Georgia Power customers soon could begin paying for an expansion of nuclear power in Georgia under legislation that passed the state House on Thursday.
The bill, which was approved earlier by the Senate, now heads to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.
The measure would allow Georgia Power to raise electric rates on its customers in order to finance two new reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta.
The House approved the plan 107-66 after hours of debate.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, voted in favor, and said power customers will save money in the long run by beginning to pay for the plant expansion now.
“The consumer, in the end, will pay for this project,” said Collins. “We can pay a smaller increase over the next few years by upfront paying of the costs and saving the consumer about $300 million.”
Collins said most of his district is served by three electric membership cooperatives — Jackson, Sawnee and Habersham — which already have the ability to pass along project costs in advance of completion.
The plan will allow Georgia Power to raise bills an average of $1.30 more per month for each customer beginning in 2011, with the increase rising to $9.10 per month by 2017.
Critics complain the bill charges consumers for interest and shareholder equity costs on the reactors at least six years before they will be completed.
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, was among those voting against the bill.
“I just couldn’t do it,” Rogers said. “It is an issue that belongs in the Public Service Commission and that’s where it should be. I had a lot of pressure from the chamber and business community, but I voted no.”
Backers say it ultimately will save money by trimming about $300 million of the project’s estimated $14 billion price tag. They said rates would go up to pay for expansion either way, but the legislation slows down the increase and will save money.
Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co., says that if it didn’t begin recouping costs early, electric bills would rise by $5.85 in 2016 and again in 2017, for a total of $11.70.
The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Ben Harbin, said the legislation saves ratepayers money in the long run.
“The debate is about whether our consumers should have to pay $300 million more or not,” the Republican from Evans said.
Critics blasted the bill as bad for consumers who are being asked to pony up extra money before they see any benefit.
“Would you make your house payments for several years before they hand you the key?” said state Rep. Rob Teilhet, a Smyrna Democrat.
Of the $1.6 billion in costs that Georgia Power wants customers to prepay, roughly $1 billion would go to company shareholders. The remainder would go to pay down debt costs. Company officials said the return paid to shareholders is required by investors for them to put their money into the nuclear project.
Georgia Power has dispatched a number of high-powered lobbyists to push the bill. They have spent thousands of dollars on meals and sports tickets for state lawmakers in recent months.
The measure is the first major piece of legislation to win approval from both chambers this legislative session.
The state Public Service Commission still must approve the planned nuclear expansion. It’s set to take up the issue at a meeting in March. The PSC also is expected to consider a separate Georgia Power request for an electric rate increase. Georgia Power says it needs to charge consumers more to make up for soaring fuel costs.