Ep 398: Tim Echols - Commissioner, Georgia Public Service Commission
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:05:20] I'm pleased to have Tim Echols, Commissioner of the Georgia Public Service Commission here with us today on Titans of Nuclear. Tim, it is an honor to have you on the podcast.
Tim Echols [00:05:28] Yeah, thanks for all you guys do to keep awareness high on this very important energy source around the world.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:05:35] Absolutely. Obviously, I'd love to dive into the fantastic work specifically around nuclear that you've been doing on the Commission for the past several years, but I'd actually like to start earlier. How did you start getting into energy and when did you first really start to think about nuclear as a critical energy source?
Tim Echols [00:05:53] Well, I spent my 20s and 30s building a nonprofit before I even ran for office. So, I ran for office in 2010. Vogtle had been approved in '09 and the legislature had changed the financing mechanism to be able to collect the interest in advance. They had done that in '08, so that was critical to Plant Vogtle really getting a chance in Georgia, Units 3 and 4, of course. I think originally Vogtle had been planned as a six-unit site, way back in the day when Units 1 and 2 were conceived back in the '80s, completed in '87 and '89.
Tim Echols [00:06:37] But this seat opened up on the Public Service Commission, and while I didn't know a ton about energy at the time, I'd had this goal to be a statewide elected official all of my adult life and there just had not been an opportunity. We had seven children, I had been building this nonprofit. When the opportunity finally came available, I ran for the seat. I had three other Republicans running against me and defeated those guys and then won the general election. And I've been in the seat ever since.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:07:19] So, maybe we could explain what the Public Service Commission does in Georgia. I mean, it's much more than just what you think of as traditional energy infrastructure, as I now understand. What did you think it was going in? You're kind of a regulator for utilities and critical infrastructure, but what does that actually mean in practice? What is the overall scope and remit of the PUC?
Tim Echols [00:07:43] Most of these PUCs and PSCs came about during the railroad era in America, when monopolies had a lot of power, these train companies that could build segments of track. And as these companies grew in stature and as rail became such an important aspect of American life, both financial and social... I mean, it was everything. There were no cars, so I mean, it was going from horses then to rail. These companies began to misbehave. Maybe they were charging too much in the fare box or they weren't treating freight, fruit, agricultural products properly. And these companies wound up getting regulated first by the state and then by the feds. And once the agency was created, at least in Georgia, then the legislature began to hand the Public Service Commission other things to do. Telegraphs came along, telephone, gas line, electrical, call before you dig, transportation. So, the agency just began to acquire other duties.
Tim Echols [00:09:01] And what remains with us now is regulating utilities, which have a monopoly, if you will. Georgia Power, in our case, and Atlanta Gas Light, we regulate those companies. And then small telephone companies that were created in 1910, '11, and '12 when the big phone company, the Bells, if you will, wouldn't go into the rural areas. So, small phone companies were created in counties. Very rudimentary phone systems, and those phone companies still exist today and they are in high cost-to-serve areas. So, they still receive a little bit of a subsidy and we control that subsidy.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:09:49] Fantastic. So, you had been working in the nonprofit space in your work for quite a long time and decided you wanted to become an electric official, and jumped into what sounds like a really important agency in the state, being a regulator for not just big energy projects like the nuclear power plants, but also all of this infrastructure. It sounds like you and some other commissioners have really done a fantastic role of focusing on nuclear and focusing on critical infrastructure and really seeing it through. Can you talk to me about what the state of Vogtle was when you first joined and those early years?
Tim Echols [00:10:33] Yeah, it was just a pile of dirt. Or, in this case, a hole with a pile of dirt. So in 2010, when I got elected, nothing had been built. Westinghouse had really pitched the AP-1000 design as something that was more modular, easier to build, assemble pieces of the module at one place, transport them. But then Fukushima happened. And when that Japanese accident happened, really it was devastating because so many states in America said, "Well, we think we will reconsider our nuclear plans."
