WAYNESBORO — The biggest construction project in Georgia is also becoming one of the biggest budget busters in state history. And nearly every Georgian with a monthly electric bill may end up paying for it.
Despite Georgia Power’s early confidence about staying on track, the massive nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle south of Augusta is more than three years behind schedule. The company’s share of costs are at least $1.4 billion, or 23 percent, over original projections — enough to build two new Braves stadiums and still have a fortune left over.
The potential hit to Georgians invites questions about whether elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission adequately weighed warnings from their own staff and experts before approving the project six years ago, making Georgia the first state to bet on new nuclear power in 30 years.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviews and a review of more than 1,000 pages of testimony and documents show the PSC approved the massive undertaking without significant room in cost estimates to cover potentially steep overruns.
Staff warned increases were likely. Past nuclear projects — including Plant Vogtle’s original construction in the 1980s — soared far over budget. But Georgia Power, which provided the cost estimates the PSC adopted, only disclosed years later that it was unusual on such large projects to leave out padding to handle big overruns.
The omission helped make the project to look like a better deal for consumers than alternatives such as building a natural gas plant, a project that PSC staff said would generate far less profit for the company.
PSC chairman Chuck Eaton said he doesn’t think the PSC made any critical mistakes in approving the plant expansion. But that doesn’t mean he’s comfortable that Georgia Power has twice reported sizable delays.
“They are still giving me a lot of assurances,” Eaton said of Georgia Power officials. “But you’ve got two significant delays. Are there going to be delays in the future?”
The PSC eventually will have to decide how much of the overruns can be passed on to Georgia Power customers, adding to the higher bills they already face for years to come under the original financing plan. The PSC can reject any Vogtle costs that it deems imprudent.
PSC members didn’t follow their own experts’ advice to impose a risk-sharing mechanism that would have reduced Georgia Power’s profit if it blew past cost estimates. The company argued such a measure would be unfair and potentially counter productive.
Before the project’s approval in 2009, Georgia Power officials expressed confidence they could limit the financial risks. One told the PSC there was a slightly better chance of staying under budget than going over.
The tone is different now.
Buzz Miller, Georgia Power’s executive vice president for nuclear development, said recently that the biggest surprise since the expansion started “is that people would be surprised that a project this size is taking a little longer.”
A former PSC commissioner who cast the sole vote against the Vogtle expansion said he suspects the company aimed its cost and timeline estimates more at getting regulatory approval than accuracy.
“I’m suggesting that they low balled their number,” Bobby Baker, an attorney whose clients now include an environmental group critical of Vogtle, told the AJC in a recent interview.
Georgia Power residential customers already pay about $8 on a typical summer bill of $159 for financing costs related to the Vogtle expansion, or about $81 a year.
Construction charge coming
Under PSC plans, the financing charge would end around the time the first of two new reactors is finished, then be replaced by a charge for construction costs. The amount depends on the final cost and how much the PSC decides Georgia Power can pass on to customers. The charge would linger for decades, but at its peak it would average of 6.6 percent above what bills would have been without the project, according to company estimates based on the latest delays.
That could add at least another $36 a year to the typical residential bill, for an annual Vogtle total of $117.
Overruns would be higher if not for two big items in customers’ favor: lower-than-expected interest rates and federal guarantees and credits for the project.
Georgia Power said it negotiated a contract that made the risk of other cost increases — such as material, equipment, additional construction labor, etc. — the responsibility of contractors. Those contractors have sued Georgia Power and other owners of the Vogtle project over more than $900 million in costs.
Georgia Power leaders say that even with the delays and rising costs, economic benefits to consumers are massive over what they predict will be the 60-year or longer life of the plant.
They forecast billions in savings versus coal and natural gas plants that have higher fuel costs and produce emissions blamed for worsening climate change. They see big advantages in diversifying the state’s energy mix and avoiding over reliance on natural gas, whose price has been low lately but is prone to big swings.
“I have got gray hair because we have delays,” Miller told the AJC. “Because we don’t like them at all. But at the end of the day this is still a huge value to customers and the rate impact to customers is still where we set it.”
Tom Fanning, chief executive of Southern Company, Georgia Power’s parent, told the AJC the company remains committed to nuclear as a dominant power source in the future, adding that the Vogtle project “is enormously attractive for us and Georgia customers.”
Georgia Power maintains the overruns will have “minimal impact” on customer bills.
Environmental groups that favor energy efficiency and solar and wind power, criticize Vogtle’s cost and the risk of nuclear accidents, the lack of permanent storage for radioactive waste, and the plant’s mammoth thirst for Savannah River water.
Moving target dates
The project adds two new reactors near Vogtle’s existing pair. The first was initially scheduled to go on line April 1, 2016, the second a year later. Now the first won’t be in service until June 2019, the second in mid-2020.
The expansion is gargantuan, with about 5,500 workers on the site. New cooling towers will be taller than all but the highest Atlanta skyscrapers. The new reactors will be able to power half a million homes and businesses.
