August 23, 2013

New technology, politics and prices generate uncertainty for utilities

Kristi E. Swartz, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WAYNESBORO, GA. — Before the recession ground the state’s growth to a halt, Southern Co. made the decision to add two large nuclear reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle.

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Central Maine Power Co. contractors erect a new 39-mile transmission line from Moscow to Benton in this November 26, 2011 file photo.

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The thinking was that the $14 billion reactors, scheduled to come online in 2017 and 2018, would generate enough electricity to support whatever population increases Georgia might see over the next several years.

But last week — about three years years too late — a financial analyst for the state questioned whether the energy giant’s nuclear expansion is the best use of money, with natural gas so much cheaper now. There’s no way to turn back, said Philip Hayet, a consultant, but Vogtle’s expansion would not be economical if Georgia Power were to start the project today.

Such second-guessing is typical nowadays.

Utilities like Atlanta-based Southern take long-term risks when deciding to build multi-billion dollar power plants, even in predictable economic and political times. Now, the stakes are higher when it comes to making decisions that must last at least 30 to 40 years as the nation continues its shift to natural gas and tighter environmental rules loom.

“A lot of what we knew five years ago was wrong, and a lot of what we think we may know now may be wrong too,” said Miles Keogh, grants and research director at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC.

“We used to, 20 years ago, basically ask our power companies to crush rocks and make kilowatts. Now, we expect more of them; we expect them to be risk managers,” Keough said at the four-day National Conference of State Legislatures held recently in downtown Atlanta.

Southern must manage those risks over 40 to 60 years while serving 4.4 million customers. That risk comes with a cushion: Its four utilities are regulated monopolies and earn a certain return on their capital investments in exchange for providing electricity to all customers in its territory.

“They’re responsible for keeping the system up for a long period of time,” said Paul Patterson, a utility analyst with Glenrock Associates. “Any advanced economy really needs an electricity system with a high degree of reliability. There’s a lot of investment that goes into it.”

Southern must be flexible because any prediction made 20 years or more out likely will be somewhat inaccurate, Patterson said.

“It’s not just, ‘We made a decision 20 years ago, and we’re 10 years in, and we’re not going to change just because the world has changed,’ ” he said.

The economy, the natural gas boom and pending environmental regulations add new, complex dimensions to a business model that is centered on building power plants and selling electricity.

Southern and South Carolina’s SCANA are the sole builders of new nuclear reactors in what was supposed to be a nuclear renaissance, as predicted by industry analysts as recently as five years ago. The combination of low natural gas prices and a diminished need for more electricity are chief reasons why other utilities scrapped their plans to build new reactors from scratch.

Tom Fanning — Southern’s chairman, president and chief executive — stands behind his company’s decision to build the nuclear reactors, the first in the nation to be built from scratch in 30 years.

“You have to take a long view with these things,” he said. “The industry is so capital-intensive, and the nature of the kind of capital you have to employ requires you to look at the long-term.”

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