APN Chat with Steve Oppenheimer, PSC District 3 Democratic Nominee
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale, News Editor.
(APN) ATLANTA — Steve Oppenheimer, Democratic nominee Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) District 3, will be on the General Election ballot this coming November 06, 2012. He faces incumbent Chuck Eaton, a Republican; and Brad Ploeger, a Libertarian.
The present article reviews APN’s interview with Oppenheimer. APN has already interviewed Ploeger and has made numerous requests to Eaton’s campaign for an interview.
The PSC is an extremely important Georgia agency, which regulates the utilities for the State of Georgia. The Commissioners have an enormous impact on the rates we pay for energy, and even more importantly, on our environment.
“The PSC votes when our utilities should be raised and what costs should be passed on. During the recession over the past five years, Georgia Power has raised the utilities twenty-five percent while enjoying a 11.25 percent guaranteed profit,” Oppenheimer said in an interview with Atlanta Progressive News.
“Electing commissioners that represent our citizens as opposed to the regulated utility companies, i.e. Georgia Power, is extremely important because Georgians need proper representation so that the skyrocketing utility rates don’t continue,” Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer is a dentist and small business owner who has been actively involved in the Atlanta community for thirty years. He has led annual campaigns and endowment campaigns for his childrens’ schools and served as Co-chair on a campaign to build a student center at Emory University.
He has worked with the Institute for Analysis for Global Security, has served on the national board of Hillel and national council of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and served as the Task Force Coordinator for the Clean Cities Atlanta program, which has received funding from the US Department of Energy.
DO YOU SUPPORT OR OPPOSE NUCLEAR POWER?
“I believe America has the technology to build and operate safe nuclear plants,” Oppenheimer said.
“Now, that being said, as a regulator right now, if they wanted to propose a nuclear plant, I would say, does it make sense in the marketplace against cheap natural gas, and the answer is no, it’s not,” Oppenheimer said.
When asked whether Georgia’s existing Plant Vogtle is a safe nuclear plant, “I do believe that,” he replied.
However, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) disagreed with that assertion, pointing to a major accident in March of 1990 at Vogtle.
“In March 1990, a truck backed into a power pole in the Vogtle reactor switchyard knocking out power to Unit 1. This set off a chain of scary events resulting in a loss of electrical power at BOTH Vogtle reactors when the emergency diesel generators would not start. A constant electric supply is required to keep water pumping to cool the reactors,” according to the website of Nuclear Watch South.
“The Vogtle 1 reactor core WAS OPEN FOR REFUELING and had the situation persisted fuel would have begun to melt within four to five hours,” the website states.
APN has previously reported on the correlation between the advent of nuclear power plants with higher disease rates, especially among children, in the surrounding areas to the plants. APN has further reported on other problems with nuclear power including radioactive pollution; drawdown of Georgia’s rivers; interference with local water supplies; the waste disposal issue; and safety issues, especially in the wake of the Fukushima accident.
One local anti-nuclear activist said that they and other activists had met with Oppenheimer, and “thought he supported our position.” The activist expressed surprise when told that Oppenheimer stated he believes nuclear power, including at Plant Vogtle, is safe.
“I don’t think we’re gonna be building any more nuclear plants any time soon in Georgia or anywhere else until these plants come in and they can restore faith that these projects can come in on time and on budget,” Oppenheimer noted.
Oppenheimer also stated he is opposed to the Construction Work in Progress (CWIP) funding mechanism, where Georgia Power ratepayers are billed in advance for the cost of constructing two new nuclear reactors at Vogtle.
“The, CWIP, which is a state tax, is unprecedented for nuclear plants. After the elections the nuclear project will be reevaluated because to date they are… overbudget,” Oppenheimer said.
“All companies should be allowed a profit, but in the case of Georgia Power the profits are too excessive. The costs of the nuclear plants are passed on to the ratepayers and in some cases the State, which leaves no cost to Georgia Power. Georgia Power is guaranteed a profit no matter what. In fact, the first billion from the CWIP is profit paid in advance. What kind of company has no construction costs, plus is guaranteed an 11.25 profit on construction? Where is the incentive of keeping costs down?” Oppenheimer said.
WHAT IS YOUR POSITION ON NATURAL GAS
Oppenheimer is a major proponent of natural gas, highlighting it in a Youtube video for his campaign.
“A plant built for natural gas is fifty percent cleaner than a coal plant – the emissions are half… and there is no mercury emissions,” he said.
However, the method of drilling the ground for natural gas–commonly known as fracking–has numerous problems associated with it, including causing the release of methane, which is worse for global warming than carbon dioxide, into the air; and causing the leak of poisons into local water supplies.
When asked about natural gas and fracking and the potential risk of methane leaks, Oppenheimer said “although there is no fracking in Georgia, the utilities will need to have some type of regulations, which are normally done at a federal level.”