But the project quickly started to go off course, with numerous design revisions, rebar installed out of place, delays in delivery and finishing paperwork, and problems with pre-fabricated equipment.
Initially, the total cost was about $14 billion, to be divided among Georgia Power and three smaller electric power suppliers: Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities.
With a 45.7 percent stake, Georgia Power’s share was supposed to be $6.1 billion. Now, it appears that price has climbed to about $7.5 billion. In addition to potentially paying the higher project cost, Georgia Power customers also could pay nearly $1 billion because they will have to rely longer on more expensive power, according to an AJC analysis of state reports.
Vogtle’s smaller owners also face higher costs. The PSC doesn’t oversee what those utilities charge.
Oglethorpe Power, which sells power to members such as Jackson EMC in Gwinnett and Cobb EMC, says its budget for the project has risen $800 million and its wholesale rate will rise as a result. Another big chunk of the project belongs to MEAG, which funnels electricity to municipal utilities such as those in Marietta, Lawrenceville and Norcross.
“Our cities are generally still very supportive of the project,” MEAG chief executive Bob Johnston said. He thinks low interest rates will keep delay-related cost increases “pretty minimal.”
Georgia Power officials acknowledged during the PSC’s approval process that overruns were possible. But they stressed their experience on big projects and use of a top construction firm. They said newly designed reactors are only an enhancement of existing technology.
PSC staff cautioned commissioners that even minimal cost increases would make the project a bad financial deal.
In a 2009 brief, a PSC staff attorney warned that if commissioners didn’t enact a risk-sharing mechanism, Georgia Power would have no incentive “to work diligently to properly estimate the in-service cost and to control the costs of the units. In fact, the company would have disincentive to do so. Because Georgia Power earns a percentage return on the amount in rate base, the Company’s profits would increase if the cost of the units increased.”
The PSC, however, didn’t put a hard cap on how much Georgia Power could recoup from customers.
Mississippi took a different approach on a new-technology coal plant being built by another Southern Company subsidiary. Its PSC capped the ratepayer cost, which could keep them from eating billions in overruns.
In Georgia, a PSC consultant questioned Georgia Power for using a cost estimate that didn’t include significant funding for overruns. Georgia Power officials said they were confident in their figures and such padding was unnecessary.
“There were a lot of: ‘Don’t worry about it. We know what we are doing,’” Baker, the only commissioner who voted against the project, recalled recently.
Georgia Power and its shareholders can make substantially more money by spending billions more on a nuclear plant than on a natural gas plant with lower upfront costs. That’s because as a regulated utility, the company earns a profit on big capital investments. The bigger the investment, the bigger the profit.
But including significant contingency costs in Vogtle project estimates would have shown nuclear to be the more expensive option and might have killed it, Baker said.
Three years later Georgia Power startled PSC staff and consultants when, seemingly contradicting its stance when seeking approval, said in a filing that not factoring potential overruns into cost estimates was “rare, if not unique” for large projects. By then, the company was under pressure because of rising project costs.
Not the best option?
By 2013, PSC consultant Philip Hayet, citing falling natural gas prices and rising Vogtle costs, concluded: “If a decision had to be made today to build a new nuclear project, it would not be justified on the basis of these results.”
Eaton, the PSC chairman, said he doesn’t think Georgia Power misled the commission. “There’s a big difference,” he said, “between being overly optimistic and misleading somebody.”
Even if the Vogtle project was less cost effective than a natural gas plant, the PSC might still have approved because of other benefits, such as energy diversity, he said.
Eaton said consumer protections are still in place. The commission has yet to approve any cost overruns, and Georgia Power will have to justify the expenses, he said.
The PSC doesn’t have to vote on how to deal with overruns until after the first new unit is completed. Some current members may be gone by then. Perhaps hoping to put the issue to the current commission, Georgia Power last week made a filing that could lead to a decision as soon as this year.
Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald said he is “disappointed to some degree” by delays but still supports the project.
“I’m not going back and Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said. “We are not going to pull the plug on it. And the consumers in Georgia in the end are going to be fine with what we have done.”
What’s in Georgia Power’s current energy mix?
• 37.4 percent - Coal
• 39.4 percent – Natural gas/Oil
• 21.5 percent – Nuclear*
• 1.7 percent – Hydro/Renewables
*After the expansion of Plant Vogtle, the company estimates nuclear will supply 30 percent of its energy.
SOURCE: Georgia Power
Ownership of Plant Vogtle expansion:
Georgia Power (45.7%)
Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%)
Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%)
Dalton Utilities (1.6%)
PLANT VOGTLE: A NUCLEAR JOURNEY
1971: Construction of Plant Vogtle planned.
1987: Vogtle’s first nuclear unit began commercial operation, followed by the second unit two years later. Total price: $8.9 billion, nearly 900 percent over the original estimate.
2005: Georgia Power says it wants to add new nuclear reactors at Vogtle.
