In an apparent gift to Georgia Power, Public Service Commission Chairman Stan Wise unilaterally decided to speed up the timeline for a decision about whether the monopoly utility could continue charging its customers for its over-budget, long-delayed Vogtle nuclear power plant. The ruling that could determine whether the plant is actually completed and which the PSC was set to make in February 2018, now will happen on December 21. Wise made the decision at a hearing on December 11.
When asked about when the Commission would accept comments on his decision to accelerate the decision date, Wise promptly shut down those concerns, saying, “We weren’t [going to]. I will sign that order later this afternoon.” (Link will host audio of December 11, 2017 hearing when it becomes available from the Georgia PSC)
Wise’s timing raises questions about his and the PSC’s intentions. Georgia Power has yet to produce its detailed project plan for how it could finish the project by the new target of 2021-2022 and within a new budget. According to testimony from PSC staff on December 11, that plan would not be available for analysis until December 20th, the day before the major vote.
E&E News reporter Kristi Swartz wrote, “If regulators decide to vote after this week’s hearings, they will be doing so in the midst of the holidays and New Year’s Eve. This means the PSC’s most critical decision in decades — and likely Wise’s last vote before stepping down — could get lost in the shuffle of typical holiday distractions.”
The PSC Staff, which advises the Commission but does not have the Commissioners’ decision-making authority, recently concluded that Vogtle is no longer economic, essentially acknowledging that customers would be better off if the plant were not completed, or if costs over $9.0 billion are not collected from customers. Wise has generally been an “unabashed supporter of nuclear power,” in his words, and of the Vogtle project specifically.
How did all this get started?
On December 1, 2017, Wise, who would otherwise face election in 2018 but announced he is resigning from the PSC immediately after the vote on Vogtle, sent a letter to Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers asking about the tax implications of canceling Plant Vogtle, given the movement of tax reform legislation through Congress.
Bowers responded on December 6 saying that if Vogtle is canceled, doing so by the end of the year would save customers $150 million.
Apparently, that was justification enough to short-circuit the pre-established process. Wise responded back to Bowers on the same day, saying, “I would like to act on a revised PSO [Procedural and Scheduling Order] when we take up procedural matters when the hearings resume on December 11, 2017.”
The idea of hinging a multi-billion dollar decision on $150 million is already suspicious, but the logic behind it seemed to dissolve when Wise responded to a question at the hearing on December 11. When asked about whether he would still move the hearing date if tax reform does not pass Congress, Wise answered that the PSC will move forward with the accelerated schedule regardless of what happens in Congress.
So why the rush? And why vote with only one day allocated to review the project plan?
Georgia Power is currently spending in excess of $100 million per month on the Plant Vogtle expansion, whose total price tag is now currently estimated at $23 billion, $9 billion more than the original cost.
Georgia Power wants to charge its customers for an additional $1.4 billion, or the monopoly claims that it and the municipal utilities who share ownership in Vogtle may cancel the project. Georgia Power wants assurances from the PSC as soon as possible that it can stick these and potentially other costs on customers. If not, the utility’s Wall Street investors might have to pick up the tab for those billions of dollars in overages.
As for Georgia Power’s customers, the utility and Wise may be sticking them with one hideous white elephant of a Christmas gift: a rushed process, sped through without careful analysis, that ends with a $1.4 billion check for them to write.