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House OKs prepaying for nuke plant expansion
Georgia Power customers bills to go up
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ATLANTA - Georgia Power customers could pay an average of $1.30 more per month on their electricity bills beginning in 2011 under a bill approved by the Legislature on Thursday.

The House voted 107-66 to approve the financing scheme that would begin collecting about $1.6 billion in costs for the utility to expand its nuclear plant near Augusta. The measure has already cleared the state Senate and now heads to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.

Perdue has given no signal on whether he will sign the bill. But his chief of staff, Ed Holcombe, worked nearly four decades at the utility, part of that time as its chief lobbyist.

Critics complain the bill charges consumers for interest and shareholder equity costs on two new nuclear reactors at least six years before they're completed. Backers say it will ultimately save money by trimming some $300 million of the project's estimated $14 billion price tag.

The $1.30 average increase on bills would gradually rise to an additional $9.10 a month in 2017. Supporters said rates would go up to pay for expansion either way, but the legislation slows down the increase and will ultimately save money.

Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co., says that if they 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?" state Rep. Rob Teilhet, a Smyrna Democrat, said.

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. Consumer advocate Clark Howard and the watchdog group Georgia Watch have been battling against the bill.

The measure is the first major piece of legislation to win approval from both chambers this legislative session.

The state Public Service Commission must still approve the planned nuclear expansion. It's set to take up the issue at a meeting in March. The PSC is also 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.

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