2009: Legislature approves letting utility charge customers in advance for Vogtle financing costs and taxes. Public Service Commission votes 4-1 to approve expansion and its cost.
Jan. 2011: Nuclear fee for financing added to Georgia Power bills.
Dec. 2011: Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor, which will be used at Vogtle.
2012: NRC issues construction and operating licenses for Vogtle expansion. Contractors warn of project delays: Vogtle a year behind schedule. Contractors sue Vogtle’s owners for more than $900 million. Georgia Power sues back.
Feb. 2013: Georgia Power says Vogtle is 19 months delayed and will cost $740 million more than expected. A Georgia House bill to prevent the company from profiting on the cost increases goes nowhere.
July 2013: Georgia Power tells PSC no further delays expected. Tom Fanning, CEO of parent Southern Company, tells the AJC the project is moving forward in “spectacular fashion.”
Aug. 2013: Regulators learn of possible three-month longer delay. Philip Hayet, an economic consultant for the PSC, says the project is not be the most economic option, but with so much already spent it makes economic sense to continue.
January 2015: Georgia Power discloses its contractors predict an additional 18-month delay, pushing opening date for first reactor to June 2019, vs. the original April 1, 2016.
SOURCES: Southern Co.’s nuclear division (Southern Nuclear); U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Georgia Public Service Commission records, staff research.
FROM THE RECORD
Excerpts from documents examined by the AJC for this story
Georgia Public Service Commission staff raised cost concerns before the PSC signed off on the expansion:
“Given the uncertainty of the final in-service cost, financial protections for ratepayers are absolutely mandatory if the commission choose to certify the units. Without financial protections the benefits of the Units could be significantly reduced or eliminated…” — Tom Newsome, director of utility finance for the PSC.
” … the decision to build the Units is a close call as the Units become uneconomical with modest cost overruns when compared to the alternative of gas fired combined cycle units…” — PSC staff attorney Jeff Stair.
Georgia Power and Southern Company executives expressed confidence they could handle the expansion as they pitched the project to the PSC in 2008 and 2009. Some assurances involved areas that have since become problems, including cost estimates, reactor design approval and supply chain and construction issues.
“The company has put a great deal of its expertise into the development of that proposal. And we still believe that that is, in fact, a good certification budget.” — Jeffrey Burleson, then Georgia Power’s director of resource policy and planning.
“Yeah, certainly there’s some issue with the project being the first of the AP1000 (nuclear reactor) projects. I would add to that, though, that while this is the first in the U.S. for a while, the construction experience we just mentioned has been ongoing for the last two decades … we do learn the construction experience from overseas.” — Buzz Miller, Georgia Power executive vice president for nuclear development
“And remember, now, the technology itself is not new. Pressurized water reactors are not new itself. It is merely the safety systems and the components that are going to surround the reactor vessel and all now, so the technology of pressurized water reactors are not new ….” —Edward Day, then Southern Company’s executive vice president of generation.
On whether Georgia Power would have difficulty handling such a large project with lots of schedules:
“They’re going on in the industry right now. We’re doing a lot of that ourselves right here inside Southern Company….” — Day of Southern Company.
On confidence in the nuclear construction supply chain:
“Well, I have confidence, to answer your question, in this country – the AP1000 – I assume other reactors as well – will procure many of the components from overseas suppliers. That is not uncommon in our existing fleet…. So, we have a high confidence that the supply chain will be there….” — Miller, before the project was approved.
“We really outlined the magnitude. We also outlined lot of the risks that are inherent in building a nuclear plant. And one of the biggest ones, which was crystal clear: The U.S. had not built nuclear plants in 30 years, so you need a wide, wide network of sub-suppliers to provide parts and materials to the site. That issue is the risk I just talked about in modules. Getting the industry the supply chain for nuclear back up has been in certain areas a challenge.” — Miller, 2015 interview with the AJC.
On why room for significant overruns wasn’t included in cost estimates:
“Well, the company still believes that that original cost estimate is very reasonable and we’re comfortable with that original budget that we requested be certified….” — Burleson, in 2009.
“…it was incumbent on the Company to perform thorough planning to include sufficient contingency so as to provide the Commission a realistic and reasonable estimate of the in-service cost.” — PSC attorney Jeff Stair.
“It is rare, if not unique, that a project of this size and magnitude has no contingency to cover cost pressures that the EPC Agreement itself clearly contemplated. This is appropriate under our regulatory framework as long it did not suggest the conclusion or expectation that the Facility might not exceed its original projected cost without a contingency. That would be an unrealistic expectation and indeed unprecedented for large infrastructure projects such as this. It is more usual that a project of this size would have a contingency of between 20 percent and 25 percent.” — Georgia Power filing with the PSC in August, 2012.
“Staff requests that the Company explain why a contingency of this magnitude has not been mentioned earlier and why associated economic evaluations have not been performed using an additional 20 to 25 percent contingency if such a contingency is usual.” — Philip Hayet, economic consultant for the PSC.