Georgia Power’s overdue and over-budget Plant Vogtle nuclear plant expansion served as a handy punching bag for the challenger in a Tuesday debate as he took on a veteran of utility regulation ahead of the state’s Jan. 5 runoff election.
Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate contests are consuming most of the country’s political attention now that the presidential contest is finally decided in favor of President-elect Joe Biden.
But there is also a third statewide runoff on the same ballot. The Public Service Commission District 4 race pits veteran Republican Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald against Democrat Daniel Blackman for a seat on the five-member panel that regulates how much Georgians pay for electricity, natural gas and the direction of the state’s energy policy. And the winner will help decide whether ratepayers or shareholders get the tab for Vogtle’s costly expansion.
“We’re five years behind schedule and we’re $14.5 billion over budget on a project that becomes an asset of Georgia Power,” Blackman said at Tuesday’s virtual debate hosted by the Atlanta chapter of the Climate Reality Project. “I mean, even for friends that are fiscally conservative, I don’t see how that’s very helpful. It’s a challenge for all of us.”
McDonald says Vogtle will pay off over the long-term as more Georgians get a reliable energy source for the next 80 years. He said it’s a critical piece to help the state shift away from polluting coal-fired power plants to cleaner forms of energy.
Early voting started this week. The Public Service Commission seat is filled by voters statewide, although the candidates in this race must live in a north Georgia district.
The two men are vying for a six-year term on the board that oversees Georgia Power and some of the state’s providers of natural gas, telecommunications and commercial transportation. It’s a rematch from their 2014 contest.
The public service commission’s decisions directly affect Georgians’ pocketbooks. It wields the power to help Georgia curb climate change and shape the costs and plans for some controversial projects, including the snake-bit Plant Vogtle nuclear plant expansion.
Georgia Power aims to finish the final two nuclear reactors in 2021 and 2022, although PSC staff reports cast doubt on that timeline and warn could wind up adding another $1 billion or so to the final price tag that is already double original estimates.
Each month, Georgia Power customers see a line item on their electricity bills to cover Vogtle costs. Blackman and McDonald disagree over how much state regulators should hold Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Co., accountable for the soaring costs.
For Blackman, the razor-thin Nov. 3 election led him to reaffirm his promises that he’ll fight to hold the line on how much Georgia Power can charge customers for new Vogtle cost overruns.
If elected, Blackman said he’d reach out to Georgia Power executives to let them know that he wants to work together to get Vogtle across the finish line, but he will not serve as a rubber stamp for the company’s frequent requests to hand ratepayers the tab for increases.
McDonald bristles at the notion that he signs off on everything Georgia Power wants. McDonald was the lone vote against Georgia Power’s $1.8 billion rate hike approved last year.
He finds reason to praise Georgia Power for pushing ahead with Vogtle during the COVID-19 pandemic in which more than 1,000 workers have tested positive at the massive Augusta-area project.
“There’s probably not a safer place to be as far as in a small area with so many people but they test them all day long, every day,” McDonald said in an interview with the Georgia Recorder prior to the debate. “We’ve had cases from maybe as many as 105 test positive on a single day to lot smaller amounts. Of course, many of them go into quarantine when that takes place, and that does affect your efficiency.”
This PSC runoff election is the closest that a Democratic candidate has come to knocking off a GOP state regulator in a PSC election in well over a decade. McDonald defeated Blackman in 2014, winning 53% of the votes.
Blackman is a Columbus native and former senior vice president for environmental affairs for Capitol Fortitude Business Advisors. He says this election is a choice between a consumer advocate who will look out for people struggling to pay their utility bills versus someone with a track record of protecting corporate interests.
McDonald is credited by supporters with sparking Georgia’s solar energy during his decade on the PSC into one of the nation’s fastest-growing solar power producers.
Georgia’s energy portfolio is much more diverse today than it was a couple of decades ago, said McDonald, who said he wants to continue pushing progress in nuclear and solar energy.