Tim Echols [00:11:17] Georgia, South Carolina, and a few other states said, "No, we're going to continue on." And eventually, it was just us and South Carolina building the AP-1000s. And then, another six years go by and the contractor's bleeding cash. I mean, Toshiba had written down, I think, $5 billion. We had gone from Shaw to Chicago Bridge & Iron to Westinghouse. Obviously, we were struggling. We were having overruns really from the beginning.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:11:55] Let me actually ask you a little bit more about that beginning stage in 2011 with the Fukushima accident. Up until then, first we'd seen what was called the nuclear renaissance. This is when utilities across the country, as you mentioned, started really considering nuclear energy as their next big project. And as you say, after Fukushima, but also, I think in the face of other issues around natural gas becoming cheaper, more focus on other types of renewable technologies coming into the market... Not as prominent maybe back then, but starting to get their hold.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:12:36] And so, it sounds like there were some really tough decisions even then, after the Fukushima incident, that the Georgia Public Utility Commission, as well as, obviously, Southern and Westinghouse and South Carolina had to make. Why then did you all decide to stick with it, given the perceptions that I think were caused by the Fukushima accident, but also seeing the forecast of energy in America shifting? Even though probably wasn't that clear looking back the, but what was going through your mind over that six year period after Fukushima until you were just getting up to?
Tim Echols [00:13:12] We were $5 billion into the project. That was one. We didn't want to strand all that money. And to Southern Company and Southern Nuclear's credit, they really had a a will to do this project. I think if they had wavered or if they had come to us and said, "Let's just take the tax write off. We just don't think we can make it," I think we would have been more likely to end the project. But they really had their back up, so to speak, in wanting to complete this, that they could do it. And I mean, maybe part of it is being a Southerner and feeling like folks from New York and California and others look down at us that, "Hey, we can do something they can't do." I know for me, Southern pride was part of this.
Tim Echols [00:14:05] But we also realized that our long-term planning through our integrated resource planning process told us we were going to need the energy. And we had a possible penalty payment that Toshiba was going to make, which they did make. And we felt like in the end, with all of the possible carbon regulation coming out of Washington and all the things, there were so many variables that could have negatively impacted us way off in the future and we just felt like finishing the plant was the best use of ratepayers' money and the best overall long-term strategy for the state of Georgia.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:14:50] That's amazing. I definitely identify with the Southern pride bit. I'm from Alabama, so I don't know where you went to undergrad, but Roll Tide for me. I mean, I think that the perseverance and the dedication is really fascinating. I think a lot of times people focus on the economic story, which obviously, it's a big throughline in the story because that's mostly what's being weighed, but the clean energy and future-proofing side is also really important.
Tim Echols [00:15:20] And remember, South Carolina had one-third of the customers that we had. So in their defense, they had to spread out the cost over a smaller group of people. So, it was going to have a greater rate impact. And it's unfortunate, I think, that they canceled their project. All seven of those commissioners wound up losing their jobs. The entire state was downgraded by Moody's. Obviously, SCANA then was acquired by Dominion.
Tim Echols [00:15:52] I remember my colleague Stan Wise leaning over to me during all these proceedings and he said, "There's only one thing worse than this thing going way over budget the way it is." I said, "What?" He said, "That's canceling it." And so, we were just determined not to give up on this project.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:16:15] That's around, I think, you said six years. This is around 2017, 2018, when the decision was made in South Carolina and you guys decided to persist. You won the Nuclear Trailblazer Award from the US NIC by David Blee that year for your persistence. Can you talk to me about that and and how the nuclear community really started to really rally around what you guys were doing?
Tim Echols [00:16:37] When I met David Blee in 2011, my very first year, he kind of adopted me. He's passed now, but he was a very blunt guy. But he took me all over the world. He got me to go to the World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris. He took me up to Normandy to see reprocessing and then down in southern France to see the fuel fabrication, the MOX fuel fabrication facility. He would have me come and speak at all of these different things.
