Kempner: Georgia underdogs confront power, get smacked 

1:28 p.m Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 Business
Steven Prenovitz, foreground, has irritated elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission who have previously backed Georgia Power’s push to make consumers pay for ballooning costs of nuclear power expansion. Prenovitz and colleague Ben Stockton recently prepped to cross examine state witnesses at a PSC hearing on the future of Plant Vogtle. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Steven Prenovitz, who once successfully nagged me into digging through more than 1,000 pages of state records, can be irritating when he’s pursuing what he considers a grand cause.

But he’s been called worse.

“You are an abomination to this process,” Stan Wise, the chairman of an elected body of Georgia regulators, sputtered during a recent hearing.

Wise berated Prenovitz, a 70-year-old Gwinnett County resident who is neither an engineer nor a lawyer but has an MBA and has appeared before the body on and off since the 1980s. Wise ripped him for wandering, repetitive questions of witnesses, breaks in protocol and “wasting” the public’s and the mighty Georgia Public Service Commission’s time.

The PSC had business to get to.

Yes, it was holding days of hearings recently, but there was no question where it ultimately would end up: keeping the troubled nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle alive and giving the monopoly Georgia Power approval to squeeze captive customers for billions of dollars more in cost overruns and extra company profits.

The PSC made it official in a unanimous vote Thursday.

It approved all of Georgia Power’s newly projected spending on the unfinished project, decided in advance that it is all reasonable (though not yet prudent) and set the stage for the company to pocket billions in additional profits because of the delays. 

PSC commissioners did temporarily curb some profit rates.  (So instead of getting an extra $5.2 billion of profit tied to overruns and delays, Georgia Power may get just $5 billion.) But the PSC also made other changes that might negate much or all of the reductions.

They also agreed the company would pass along money tied to a contractor. So next year, customers will get $75 in bill credits, which is puny compared to how much extra customers will ultimately pay out over decades.

Commissioners said consumers will get clean, reliable power for years to come.

An attorney for Georgia Power, which had been given the game plan in advance, did not smile during a public meeting as he told commissioners the company could accept it.

As Prenovitz and others have learned, you better be able to withstand slings and arrows and setbacks if you’re going to take on an entrenched powerhouse that collects Georgia politicians like Christmas ornaments.

His main argument has been that Georgia Power’s predictions about future power needs are inflated and that the project is too expensive and unneeded.

Is he anti-nuclear? “No,” he said. “I’m anti-stupidity.”

“This would flunk any undergraduate finance class. It is so incredibly bad.”

He’s just one in a loose gathering of people — a libertarian engineer, consumer watchdogs, anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, a civil engineer who used to work on nuclear projects, and, more recently, a Tea Party advocate — who have tried for years to convince state regulators that they made a mistake in believing Georgia Power and giving it wide latitude in its nuclear ambitions. They predicted massive cost overruns and delays.

Some, unlike Prenovitz, had sharp and practiced presentations and lawyers to back them.

As it turns out, the Vogtle-fighting underdogs were right, despite confident assurances from a parade of Georgia Power executives, engineers and consultants, arguments from top-notch lawyers, occasional visits from hard-hat wearing union members, and bountiful support from the little-known PSC as well as the highest levels of Georgia’s political hierarchy.

Georgia Power and its contractors busted budgets in every conceivable way. Yet, the company has cautioned that its latest cost projections could still be off. And the PSC’s own staff highlighted Georgia Power’s “mismanagement” of the project and said the expansion is “uneconomic” for ratepayers under cost and risk parameters the company proposed this year.

This is all déjà vu for the white-haired Prenovitz. When construction of Vogtle’s first two reactors obliterated cost projections in the 1980s, he testified in front of the PSC.

“It’s scary as hell to get up there if you haven’t done it before,” Prenovitz told me.

A financial and strategic consultant, he was getting pushback even then, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

A future CEO of parent Southern Company weathered two hours of questioning by Prenovitz, who was interrupted repeatedly by PSC members saying “he was out of line because he was trying to present testimony instead of cross-examining the witnesses.”

“He doesn’t listen very well to the witnesses,” acknowledged Sara Barczak, another Vogtle critic in recent years and an activist with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

But she said Prenovitz has good intentions and has to be frustrated seeing the history repeat itself with deeply overbudget nuclear projects.

In a recent hearing, Prenovitz asked company witnesses about Vogtle-related costs that they said they weren’t sure of. Then he started punching numbers into a calculator to help the witnesses along with other figures.

Wise, the PSC’s chairman, wasn’t happy.

“I don’t know if it is your style or your personality or your obstinance or some other adjective or just basically your lack of understanding or that you just don’t even care about the process ….”

“I care very much, sir…” Prenovitz said.

Said Wise, a few moments later: “In so many ways, Mr. Prenovitz, you waste the public’s time. You waste this commission’s time. Every person that comes to participate in this process, pro or con on this project…. You are an abomination to this process.”

Commissioner Tim Echols motioned to limit Prenovitz to no more than 30 minutes of cross examination of any witness.

“Why don’t you just throw me out?” Prenovitz asked. “You don’t want to hear this.”

Echols emailed me later that Prenovitz “seems so close to the issue and is not comfortable in our judicial setting and so he has had a hard time with our protocol and rules — and that has limited his persuasiveness.”

Wise, who plans to retire from the PSC after nearly a quarter century in office, hasn’t been shy about flinging barbs in hours-long hearings, though I don’t recall any aimed at anyone supporting Georgia Power.

Jim Clarkston, a Vogtle critic and engineer who represents businesses and organizations on their power needs, told me Prenovitz has his faults but he’s also helped highlight the PSC’s biases in favor of Vogtle and Georgia Power.

“It’s their little club and other people are sort of uninvited guests. They sort of tolerate them but don’t pay attention to them,” Clarkston said.

I learned to pay attention to Prenovitz and other Vogtle activists.

For years he emailed me about his concerns that the Vogtle expansion would run into serious troubles. I listened (I was an editor at the time) and passed along his emails to a reporter covering the project. But the PSC had already approved the work and there wasn’t yet much evidence of serious problems that couldn’t be fixed.

Over time, that changed. We reported that the project was slipping. And, eventually, with Prenovitz chiding us to dig deeper, I read reams of state records on Vogtle. It became clear the PSC had missed crucial chances to protect ratepayers and that Georgia Power’s problems were in sharp contradiction to its earlier assurances. It turned into a front-page story and a growing concern about the company’s level of transparency.

Prenovitz told me he doesn’t know if he’ll continue to ask tough questions about Vogtle. Preparing filings can take days. Hearings last for hours. “It’s grueling.”

If he does stick with it, he said, “it’s not to be argumentative. It is to do what you are supposed to do, which is to get to the essence or get to the truth.”

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