Financing of expansion is still debated

ATLANTA --- The Senate Regulated Industries Committee heard Wednesday from supporters and proponents of Georgia Power's hotly contested bill to approve consumer financing for nuclear power plant expansion.

To finance the multibilliondollar construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Vogtle site in Waynesboro, the company wants to raise consumer fees by 1.3 percent starting Jan. 1, 2011, according to Rep. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. Current law allows the company to collect the financing costs after the reactors begin operation.

"One way or another, (consumers) are gonna pay the cost," he said. "If we do nothing ... the increase in rates would be substantial."

By funding the project gradually and starting before construction is set to begin around 2016, Mr. Balfour said consumers will save about $300 million by not paying interest the company would accrue in the six years leading up to construction.

Committee members asked why the bill was being pushed forward in the legislature while still in hearing by the commission.

"I'm just not convinced in my heart that it needs to be right where it is now, here before (the committee)," said Rep. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus.

Since August, the Public Service Commission has been holding a series of hearings on Georgia Power's request to add the financing costs during construction, just as Mr. Balfour's bill would do. If the bill becomes law, it would essentially bypass the commission.

If the bill passes, the commission would still retain the right to analyze the relevance of the project's cost and how much would be eligible for passing along to electricity customers, Mr. Balfour said.

"This bill simply would tie the Public Service Commission's hand on one issue: interest could be charged before the lights are turned on. ... (The commission) can then define if all of that interest is reasonable or not reasonable."

The commission can't take an official stand on Mr. Balfour's bill because its five members are required to remain neutral on issues pending before them during hearings, said Chairman David Shafer, R-Duluth. But one commissioner testified, saying he was only speaking for himself and not his colleagues.

"Ratepayers for years to come will benefit from these savings," said Commissioner Stan Wise.

Waynesboro Mayor Don DeLoach also addressed the committee, reading a city council resolution in "overwhelming support" of the project.

Representatives from the AARP, a group representing retirees, and Georgia Watch, a nonpartisan consumer special interest group, came to state their case against the plan. Both saw more risk for the consumer than the company. If the construction runs longer than estimated, consumers will continue to pay more on their bills while the company receives those returns on its investment.

Reach Amanda Woodruff at (404) 589-8424 or amanda.woodruff@morris.com.