However, even if fracking does not occur in Georgia, is Georgia not responsible for the environmental consequences associated with the energy demand it creates?
“You have to realize, this technology really became mainstream in 2009. At this point in time, it’s a fairly new, at the national level it’s not even regulated, it’s regulated by states at this point in time. Fracking recovery will ultimately need to be subject to federal environmental regulations the same way that oil recovery is,” Oppenheimer said.
When asked whether he would premise his support for natural gas upon the enactment of federal regulations, he said, “Yes… We can’t do more harm than good.”
“The regulations state to state are inconsistent, but with any state, they’re complying with what the regulations are. It’s kind of like the Wild West. But the sheriff’s gonna come to town,” Oppenheimer said.
“There’s simply too much money to be made to not make the investment to do it right.”
WHAT IS YOUR PLAN TO INCREASE SOLAR AND WIND ENERGY IN GEORGIA?
Oppenheimer notes that in 2013 the PSC will adopt its new Integrated Resource Plan, which sets out what Georgia Power will do in the next three years to ensure it is on track to meet Georgians’ energy needs.
“This is an important event when the PSC and the utilities talk about their energy plan. They will decide how much coal, solar, wind, or natural gas will be used to service our state. This is important for both our environment plus future jobs for Georgia. In the upcoming months Southern Company will announce the retirement of several coal plants, and during 2013, the future will be decided regarding a replacement,” Oppenheimer said.
“In that resource plan is also the opportunity to address the percentage for renewal energy. Currently there is no target for renewable energy,” in the Plan, Oppenheimer said.
To be sure, the PSC has a “special plan” regarding renewable energy, with a voluntarily amount of 0.347 percent of Georgia’s total energy portfolio, by 2015. That’s a third of one percent.
As previously reported by APN, until recently, Georgia Power’s entire plan to provide solar energy was to allow consumers to elect to spend more money and purchase green energy credits. Georgia Power would only buy solar power that was funded by those credits.
In June 2011, Georgia Power agreed to purchase an additional 50 megawatts of solar energy by 2015, on top of the 4.4 megawatts they are purchasing through the green energy credits.
Then, recently, in late September 2012, Georgia Power filed plans with the PSC to increase this three year target by an additional 210 megawatts. If enacted, this would bring Georgia Power’s renewable energy mix to at least around one percent, according to Oppenheimer.
The PSC is also looking at a competing proposal by a group called Georgia Solar Utility that would lower utility rates, provide competition to Georgia Power, and add two thousand solar megawatts in Georgia. Oppenheimer says he believes Georgians would be better served by a plan that reduces rates.
Oppenheimer says that Georgia Power’s approach on renewable energy has been, “look fellas you don’t need to regulate us on this, we’re gonna do it anyway.”
Oppenheimer declined to commit to a specific renewable energy target for the upcoming Plan. “For renewables, it’s much tougher to come up with a number. I’m gonna say, just to open the discussion, one percent.”
IS IT A TARGET OR A REQUIREMENT?
Oppenheimer declined to support any actual requirement for Georgia Power to provide renewable energy, but expressed optimism that the company would voluntarily achieve the goals established in the Plan.
“I think commissioners should be proactive about what best serves Georgians and within the Integrated Resource Plan, I think the utility company can meet whatever targets they set. I’m not really worried about the consequences [of them not meeting the targets]. You hammer out the plan together… it’s a matter of setting the direction to move in – set incremental goals and move the goals if the goals are met… I think it’s about the carrot and not the stick – the utility has the ability to deliver – they have delivered in other parts of the Southern Company system – so they can deliver here. The carrot is setting goals that are win-win, that while the utility company remains profitable, it’s better serving the people of Georgia with more transparency – I think that’s the carrot, that they become corporate citizens and contributors because as they do that they’re going to create more energy jobs in Georgia.”
Oppenheimer is also concerned with transparency at the PSC and with restoring the Consumer Utility Counsel.
“All books and records are kept secret in the trade secrets rule, so who knows what is actually being charged and for what? The lack of transparency desperately need to be changed. Making decisions is difficult when transparency is nonexistent,” he said.
Oppenheimer wants to bring back the Consumer Utility Counsel. “In 2008, the PSC had a Consumer Utility Council, which included an advocate attorney with a small staff that watched over the utilities but in 2008 because of cost cuts, this was eliminated by Gov. Perdue… Since that has been eliminated, four billion in rate increase has been approved. The money the State saved by eliminating this essential position is peanuts compared to what it cost. We need to reconstitute that position.”
“Gov. Deal also wants more cutbacks within the PSC which is very unfortunate because of all the lawsuits and upcoming hearings regarding cost overruns,” he said.
Oppenheimer also raised the concern that four of of five of the current PSC Commissioners received 70 percent of their campaign funding from regulated utility companies, and his opponent, Mr. Eaton, received 86 percent.
Oppenheimer says the PSC should have their own code of ethics and that he has not accepted any money from regulated utilities.