The Georgia summer is going to be hot, and it is not just because of the weather. That’s because two of Georgia’s largest utilities are fishing for rate increases from the Public Service Commission. Atlanta Gas Light recently submitted a $54 million rate request and the Georgia Power Co. is expected to submit a whopping $800 million request next month, if a PSC staff memo is true. Time will tell. This we know — that if the Public Service Commission votes in favor of those increases, most will see their electric and natural gas bills in Georgia go up.
To the surprise of many, the Georgia Power Co. rate increase is not because of Plant Vogtle’s new nuclear reactor construction. Some may remember that all orders for nuclear reactors after 1973 were cancelled, and these Georgia reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro will be the first built in a long time. So, to get construction started up again for nuclear power is a big deal, and something I am pleased about. Twenty percent of America’s energy comes from nuclear power, and it is carbon-free, unlike coal. The challenge isn’t safety, but keeping the construction on budget. The Public Service Commission will be watching over this process for Georgia’s consumers, and it is an important task that impacts everyone’s pocketbook. I favor nuclear power over coal, but I certainly have great concerns about cost overruns that can come back to bite the consumer.
My concern stems from the fact that the first reactors, Vogtle 1 and 2, went way over budget — like $8 billion over budget. That wasn’t all the Southern Company’s fault though. The federal government made regulatory changes during the construction process which added those billions. Sound familiar? Intrusive federal government, unfunded mandates, and a meddling bureaucracy.
What is different now is that these new reactors, dubbed Vogtle 3 and Vogtle 4, will probably have a federal loan guarantee close to $8 billion. The completion of these reactors will go a long way to making clean energy profitable — a must if we expect the free enterprise system to be involved with producing more of it.
That brings me to another nagging concern: our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. We are beholden to countries in the Middle East and South America while we have the equivalent of 350 billion barrels of oil in natural gas sitting under the state of Texas. This natural gas burns cleaner, is about 80 cents a gallon cheaper, and is an American resource. So what is stopping us from using it? In a word, access.
There are only a handful of fast fuel CNG (compressed natural gas) stations in Georgia. What we need is a network of refueling stations that can handle the demand that Georgia drivers require, and especially larger fleet vehicles. Converting one large truck over to CNG is like taking 325 cars off the road. But without convenient ways to fill up CNG vehicles, businesses and consumers are not going to want to buy or make the conversion. And who can blame them? Kudos to UPS and MARTA for their leadership in converting their vehicles. But they have their own pump.
Congress can show some leadership, too, by passing the Natural Gas Act giving tax credits to manufacturers for building these refueling stations. This act will help our municipal governments and larger companies invest in fleets that burn natural gas, so that they can add their voice to the development of refueling stations in publicly available locations. The more that large commercial fleets are encouraged to convert their fleet to burn natural gas for fuel, the cleaner our air will be, the less we will depend on foreign oil, and the public will benefit further by having access to public refueling stations in key areas around the state.
In addition, a good public service commissioner needs to make sure to balance consumer’s expectations to keep rates low with the need for utilities to recover their operating costs under stable financial conditions. We should expect utilities to ride the “highs” of boom time markets all the while putting money and resources away to fully serve their customers in a down market. That is their obligation as a regulated monopoly. Reasonable stability is the key to a utility’s long term success in meeting customer needs, and a watchful PSC will keep an eye on that stability.
Georgia is off to a good start with state income tax credits for solar water heaters, solar space heat, photo-voltaics, wind-generated power, and geothermal heat pumps. But we must do more. In my hometown of Athens, Power Partners Solar is manufacturing state-of-the-art solar hot water heating systems now being used all over the world. Sonny Perdue signed a bill giving Georgians tax credit for installing such a system in their home. How many people know about it though? Georgia companies like this need recognition and their innovative products need to be championed by leaders around the state. Our elected officials can use their platform and bully pulpit to highlight innovation happening right under our noses. That is certainly what I plan to do if elected to the Public Service Commission.
Let’s get serious about alternative energy sources and make Georgia the epicenter for technology innovation.
(Echols is a Republican candidate for the Public Service Commission)