For many decades, Georgia Power has been the 800-pound gorilla in state politics.
Whatever the utility giant wanted, it usually got. Those things would include billion-dollar rate increases, the election of a favored candidate for governor, or the passage of a bill by the legislature.
Georgia Power has been able to do this in large part because of a Public Service Commission that has been more of a rubber stamp than a regulatory commission.
The PSC is made up of five conservative members who are all Republicans. There aren’t any pesky liberals or tree-hugging environmentalists to complain that Georgia Power is making too much money or running too many power plants that emit greenhouse gases.
When Georgia Power asked for the authority to start charging its customers for the cost of building two nuclear reactors six years before the reactors would even start generating their first kilowatt hour of electricity, the PSC granted it.
When Georgia Power decided it didn’t want any kind of risk-sharing system that would protect its customers from rate gouging if there were huge cost overruns on the Plant Vogtle nuclear project, the PSC did not require the utility to implement one.
During the period from 2009 through 2012, when the country endured the worst economic downturn since the great depression and businesses failed left and right, the PSC allowed Georgia Power to keep earning a return of roughly 11 percent on the electricity it generated for its customers.
It would be difficult to find a sweeter deal than that.
Georgia Power’s political power has been just as evident under the Gold Dome.
The utility deployed a small army of lobbyists to the Capitol hallways in 2009 to secure passage of a bill requiring the PSC to allow Georgia Power to start charging its customers in advance for the cost of the Vogtle nuclear reactors.
There was never any doubt that the PSC was going to give Georgia Power permission to levy those nuclear surcharges. I guess the utility lobbyists just wanted to show the lawmakers who was really the boss.
When Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, introduced a bill that would have allowed property owners to lease solar panels and generate their own electricity in competition with Georgia Power, the utility’s lobbyists swiftly moved in and had the bill killed in committee.
Given this history, it has been an amazing experience to attend recent meetings of the PSC. The regulators are acting as if they really intend to regulate the state’s largest utility.
A few weeks ago, Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald proposed that Georgia Power be required to take on 525 megawatts of solar generation capacity in addition to its mix of coal-fired plants and nuclear reactors.
That’s not a huge amount of solar power; it amounts to less than 2 percent of the utility’s total generation capacity. But Georgia Power’s top executives don’t have a lot of affection for anything that doesn’t involve coal or nuclear energy. Normally, the utility’s lawyers would have brushed aside the McDonald proposal and told the PSC to move on to another topic.
Instead, the PSC actually voted 3-2 to approve McDonald’s plan and beef up Georgia Power’s solar capacity.
A week later, the PSC began its review of more than $730 million worth of cost overruns on the Vogtle nuclear reactors, which are being built by Georgia Power, electric membership cooperatives and municipal power companies.
Georgia Power believes that these cost increases should be passed along to customers in the form of higher rates. PSC members, on the other hand, are talking about such radical notions as requiring the utility to eat those costs and make shareholders pay for the Vogtle mistakes.
This is strange talk indeed from the PSC. It’s almost unheard of for any state government agency to say no to a Georgia Power request. Will the commissioners have the gumption to stand their ground on this issue?
If the PSC persists in this course, you can presume that Georgia Power will send its lobbyists back to the Capitol next winter and tell the legislature to pass another bill that orders the commissioners to shut up and do whatever the utility asks.
If the legislature also says no, then we’ll know that the earth is shifting in Georgia politics.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. HIs column appears Wednesday and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.