Tim Echols [00:17:08] So in some ways, Blee kind of tutored me in my nuclear knowledge. And obviously, we were building a plant he wanted us to finish. And so, he recognized that, "Hey, I need to invest in Tim Echols because he's one of five votes on a Commission that will either give up on nuclear energy or keep it going." That award that he gave me... And we were at the Presidential Library, the Bush Library in Texas when he presented that to me, I guess at Texas A&M. I just really appreciate the investment he made in my life.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:17:53] Yeah, he certainly was a force of nature. I really love how much he truly invested in you. I mean, I also had the privilege of knowing him later in his life, on my very first day working for this organization, actually. He spent time introducing me to the nuclear sector. And I think it's just really important to have people, to have titans like him and like you to really shepherd in that next generation, but also to give confidence and support to those who are truly the decision makers and the gatekeepers for this industry.
Tim Echols [00:18:32] I've been saying to everyone for the last dozen years that Georgia's completing this project is so important for other commissioners who have the ability to approve probably SMRs in their state going forward. That if Georgia finishes it and we get a lot of affirmation federally from the White House down, then there's a greater chance that other states will follow. And I think the converse is true. Had we given up and commissioners are looking in South Carolina, they're looking in Georgia, "Oh, those projects didn't work. We don't want to go there. We don't want to take a chance." I just felt that the entire industry had a lot riding on the completion of Vogtle.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:19:26] That's very astute. I think there are a lot of lessons, though, that can be learned. And I think that you bring up... You know, SMRs is really smart, right? I mean, this was a major construction project. It did go years over time and it also went very, very overbudget. But it was completed. And I've even spoken to colleagues who were closer to the engineering of the project. They're they've learned so many lessons in design and construction techniques for large plants going forward, but also for the next generation of small plants. The things that were most critical for those cost and budgetary overruns are now being designed out of the next generation of designs. And I think that's also super critical.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:20:12] I think it's too naive to say, "Oh, well, this one didn't go perfectly." It's not like we're going to copy and paste that exact experience. We're always learning by doing. And if we don't do, then we never learn. I think that's just such a critical lesson. How have the conversations been like maybe throughout this process, actually? Not just now that we're nearing the actual end, but throughout the whole process with your fellow commissioners, not from Georgia, but across the states. Do you interact with them and share best practices?
Tim Echols [00:20:46] Yes, we do at our NARUC meetings three times a year. And of course, the best practice I think we had throughout this was the construction monitoring hearings that we did twice a year. And those monitoring hearings gave us a chance to put utility executives under oath twice per year to get the truth as to what was happening. We could ask any questions. We had our own monitor at the plant. We had our own consulting group at the plant. And it just made sure that we were up to speed so that if we did want to do something like cancel the plant, we had all the data that we needed to do that. And so, we continue the monitoring hearings today.
Tim Echols [00:21:34] Essentially, at the end of every monitoring hearing, we made a vote on whether or not all of the expenses that were spent during that six month period had been spent. We essentially did a tiny financial piece twice a year along and along, because these are mammothly expensive projects, so that we didn't lose the institutional knowledge. Because I mean, three of my commissioners that are on with me now weren't there when Vogtle was started. It's only Commissioner McDonnell and I that are still here. So, I think that's one of the most important things that we've shared with fellow NARUC commissioners.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:22:21] What kind of KPIs or specific metrics were you guys checking at each of these regular intervals?
Tim Echols [00:22:28] We had a critical path. Things that were on the critical path... And that would change. So, for a while it was the modules, the construction of the modules. Then it became the rebar. And then it became...Whatever was behind at the time.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:22:49] Yeah, the priority.
Tim Echols [00:22:50] Yeah, that needed to get done. And we were able to dig in. "Okay, why are these modules coming to us out of spec? How did we miss those those welding audits on those modules?" So, we were really able to identify the real culprits of what was causing the plant to be behind.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:23:16] In real time, it sounds like.
Tim Echols [00:23:18] Yeah. So, we had about a six month lag, but we were always getting updates from our monitor in real time. I felt like the financial accountability... And we are the financial regulator. I felt like that has gone really well. I liked that process. If we were going to do something like that again, I would do the same thing with the monitoring.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:23:44] Yeah. And all of that information, as you said, those are some of the best practices that you established. How was that information shared back to you? I mean, obviously, it came from the constructors, but how did you essentially give them direction post those hearings to address the issues that you saw?
