Incumbent Chuck Eaton is facing his first re-election as he winds up his initial six-year term. He’s being challenged by Democrat Stephen Oppenheimer, a retired dentist who’s the top money raiser, and Libertarian Brad Ploeger, a software consultant who also happens to be one of the first openly gay candidates for statewide office.
On the issues, the trio also differs.
Take the construction of two reactors to double the size of Plant Vogtle, the nation’s first commercial nuclear project in three decades. The challengers oppose a plan Eaton approved to require Georgia Power customers to pay the financing costs before generation begins.
The challengers also say the commission should act to minimize cost overruns projected by its hired monitor.
“You have to have strong oversight from the commission and really ask the tough questions,” said Ploeger.
Oppenheimer said the PSC should take action now, but he didn’t say exactly what, considering Georgia Power has filed suit over some of the possible overruns and if the company could prevail, they’ll disappear.
Both challengers favor a concept the commission rejected that would limit the profits Georgia Power could earn on any portion over budget.
Eaton notes that the commission reviews Vogtle expenses every six months, none of which have been over budget so far. And the profit-reduction proposal, called a risk-sharing mechanism by its supporters, is less stringent than the current policy of prohibiting the company from earning any profits or charging customers one penny for wasteful construction spending.
“The last thing we want to put in place is a model that incentivizes the project manager to make changes that would raise costs or compromise safety over the life of the project,” he said.
Solar power is another area of divergence. The incumbent trumpets his efforts encouraging Georgia Power to seek contracts from independent, solar companies as a replacement for biomass generation that fell through, a proposal that would triple the company’s solar capability.
Oppenheimer calls Eaton’s work proof of a battlefield conversion motivated by politics instead of a commitment to the environment. Instead, the Democrat favors another company’s plan to compete with Georgia Power by selling solar power directly to retail customers.
“I think this is a real litmus test here because in other states that have aggressively employed solar, like Arizona and North Carolina, they are seeing that utility rates are not increasing at the rate that they’re increasing here in Georgia,” he said.
Ploeger also likes that idea, arguing that competition would make Georgia Power more efficient. He would also impose a target for the company to increase efficiency by 10 percent over the next 15 years.
Oppenheimer would set the target at 1-2 percent.
“I think that we should create some target percentages for renewable energy as well,” he said.
Another difference between the challengers and the incumbent is Eaton’s acceptance of campaign contributions from executives and lawyers with the companies the PSC regulates.
“While legal, it is still unethical,” Ploeger said.