On December 21, 2017,  the Georgia Public Service Commission ordered that Georgia Power’s electricity customers would continue being on the hook to pay for the company’s struggling Vogtle nuclear plant. The Commissioners, perhaps wary of the political optics of giving Georgia Power and its investors everything they wanted, also made a small reduction in Georgia Power’s return on equity (ROE) – the amount of profit that Georgia Power can earn from the project.

The commissioners touted that haircut as an act of standing up for consumers and holding the utility accountable. In fact, the PSC’s ruling delivered substantial profits to Georgia Power, and ignored guidance from the PSC’s staff analysts that forcing customers to continue to pay for Vogtle’s construction would cost customers more money in the long run than canceling it. Moreover, records obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute detail ex-parte communications between Commissioner Echols and Georgia Power in the days leading up to the consequential December decision.

Commissioner Echols made an initial motion to continue the Vogtle project, including one provision that allowed Georgia Power to profit from Vogtle Unit 3 a year earlier. This provision significantly reduced any potential benefit to consumers. During Georgia Power’s negotiations with the Public Service Commission staff two weeks earlier, staff told the Commissioners that this key provision would provide $39 million in benefit to Georgia Power. Yet Echols’ motion and the final order provided this key provision to Georgia Power.

As previously reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December 2017, Commissioner Echols appeared on WGAU (1340AM) and stated that should the Vogtle nuclear be canceled, electric rates would rise 6%. Echols said, “If we cancel it, then the $5 billion they’ve spent – we’ll have a hearing to determine if it was all prudent. And then they would take that $5 billion and put it into rates, and rates would jump about 6 percent, and we’d have nothing to show for it…”

Echols’ assertion did not sit well with Tom Bond of the PSC staff, according to records obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute via a Georgia Open Records Act request. Bond immediately fired off an email to Echols wondering how he arrived at the 6% rate increase, since the PSC Staff’s analysis had said that canceling the project would save ratepayers money. In a subsequent email, Echols admitted that he received the number from Georgia Power, not the PSC’s staff of experts tasked with doing that analysis on behalf of the Commission.

Echols’ preferential treatment of Georgia Power continued just a few days later in a December 21, 2017 decision day email to Swann Seiler, Communications Manager for Georgia Power. Commissioner Echols asked Seiler, “Swann, I am guest hosting the Bill Edwards show on Dec 27 and looking for guests to come in studio. Have anyone in mind? Can you come in and talk about raising dogs, the power grid and Georgia Powers community service? Seiler was unable to appear but responded, “Thank you for your confidence in our company today.”

The conversation between Seiler and Echols goes on to discuss the bias of reporter “ML”, presumably Mary Landers of the Savannah Morning News. Echols also complains that Tom Barton of the same paper “has not been nice to me.”

President Trump also makes an appearance in a celebratory email from Echols to Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers, as reported by WABE. On the day of the decision, Echols emailed Bowers: “Paul, not to get ahead of ourselves, but when we cut the ribbon for Unit 3, I want to see the President of the United States holding the scissors, and you and me on each side of him. Deal?”

The emails may have violated rules governing ex parte communications, which hold that commissioners can not discuss a case with the parties to it outside of the official record.

The email by Echols to Bowers was sent from Commissioner Echols’ personal email account, one of three email accounts Echols uses for official business purposes. Commissioner Echols has used [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected] for official business. Ex parte communications are a key argument in a petition for judicial review filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of its clients, the Partnership for Southern Equity and Georgia Interfaith Power & Light. The petition asks for the courts to invalidate the Georgia PSC’s decision to proceed with the troubled Vogtle project.

Additional documents requested by the Energy and Policy Institute may have been unavailable because of improper and possibly illegal deletion of messages by Echols, who stated that his PSC-paid Verizon cell phone auto-deletes text messages after 30 days.  

That practice may violate Georgia state law.

According to the Georgia Archives website,Georgia retention periods are determined by the content of the record, not by its format. Whether a record is on paper, in electronic form, or on microfilm, it must be retained for as long as the retention schedule specifies.” Georgia law requires general administrative correspondence, regardless of the medium, to be retained for 5 years, whereas administrative communications regarding an official event must be retained permanently. Auto-deletion of text messages older than 30 days, without regard to the content of the message, is not compatible with any retention schedule under Georgia law.

Photo: Georgia PSC Commissioner Tim Echols (center) following a tour of the Vogtle plant. Photo c/o NRC flickr page.

Posted by Daniel Tait

Daniel Tait is a Research and Communication Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.