Tim Echols [00:24:07] Well, Southern Nuclear would have their executives on the stand and they would under oath tell us, "We plan to go back and do this and that." So, there was a lot of sunlight shining on this process. These were open to the public. And so, those executives would tell us the remedies that they were planning on making. And remember, our original contract for the project was a fixed and firm contract. We had only about $2 billion worth of exposure in this and above that $2 billion band, the contractor was responsible for all overruns. And that's why you saw Toshiba write down $5 billion. It was only after the bankruptcy that the contract was null and void that we had to renegotiate a contract with Bechtel that was time plus materials.
Tim Echols [00:25:05] Had we been able to keep our original contract and keep the deal together, we wouldn't have the financial issues that we're having. And that's what I tell my ratepayers in Georgia. Look, no one could anticipate Toshiba bankrupting the Westinghouse LLC in America. That's really what caused the greatest financial stress on this project. And the only way Toshiba could get out of it was to use bankruptcy. And my ratepayers, unfortunately, were the victims of that.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:25:40] What has that been like? I mean, you're the elected official that's speaking with ratepayers and constituents on a daily basis. What's been the mood from them throughout the process? And then, maybe now as these units are actually being commissioned, how has that started to change?
Tim Echols [00:26:01] I think most people thought the charge on their bill was for the plan itself, but it was only for the interest. So people, as they looked at their bill, the two or three or four dollars that they were being charged was pre-paying the interest. And there's a lot of wisdom to getting that interest out of the way because it does compound. But once we finish Unit 3, rates will jump about 4%, and then Unit 4 will jump probably another 3%. So, there's going to be some pain on this in the future. But I think once it's built and Georgia's getting a lot of accolades, I think Southern pride is going to kick in and people are going to feel like, "You know what? We did something these other folks couldn't do and we're doing the best we can." I think we'll get some forgiveness on this, but clearly, Georgia ratepayers have been the tip of the spear for this first of a kind project in America. And I don't know that I would want to do that again.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:27:09] Yeah. I wonder, when you say they'll be kind of the silver lining, they'll begin to understand just the importance of their role in this, what messages actually seem to resonate most? Is it clean energy? Is it just having a clean environment? Is it that pride of the technology prowess that comes with being the only state to have a new nuclear plant? What seems to resonate with your constituents?
Tim Echols [00:27:39] I think at the end of the day, most ratepayers are concerned about the amount of money they're paying on their bills. So in the end, this will be the cheapest power that we have at some point. It is going to make our grid more efficient, it's going to save us money. I'm always leading with that. We know that harsher federal regulations probably will come regarding carbon and CO2. This is kind of a hedge against that. I talk about the closure of coal plant and gas plants and how you have to have baseload energy somewhere. We love solar and we've got a lot of it, but you can't run the grid on it. So, it's kind of a combination of things.
Tim Echols [00:28:29] And then when you look at the growing electric car market, particularly in Georgia, the Kia EV9 was just announced that it was going to be built in Georgia. The Telluride electric version that will be built in Georgia. You've got the Hyundai plant, the Rivian plant. We've got all these electric car batteries being built.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:28:50] All of those auto manufacturers require baseload energy, right? And to charge your car, you have to have good clean energy on the grid.
Tim Echols [00:28:57] Exactly. And so, Vogtle is going to provide power. You can look at it like this, it's going to provide power for a million homes in Georgia. That's about a tenth of our state, so that's pretty strong.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:29:13] So, bring me to the last few years of the project. Where are we at today with the status of Vogtle?
Tim Echols [00:29:23] Well, it's nice when you're building a house or whatever and you're starting to... You've dried it in, you've got the roof, you're starting to put cabinets in and you start to realize this is a house and it's going to happen. And so, that's the way it's been with Vogtle. We got the top, we put the tops on, we've began to get everything in shape. We've began to finish up certain buildings. So, I think the excitement around everything coming together... And of course, Unit 3's completely done and putting power on the grid now. We haven't put it in commercial operation, but we're going to very shortly. And Unit 4 looks the same. So, it really looks like a finished plant, and that's very exciting.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:30:11] Have you personally gotten to go on to the site and see some of these big moments like putting on the top of the containment? What have those been like? What's been the coolest thing you've gotten to see in this project?
