the measure would be written into law instead of a decision by the PSC, which could change its mind.
But many legislators disagreed with taking the financing control away from the PSC not just for this project but future nuclear construction. The argued the PSC could be more flexible to changing financial times.
Instead, they argued, stockholders and big commercial users would benefit more from the action than homeowners and small businesses because of the way the act is worded. They also questioned why the measure was being considered relatively early in the legislative year when other House bills had not been decided.
Georgia Power has confirmed that about two-thirds of the $1.6 billion that would be raised will be passed on to shareholders as profits.
Rep. Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn) summarized the opposition by noting the bill "removes flexibility over financing if conditions change."
Some pointed toward Georgia Power's massive lobbying effort for the bill. "The last great Georgia superpower has an army of lobbyists and has nearly taken the capital," Thomas mused.
Questioning of Georgia Power's intentions caused Rep. Ed Setzler
(R-Acworth) to rise in defense of the utility as a company that supports communities. He pointed out average the shareholder is more than 63 years old and the teacher retirement system is a major investor as he decried what he called "class warfare" in attacking the bill. "This bill is a rising tide that lifts all ships," he said.
Rep. DuBose Porter (D-Dublin) questioned having citizens prepay costs during bad economic times and said the utility isn't the issue. "Georgia Power is good for Georgia but this bill is not," he said.
Rep. Hardie Davis (D-Gracewood) said the bill was not a partisan issue and his constituents near Augusta support the bill not only for the financing but for the jobs the project will bring.
Nuclear power is essential to help the nation be energy dependent, he said. "Nuclear alone won't get us there, but I guarantee we won't get there without it," he said.
K. Patrick Jensen is a former editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes about faith and suburban issues. [full bio]