“Without our solar, without biomass, and without nuclear, we don’t have clean air,” he said. “It’s going to be clean, it’s going to be reliable and it’s going to be affordable. We have 16% below the national average as far as electric rates are concerned.”
One of McDonald’s most vocal critics is Brionté McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. She says a red flag showing McDonald’s conflicted loyalties is a report that shows 85% of McDonald’s campaign contributions come from people connected to firms in the industry that the commission oversees.
McCorkle is involved in a federal lawsuit saying that the voting power of Black people is diluted by the statewide voting system used to elect PSC commissioners. If elected, Blackman would become the second Black person to serve on the board since Reconstruction.
McCorkle said Georgia Power is unfairly burdening its 2.6 million customers as the company earns large profits while many of its consumers struggle to pay bills during a pandemic.
“It’s really important that we get someone that’s forward-thinking in these positions, someone that’s willing to stand up to the utilities and make sure that Georgians are getting the best deal that they can on these things,” she said.
McDonald counters that the commission’s proper emphasis is to maintain Georgia’s rank among some real estate trade magazines as a top place to do business in the country.
“We have a responsibility to the consumer, but we also have a fiduciary responsibility to the investor-owned utilities that we regulate,” McDonald told the Georgia Recorder. “So if we don’t uphold that fiduciary responsibility, we would be in a situation as they’re experiencing in California with having rolling brownouts and blackouts and things of that nature.”
Georgia Power disputes the notion that ratepayers pay too much because state regulators are too closely aligned with the company.
“Georgia Power respects the elections process and our priority will always be to productively work with our elected officials to promote good public policy that positively benefits our state, our customers and our employees,” spokesman John Kraft said.
McDonald has the support of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in the runoff, which applauds his promotion of clean energy resources and the commission’s approval early in the pandemic of a six-month moratorium from Georgia Power shutting off electricity.
“Bubba McDonald is a proven pro-business advocate in Georgia and presents a thoughtful energy policy voice on the national stage,” said Chris Clark, Georgia Chamber President and CEO. “His leadership has produced continued, critical infrastructure investment and a readiness for state utilities to efficiently respond during crises.”
Campaigning as election day nears
McDonald and Blackman have hit the campaign trail hard as they encourage supporters to vote in the runoff.
They’ve both taken part in campaign events for Georgia’s much higher-profile Senate runoffs where GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Democrat and pastor Raphael Warnock and Republican Sen. David Perdue tries to fend off Democratic investigative journalist Jon Ossoff.
The state’s largest electricity provider, Georgia Power, is the most scrutinized utility regulated by the PSC, but the board’s decisions also set rates for Atlanta Gas & Light customers, cell phone providers and more.
And then there are longer term legacy costs, like the cleanup of toxic coal ash at the state’s polluting coal-fired plants that once dotted Georgia but are now in shutdown mode. Blackman is also concerned about the PSC’s approval last December for Georgia Power to pass along $525 million in costs for coal ash cleanup to consumers as the company moves forward with closing coal-fired power plants.
The Sierra Club of Georgia is a frequent critic of McDonald and the other sitting commissioners who voted not to require Georgia Power to store toxic coal ash in lined ponds that environmentalists say provide better protection from toxins for nearby groundwater.
“Despite how the EPA may have regarded it, it’s a very dangerous hazardous waste and at the very least should be placed into lined landfills, not just covered up and pretend that it’s going to be okay,” said Eddie Ehlert, political chair of the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter.
The environmental organization is endorsing Blackman.
Blackman said his immediate goal is to continue advocating for a new moratorium on electricity shutoffs that leave tens of thousands of families without power.
Fellow PSC Commissioner and Republican Tim Echols said losing McDonald’s connections and institutional memory forged over his years of service in the Legislature and overseeing Georgia’s utilities would be a significant loss for Georgians.
“Commissioner McDonald is the godfather of solar and jump-started our great growth in renewable energy,” said Echols. “He is an icon in Georgia politics and deserves one more term.”