This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.Guest Blog | February 19, 2019
Have you ever hired a contractor for a project at your home and had a less than satisfactory experience? As you realized there were problems, including wondering whether the contractor was even competent, and were confronted with having to possibly pay much more to get the job done and that it would take far longer to complete, did you get MORE involved or LESS involved in the process? Now imagine what you would do if these were decisions that had multi-billion dollar implications.
Despite clear indications from both the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) Staff and Georgia Power that great uncertainty lies ahead for the massively over-budget and delayed Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project, the only remaining new nuclear power construction project in the country, the PSC Commissioners today voted 4-1 to adopt a Stipulation that concerned organizations, including SACE, opposed in the 19th Semiannual Vogtle Construction Monitoring (VCM) proceeding.
Though the PSC Staff will get a substantial and much-needed increase to their oversight budget and the Company’s $578 million request was cut by $51.6 million because they couldn’t even prove they spent that amount on the project, both recommendations that SACE supported, the next official Vogtle review has been postponed from beginning this spring and will not commence until the fall.
Why the delay (or “punt” as some would say)?
Because the Stipulation reached by the Staff and Company, without consulting any other parties, combines the 20th and 21st VCM proceeding, this means a decision by the Commission on the Company’s next request would not occur until February 2020 – a year from now. Most notably, based on testimony from the Staff, we estimate that the Company could spend an additional $1.5 billion OR MORE in capital and financing costs on the Vogtle project by then. (See Hayet, Newsome testimony p. 4, footnote 3)
We understand the Staff’s position – that the boost in their oversight budget just occurred to allow them to ramp up and more closely scrutinize the Vogtle project and that the 20th VCM filing, which should have been submitted by Georgia Power at the end of this month, may not have contained much “new” information. But we don’t agree with the outcome.
Why won’t there be enough information?
Well, if you can believe it, despite the fact that the Vogtle project has more than doubled in projected costs, from $14 billion to ~$28 billion, and is more than 5 years delayed, the Company is going through yet another “re-baselining” effort that will supposedly provide “verification of Project quantities, staffing and productivity.” Um, hasn’t this happened several times on this project before as major crisis after major crisis occurred? Oh right, they didn’t call it “re-baselining” then. And you guessed it – that effort conveniently won’t be done until after the 20th VCM report is due (and also after the Georgia Legislative Session ends so lawmakers fed up with Vogtle can be kept in the dark a little longer too on the Project’s actual status).
Regardless of what the “re-baselining” determines, we demand that ratepayers – Georgia’s families and businesses – receive more information regularly in an open, transparent manner, rather than less information behind “trade secret” designations outside of a formal proceeding in which long-concerned organizations such as SACE have been actively involved. As we stated in our brief and in a recent AJC article:
“The company and the project do not deserve this break in scrutiny at this critical time. The ratepayers do not deserve this extended period of a lack of protection and transparency as their exposure potentially increases by more than a billion dollars.”
Let us all remember that after the Commission approved a major cost increase in the expedited decision in the 17th VCM, it didn’t take long for an additional $2.2 billion project cost increase “surprise” to be announced immediately following the 18th VCM hearings. That should have been enough to create sufficient concern for the stability of the project hastening – not delaying – increased attention and oversight.
With today’s decision by the Commission, another year will go by before they make another decision on the Vogtle project while Georgia Power continues to profit. At that time, the literal multi-billion dollar question will be: how many more billions of dollars will utility customers be on the hook for and will it be too late for customers to extricate themselves from Georgia Power’s mighty grip? Kicking this mega-billion dollar can down a road full of potholes wearing blindfolds is no way to regulate. Unless that is exactly the point.