Kempner: CEO of Georgia powerhouse skips the whole apology thing

5:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 Business
Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers spoke at a recent Georgia Public Service Commission hearing, urging continuation of the company’s nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle. Photo courtesy of Bill Edge at PSC.

If you made a giant mess that your neighbors were going to end up paying for, would you take a moment to apologize to them? Perhaps at least mumble something about “regret”?

Georgia Power’s CEO did not utter such words the other day. Not even close.

CEO Paul Bowers made a rare personal appearance at a hearing before the Georgia Public Service Commission this week. He was there to explain why state regulators should continue the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project and force the company’s customers — his neighbors — to take on way more risk and billions in additional costs because the project has careened off the rails.

“We understand that this is a complex and difficult decision,” Bowers told the elected body.

The project was supposed to be producing electricity before now. Instead, after years of busted assurances and forecasts, Georgia Power’s latest estimate is for completion in another five years. Maybe. Because now it’s also warning that there’s a whole lot that still could go wrong to screw up its latest projection. So, don’t hold Georgia Power accountable to that timetable.

Bowers didn’t hint at any remorse during what apparently was his only appearance in a Georgia PSC hearing since getting Georgia Power’s top job almost seven years ago. As Sir Elton sang: “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

As it stands now, Bowers said, completing the Vogtle project “represents the best economic choice for customers.”

He also assured the PSC that “it is my responsibility every day to make sure that everything we do is in the best interests of the 2.5 million customers we serve.”

Still, if the PSC tries to put any of the projected costs on the company instead of customers, Georgia Power wouldn’t continue the project, Bowers said.

Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Company, haven’t shown any willingness to publicly accept even a modicum of blame for the numerous Vogtle missteps and troubles.

Perhaps the companies’ leaders have convinced themselves that they have no culpability despite problems that began years before the bankruptcy of the project’s main contractor, Westinghouse. I suspect that they at least worry about potential legal and public relations ramifications if they acknowledge fallibility.

Apologies are therapeutic. They suggest a level of empathy. But maybe that would ring hollow from a government-enforced monopoly like Georgia Power that expects state regulators to help stick customers with all additional cost overruns going forward.

For now, some PSC commissioners are asking a few softball questions during this week’s Vogtle hearings. But they’ve also asked some that are tougher. They’ve asked why they should believe a company that has been so wrong so often and why the company wasn’t more rigorous in questioning Westinghouse information despite years of warnings by the state’s independent monitors. We’ll see if those questions amount to anything.

In the meantime, the lack of an apology thing doesn’t bug PSC Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald.

“This is not a kindergarten club. We’re big boys,” he told me.

“I don’t look for apologies. I look for corrections and facts.”

Let’s hope Vogtle — and the question of who pays for its continuing excesses — get fixed before customers have more to regret.

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