It's not often that an environmental group and a conservative taxpayers foundation are on the same side of a legal issue, but when they are the case usually is one of importance. That's certainly true in Georgia, where the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation recently filed separate lawsuits challenging a new state law that allows Georgia Power Co. to charge ratepayers ahead of time for some of the cost of building two new nuclear reactors. Their joint cause has merit.
The suits argue that it is unconstitutional to make Georgia Power's customers finance the two new reactors at Plant Vogtle six years before they go online. The alliance and foundation arguments have merit. The conservation group says ratepayers shouldn't have to pay for the reactors before electricity is produced, particularly since there is legitimate question about the impact the plants will have on the environment in the Savannah River Basin. That's a cogent argument.
So is the point made by the foundation. It says that the law allowing Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the politically connected Southern Co., to collect money up front is a taxpayer issue -- a tariff that poses a financial burden on people who may or may not receive the service provided by the new reactors in the future. That's correct, too.
John Sherman, the foundation's 83-year-old president, is a ratepayer who will pay ahead of time for service to be provided in the future. Given his age and possible delays in the construction timetable, it is possible, the foundation's attorney says, that Mr. Sherman "may not be able to enjoy the fruits of what he's paying for right now." He's right.
Logic, however, seems to have no place in any discussion about the prepayment issue. Extensive lobbying convinced the state's Public Service Commission to approve the new Plant Vogtle reactors. More lobbying pushed the heavily debated bill through both houses of Georgia's legislature. Gov. Sonny Perdue, who should know better, signed it into law, saying, through a spokesman, that it will be a long-term benefit to Georgia Power customers. He offered no evidence to support that contention. He couldn't. There is none.
Unless the law is overturned by the courts, Georgia Power will be able to start collecting $1.6 billion in financing and shareholder equity costs early. The new law will permit electric bills for Georgia Power customers to increase by an average of $1.30 a month in 2011. The increases will rise to an additional $9.10 a month by 2017, when the new reactors are scheduled to be completed. In essence, ratepayers are financing a project from which they cannot benefit. The power company and its shareholders will reap the considerable benefits.
Government should protect consumers, not serve as an accomplice in taking money from their pockets. Indeed, rather than doing the bidding of Georgia Power and its parent company, the Public Service Commission, legislators and the governor could have played a more useful role by challenging the company's rationale for building the nuclear reactors -- which could be the first new nuclear project to break ground in the United States in three decades.
There's sound reason for the long delay. Clean, renewable sources of energy should be Georgia's first priority. There's no need to force ratepayers to pay for additional investment in nuclear and other costly and environmentally dangerous forms of energy. The court can make that point by ruling favorably on the suits asking that the law written with Georgia Power -- not Georgians -- in mind be scrapped.