Echols tries for another term on the PSC

[private]In 2010, Tim Echols was the perceived underdog in a Public Service Commission race where he — a conservative political activist from Bogart who’d never served in elective office — was running against three current or former legislators for an open seat.

Echols won the seat in something of an upset and now finds himself in the position of the entrenched incumbent who’s being challenged by two little-known candidates.

If he can escape Tuesday’s Republican primary with a win, he’s assured of another six-year term on the panel that primarily oversees the operations of Georgia Power Co. and Atlanta Gas Light — no Democrats qualified for the race.

PSC races are low-profile, bottom-of-the-ballot affairs that don’t attract much public attention or money, and this one has been no exception.

Echols has managed to raise the respectable campaign sum of $187,000, some of it from solar power entrepreneurs who hope to get a piece of the state’s growing solar market.

His opponents have not raised quite as much money.

Kellie Pollard Austin, a home-schooled political consultant from Gwinnett County, has raised about $22,000, but $13,000 of that was loaned to her campaign.

Michelle Miller of Warner Robins, who says she is a sustainability policy graduate of Penn State University and a student of renewable energy, has raised $5,456, which includes a $250 contribution from state Sen. Jeff Mullis.  She also loaned her campaign $10,000.

Echols has been a major supporter of both solar power and nuclear power during his term on the commission, particularly the two nuclear reactors Georgia Power is building at Plant Vogtle.

The Vogtle project could also be Echols’ biggest vulnerability in this race.

Georgia Power is already $1.7 billion over budget and 39 months behind schedule in bringing the two reactors online.  The commission must decide how much of that cost increase was “prudent” and can be passed along to Georgia Power’s customers, or whether it will have to absorbed by the utility’s shareholders.

So far, the commissioners haven’t required Georgia Power to eat any of the cost overruns.  When the three candidates held their Atlanta Press Club debate, neither Miller nor Austin tried to pin down Echols down on whether he would hold Georgia Power accountable for this.

When one of the debate panelists did ask Echols about the responsibility for the Vogtle cost increases, Echols danced around the question without really answering it.

“How can we make a prudency decision on this nuclear power plant at this point when the reactors aren’t working?” Echols said.

“I favor waiting until the reactors are working, which was the original agreement we had with Georgia Power, and then looking at each and every cost to determine if it’s prudent or if it’s not,” he added.

Left unsaid was the fact that the Vogtle reactors won’t be operational until 2019 or 2020 at the earliest, which would be more than halfway through Echols’ second term if he is reelected this year.

Neither Miller nor Austin mention the Vogtle cost overruns on their campaign websites, even though that is the one issue facing the PSC over the next few years that could have the biggest impact on customer bills.

Austin does support more widespread deployment of biomass generation facilities.

“The PSC in Georgia has fallen behind the private sector in this arena,” Austin says on her website. “I will work to bring biomass energy producers together with the businesses of Georgia who are producing the raw materials to create additional financial opportunities across the state.”

Miller favors an educational approach to energy efficiency.

“Once elected, I would create an energy savings initiative within each county,” she said. “I would establish partnerships with businesses, power providers, and government officials, so that every resident can be a well-informed consumer.”

© 2016 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Kellie Austin , Michelle Miller , PSC , Tim Echols , Vogtle nuclear project