Southern hammering out new timeline for Vogtle

Photo courtesy of E&E News.

By Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News 

Georgia Power Co. will not file a routine update for its construction of the Vogtle reactors next month, but instead focus on completing a more accurate timeline for regulators to review by May.

The decision was part of a wide-ranging agreement with the utility, a unit of Southern Co., and members of the Georgia Public Service Commission staff. The document was posted on the PSC’s website at the start of what is going to be a high-profile week for the electricity giant.

The commission also posted the document roughly two hours after sending out a news release saying it would be facing a “busy and challenging case load” this year.

Georgia Power is scheduled to release its next long-term energy plan tomorrow. Southern has pledged a low- to no-carbon fleet by 2050, and Georgia Power’s integrated resource plan will be the first documented evidence of how that will play out.

What’s more, legal briefs wrapping up the PSC’s last review of the utility’s nuclear project, Plant Vogtle, are due Friday. At least one of the groups that routinely participates in the review has said it will shift its focus toward the changes announced in Monday’s agreement.

“We were taken by surprise yesterday,” said Kurt Ebersbach, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Vogtle is the nation’s first and now only nuclear project being built from scratch in nearly three decades. The reactors were years behind schedule and billions above their original forecast budget when their main contractor, Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, went bankrupt in 2017.

Southern’s nuclear unit and Georgia Power have taken over as Vogtle’s main contractors. Georgia Power owns 45.7 percent of the project, with a group of public power companies sharing the balance.

The stakes are higher now for Georgia Power, the other utility developers and their customers now that the electric company has taken over. Absent is a fixed price contract — the type of contract that bankrupted Westinghouse — which means the risk is significantly higher for the utility and its customers.

Financial, staffing questions

The PSC placed some financial restrictions on Georgia Power if Vogtle’s reactors aren’t finished by their new schedule — November 2021 and 2022. A new agreement with the other developers also requires Georgia Power to pay more for Vogtle’s construction costs should they rise past certain thresholds.

That happened after Vogtle’s costs jumped $2.3 billion in just the one year that Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power were at the helm. Broadly, Southern and Georgia Power executives said the additional money is in part from expanding the work of contractor Bechtel Corp. and Southern Nuclear to ensure they can finish the reactors on time.

Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power have made marked progress since officially becoming Vogtle’s main contractors and have set what the company and analysts consider an “aggressive schedule” for finishing the reactors. But many unknowns remain.

Georgia Power must hire more craft workers and reach a new level of productivity to meet these targets. It has publicly acknowledged challenges with both.

The company has hired an additional 700 craft workers since November, Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson confirmed.

Now, Southern Nuclear is working on what has been termed a “rebaselining” of the schedule. The stipulation refers to it as a “routine, expected and customary verification of project quantities, staffing and productivity, which will allow for continued effective monitoring of the project status.”

The Vogtle construction monitor and the PSC staff’s main analyst for the project said multiple times during a December hearing that the company would be filing that information in March. They said at the time their information was based on Southern.

“So, in the March time frame, they’re going to re-evaluate the quantities, the staffing, the productivity, and then — and then develop a new baseline that we will, at that point in time, then we’ll measure against that,” said William Jacobs, the project’s independent monitor.

Georgia Power now has until May 15 to file a report based on Southern Nuclear’s evaluation, including what, if any, effect it has on Vogtle. The February cost-and-schedule report will be combined with the one that is typically filed at the end of August.

Eyeing the ‘endgame’

This is not the first time Georgia Power has paired filings in a year that it has multiple, time-intensive issues before the PSC.

The utility also joined the cost-and-schedule reports in 2013, a year that it filed an integrated resource plan and a subsequent rate adjustment.

“They combined [reports] 9 and 10, so it’s not a surprise to me,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch.

Coyle and Ebersbach both questioned the timing, however. The May “rebaselining” report will be filed well after the state Legislature will wrap for the year.

Georgia lawmakers have been relatively hands-off on Vogtle during its rocky history, but both consumer advocates raised the question of whether Georgia Power was filing documents later to avoid legislative scrutiny.

“I do think it’s convenient,” Coyle said. “[The report] could show continued schedule slippage and cost increase that they don’t want to come out in the middle of the legislative session.”

Georgia Power strongly denies such claims, the company said.

Ebersbach also pressed the issue of transparency. With each biannual monitoring report comes a series of hearings and the opportunity to question company executives as well as the PSC staff. That won’t happen now until at least August.

“The public has the right to know,” Ebersbach said.

Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power have been aiming toward finishing the reactors even earlier in 2021 and 2022. That will give the utilities a grace period to meet the November dates in case the timeline hits another snag.

It’s unclear whether that will happen, but if history is any indicator, that grace period may be welcome.

“There are just so many variables out there,” Ebersbach said. “You just would like to think at this stage, we’d have a better sense of the endgame, and we don’t.”

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