Tim Echols [00:30:22] Yeah, I think the coolest thing was putting the top on because it was such a heavy lift. But then I got to go in during fuel load and see them putting those fuel assemblies down into the reactor. And watching them do that from up top, that was exciting. Because I've been to the Columbia, South Carolina plant where they make those fuel assemblies and those are the assemblies that we're using. And so, getting to see all that, it's just been very exciting.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:30:51] That's awesome. Just like David Blee took you around and showed you some of the coolest parts of nuclear, are you or others in Georgia thinking about how Vogtle can be the same inspiration for the next generation of youth? Is there interest by local schools to go do tours, the colleges? How is the community getting involved?
Tim Echols [00:31:17] Yeah, I've lined up a tour for the University of Georgia environmental law class; they're going. I did University of North Georgia. I'm constantly lining up tours for people to go. Of course, all the school kids from an hour around the plant, that's a go-to field trip once a year for certain science classes. And then, our Southern commissioners are coming out this September to see the plant. I have no doubt that the Department of Energy will have their highest-level staff down for the ribbon cutting. I'm hoping President Biden actually might come down as well. I'm sure he'll mention it. I mean, it's really been something that's enjoyed bipartisan support. I really attribute the reason for that to our union labor force.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:32:18] Tell me more about that.
Tim Echols [00:32:20] So, if you've got 8,000 union workers out there... I mean, the Republicans had been behind this all the way, but 8,000 union workers inoculate this against Democratic criticism. You didn't hear Stacey Abrams, when she ran against Governor Kemp the first time or the second time, criticize the plant. You didn't hear President Biden criticize the plant. It just enjoys a lot of bipartisan support from the top all the way to the bottom.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:32:53] Absolutely. I mean, it is the flagship nuclear project in the United States. And certainly, sitting here in Washington, D.C., I think if there is any truly bipartisan issue, it is nuclear. It brings people together for so many reasons. If you care about national security, if you care about climate change, you care about clean energy, you care about jobs, if you care about just everything. It's a fantastic technology that oddly brings people together. And it's so cool to be able to be part of that industry and to share the stories about this technology. And for you to be one of the people who've been really instrumental in making that happen and making it an American story. I definitely hope that in addition to Granholm and higher levels of DOE that President Biden makes it down there. I think that would just be absolutely fantastic to see.
Tim Echols [00:33:52] Yeah, I think that ribbon cutting is going to be quite the story. And I think a lot will be forgiven on that day. I think America takes a lot of pride in American ingenuity and there are going to be many other states, with all the tax money available for small modular reactors, that I think will see that we can't close coal plants and not replace it with something. And the most logical thing to do is SMRs.
Tim Echols [00:34:23] I just feel like... And we're going to talk about this at the NARUC meeting in Austin... That military bases probably should be our top priority for these. The military has a very strong resiliency goal of being able to be off the grid for 21 days. And if you're going to be off the grid for 21 days, I think you're pretty much going to have to have a microgrid with an SMR as a part of that. I think if we perfected these from a price standpoint on military bases with the federal government kind of backstopping the cost, then after we've built 10 or 15 reactors, I think we'll have it down to a science. We will be able to know for sure that this reactor is going to cost you $10 billion or $8 billion or $6 billion or whatever the cost is going to be. And I just feel like after going through this with Georgia, I just don't think a state, one state or two states should have to bear the brunt of the finances of perfecting something.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:35:40] Yeah, of kind of the innovation cycle. That's very wise. I mean, I think a big government customer like that, they can put the resource and the attention in, is absolutely an obvious area where we could be matching up the interests of speeding up that innovation cycle from the nuclear technology provider side, but also helping to increase our national security and meet all these other objectives that we have.
Tim Echols [00:36:09] Think about the internet, think about GPS technology. All of that was run and tested by the government, and in some cases the military. And then it was put out to the commercial market. So, I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. Hopefully, the federal government will see that and realize that this is the way it needs to go.
