How much you’ll pay for a new nuclear plant may depend on who you elect to this office

Candidates for Georgia Public Service Commission District 3, from left: Republican Chuck Eaton, the incumbent, and Democratic challenger Lindy Miller.
Candidates for Georgia Public Service Commission District 3, from left: Republican Chuck Eaton, the incumbent, and Democratic challenger Lindy Miller. mlee@macon.com

The people running for two seats on Georgia’s Public Service Commission want a chance to influence a years-long debate on how to regulate the construction of a nuclear power plant that promises cheap energy but is busting its budget and running late.

The costs of the Plant Vogtle expansion will come up on most Georgia homeowners’ bills, whether they are Georgia Power customers or members of smaller utilities, most of which have some stake in Vogtle. And shareholders in Georgia Power’s parent company are already on hook for some of it, too.

The question is how much will show up on whose bills.

The plant expansion is now expected to cost more than $25 billion, approaching double the original estimate from about a decade ago.

On the one side, Democratic candidates tend to lean on some kind of mechanism to make sure shareholders in Georgia Power’s parent company swallow cost overruns tied to construction problems like a key contractor’s bankruptcy.

But Republican candidates point out that the nukes are meant to provide decades of reliable, carbon-free energy. Pricey to build maybe, but low-cost in the long term.

Georgia needs to “stop the blank check at Vogtle,” said Democrat Lindy Miller, District 3 candidate, speaking at an Atlanta debate on Tuesday.

She said the Public Service Commission, chaired for a few years by her opponent, incumbent Republican Chuck Eaton, have failed to put incentives in place to make sure the plant is finished on-time and on-budget.

Miller said the way Vogtle’s going now, it’s like building a house and telling the contractor he can take as long as he likes and spend what he likes.

Eaton said Vogtle needs to get the “highest level of scrutiny possible,” speaking after the debate.

But said he’s not sure it’s legal for the PSC to impose any sort of “cap” on costs that can be passed to homeowners.

He pointed out that in the last PSC review of the most recent cost overruns, the people who own shares in Southern Company, Georgia Power’s parent, ate that cost.

He acknowledged, though, that that sparked concerns from smaller utilities. Georgia Power has shareholders who can help pay for things. Electric membership corporations and municipal electric companies don’t — they only have customer-members. But on the other hand, the PSC doesn’t regulate those smaller utilities.

Just last week, the main owners in Plant Vogtle spent late evenings in negotiation, as they faced a periodic deadline to agree on whether to continue construction. They repeatedly extended talks over who should, and shouldn’t, pay for cost overruns.

Those owners, Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia last week published a joint press release saying they’d agreed on a deal that would “mitigate” financial exposure for each of them.

“I have to assume there was give and take, and they’re all satisfied at this point,” said Eaton.

Eaton’s fellow Republican, incumbent Commissioner Tricia Pridemore, strongly endorsed nuclear, citing the fact that it’s a “baseload” power source: it’s a large power source that’s on all the time. She said Vogtle is ahead of an updated schedule agreed to in December.

“I would like to see us continue not just with Plant Vogtle but with all nuclear projects, continue to build out nuclear in the state of Georgia,” Pridemore said.

Her District 5 challenger, Democrat Dawn Randolph, said she’d like to see solar have a bigger part in Georgia’s power mix. Randolph also said the risks of Vogtle ought to be shared to make sure regular homeowners don’t pick up all the bill.

PSC members “hold your purse, and I ask you who do you trust to hold your purse next time rates are set?” Randoph asked, closing the debates.

Every voter in the state gets to vote in both races, though the candidates come from different regions.

Election Day is Nov. 6. Early voting begins Oct. 15.