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Incumbent Republican wins runoff for Ga. utility commission seat

An incumbent Republican won a third term to the Georgia Public Service Commission, dispatching his Democratic challenger in a runoff election that saw heated debate over the troubled Vogtle nuclear plant expansion and a last-minute influx of $1 million from the nuclear industry.

With all counties and precincts reporting, the Georgia secretary of state's office logged GOP Commissioner Chuck Eaton as the winner of the Dec. 4 runoff, earning 51.83% of the vote, a nearly 53,000-ballot margin over Democrat Lindy Miller, a former Deloitte executive and solar entrepreneur. While the results have not been certified and may not include every absentee or provisional ballot, it is unlikely that the outcome will change.

During the Nov. 6 general election, Eaton failed to secure more than 50% of the vote, triggering the runoff. It was the second runoff of his PSC tenure.

"It looks like we have won the election. Thanks to the voters of Georgia for honoring me with another term," Eaton wrote in a late-night tweet Dec. 4, adding that he looks forward to working with incoming Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

SNL Image

Commissioner Chuck Eaton
Source: GPB

The runoff attracted both state and national attention as the PSC oversees construction of the country's only new nuclear reactors, which are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Georgia Power Co., the lead owner of the Vogtle project, has enjoyed reliable regulatory support for the past 11 years from Peach State commissioners, all of whom have been Republicans. And while Miller pledged to work with her GOP colleagues if elected, she also promised to take a more skeptical approach to the Southern Co. subsidiary on Vogtle matters.

"Vogtle is now one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in the history of the country, and Chuck Eaton was chairman when the project began [in 2009], and failed utterly to put in place any meaningful incentives," Miller said in an October interview. "In my experience in the business world, the folks who are accountable for a colossal mess like this would've been fired."

Commissioner Tim Echols tweeted the day before the runoff that "this election could ultimately decide if the nuclear plant is shuttered."

The nuclear industry seemed to share this sentiment, with the advocacy arm of the Nuclear Energy Institute sending $1 million to a Georgia political entity that spent the cash on advertising, polling and consulting on behalf of Eaton, who has cast key pro-Vogtle votes for Georgia Power.

Stan Wise, who retired as the PSC's chairman two months after voting to approve the venture's continued construction, is now on the advisory council of the Nuclear Energy Institute's Nuclear Matters group, the organization that made contributions of $750,000 and $250,000 to the Eaton-supporting Georgians For a Brighter Future committee, according to filings with the state's Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Although supportive of nuclear power, Wise said in a February interview with Atlanta's NPR station that he "wouldn't bet my house" on Vogtle units 3 and 4 being completed by their current in-service dates of November 2021 and November 2022.

SNL Image

Democrat Lindy Miller
Source: GPB

Miller during a Nov. 27 debate characterized the money as "an attempt to buy the election." At the same event, Eaton said he was not inclined to endorse continued PSC-approved incentives for rooftop solar, electric vehicles and energy efficiency, while Miller declared her support for those initiatives.

At a Dec. 5 press conference, Miller said she called Eaton earlier that day to congratulate him on his victory and offered to help him promote efficiency and renewables.

Speaking to her supporters, Miller said, "Together, we've shown that this is a seat about justice, about equity, about opportunity, about bringing the best ideas to Georgia, not just the ones that benefit special interests."

The PSC will hear testimony Dec. 18 from state analysts who recently characterized Vogtle's status as "uncertain." Commissioners will vote in February 2019 on whether to approve Georgia Power's most recent spending on the project. Later in 2019, the PSC will review the utility's request to update customer rates and will evaluate its 20-year integrated resource plan.

Vogtle is also owned by Oglethorpe Power Corp., MEAG Power and Dalton Utilities.