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Nuclear deal: senate chose savings, jobs, future

nuclear deal

Nuclear deal: Senate chose savings, jobs, future

Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Georgia, like other states in the Southeast, remains in growth mode despite the recession. Over the past decade, the state’s population has swelled by more than 1.7 million, and it is projected to grow by another 1.2 million people over the coming decade. That means greater demand for energy. My nearly 40 years as an environmentalist have shown me that finding cost-effective and environmentally responsible energy sources is challenging. The demand for electricity to meet the needs of our growing population and to power our increasingly digital and connected economy continues to rise. At the same time, high demand for commodities such as steel and cement is driving up costs for building our electric infrastructure. To meet this challenge, Georgia needs to explore all energy alternatives — especially carbon-free nuclear power.

The state Senate has clearly recognized this in approving Senate Bill 31, which would help raise funding necessary to build two reactors at Georgia Power’s Vogtle power plant at a cost of $14 billion. With this approach, costs would be added to electric bills gradually under the oversight of the Public Service Commission. The alternative would be to wait for the plant to be operational, and then hit customers with much higher rates all at once.

This seems like a good solution to a long-standing problem facing all energy infrastructure projects, whether they are nuclear, coal or renewables. Energy bills typically cover construction costs after a project is completed, which means consumers pay for borrowing costs rather than just actual energy. By front-loading some of those construction costs gradually, the proposed law would help pay for the nuclear plant in a more measured way. Like prepaying a mortgage, savings come in the form of interest costs avoided.

This “pay-it-forward” approach is being used in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Mississippi, all of which allow utilities to recover some costs for major construction projects in advance of completion. That policy means lower electricity costs to businesses and households and a more competitive economy. The decision by Georgia’s Senate to emulate that strategy will prevent sharp increases in energy costs. It also shows an awareness that energy costs are a major driver of business-location decisions — and that Georgia is going to compete hard for every job. Importantly, the law makes it more likely that Georgia will reap the rewards of building energy infrastructure projects sooner. Adding two advanced-design reactors at the Vogtle site in Waynesboro will create as many as 3,500 high-paying jobs, either in construction or ongoing operation. This boost to local and state economy would be critical in keeping Georgia on the path of robust growth.

The “pay-it-forward” approach appeals to me because of my background in environmental activism. As a co-founder and former international director of Greenpeace, I saw how leaders in other states and nations delayed much-needed investments in long-term energy projects. Then, when economic demand and population growth quickly surpassed energy supplies, they would lurch to the cheapest, most available forms of energy, often most damaging to our air, water and way of life.

Their argument was they couldn’t afford to wait for long-term projects to come online. We need to think long-term and to pursue clean-energy alternatives like solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear in areas where they can be used. That will require more policy innovation and the kind of leadership shown in Georgia.

Nuclear energy has a proven record of safety and is virtually emission free, as well as a cheaper energy alternative to natural gas on an electricity-production basis. To be sure, building nuclear plants requires significant investment. But this investment is a down payment on Georgia’s future economic growth. Will Georgia invest in its energy supply to keep up with that growth and meet the demands of fresh prosperity while protecting the environment? The decision by Georgia’s Senate suggests it will. That’s something all Georgians can be proud of.

• Patrick Moore is co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, supporting increased use of nuclear energy, and a co-founder of Greenpeace.

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