Tim Echols [00:36:40] Jigar Shah, who is a very smart guy and he and I are very good friends and he runs the DOE loan office. I've told him multiple times, "Look, I know you've got some great incentives, but the greatest of incentives can be undone with a first of a kind project that has some snafus." And we've personally experienced that. And I'm definitely not going to do that again without some backstops. And we're ready. We've got a piece of land on the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama line below Fort Benning. We've spent $49 million on site work to determine if it can handle a nuclear reactor. It's passed. So, we have the site. I'm just not going to vote to put one there without some cost assurances. So, no amount of incentive is going to work for me. It's got to be a federal backstop that says, "You will not have to spend more than 'X' billion dollars to do it."
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:37:49] Talk to me a little bit about Georgia's overall energy mix once both the fourth unit comes online as well in terms of getting off of coal and natural gas and trying to replace all of that baseload eventually with clean nuclear. And then of course, I'm sure there's an increasing amount of renewables coming online continuing to create intermittency issues maybe for the grid, so maybe you're looking more at batteries as well. Do you think there's a pretty big market then for SMRs to fill in the remaining gap of coal and natural gas?
Tim Echols [00:38:22] Yeah, we're looking at 2038 as probably closing our last Georgia Power owned coal plant. And the cities that run their own utilities, that's a whole 'nother story. They are anticipating really not being able to get off that coal until after 2050. But Georgia Power is looking at being able to do that by 2038. I'm just looking at a graph here of what our mix will be in 2030. So, we anticipate solar and storage being about a third, 34%. Nuclear being about 13%. Natural gas being another third, 33%. Coal down to 8%, and then the rest, biomass, hydro, a little wind that we have out in Oklahoma, some oil. So, solar and storage and gas. Those are going to be the two big ones by 2030. And then if we are able to close those coal plants, '38, then you're going to see, I think, a bigger swath of solar.
Tim Echols [00:39:45] But Georgia is really not carbon-centric in our decision making. I think we are reliability-centric, then cost, then carbon is kind of how I describe it, at least with the current composition of the Commission. Obviously, if I lose my election and Fitz loses and Tricia loses next year to Democratic challengers, then I think all that goes out the window. I think there's going to be kind of a different philosophy of running the Commission if we lose our elections over the next year and a half.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:40:22] And so, you guys are obviously also looking at those other technologies. Can you talk to me about what it's been like thinking about that energy mix and some of the role the Commission has in those regulations, specifically around incentivizing renewables?
Tim Echols [00:40:41] I think the approach that we started taking in 2013 with utility-scale solar was we agreed as a Commission that we weren't going to subsidize it. That it had to be below the avoided cost of energy was probably the best decision that we made through the process. And we've held to that, and that has allowed us to essentially benefit every ratepayer on the system because all of this utility-scale solar... And we'll be fourth in the nation with it by next year... All of it below the avoided cost of energy. So, the way we've done solar... While the rooftop people have really criticized us for... And I have rooftop solar myself... But the rooftop folks would, I think, have preferred to see us grow it like California did with more rooftops, and we've opted to do it more in fields, big fields of 200, 500, 1,000 acres. And when you build solar...
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:41:40] What was the rationale for that decision? I wasn't really realizing there was so much of a decision behind which direction to go or if it was just kind of a mix based on preference of the homeowner. So, how does the Commission actually shape where it's deployed with the utilities? What is the difference between the way that Georgia has done it and the way that California has done it?
Tim Echols [00:43:14] For us, it was money. Solar wasn't in infancy in 2013 because Germany really began their Energiewende program in 2000. And I'd gone to Germany, Commissioner McDonnell had gone. We had looked at a lot of different models. And we wanted to use this model because we felt like we wouldn't get to a place where we had to claw back some of this or where our ratepayers...
Tim Echols [00:43:43] And Germany was in a difficult place by 2012 where they were locked into very high dollar contracts, about €43 cents per kilowatt from the beginning of their energy Energiewende program. We just felt like we don't want to go there. We need this to work over the long haul. And we felt like it would also be something that Republicans in Georgia would accept. And they, in fact, did. And the program's just continued to grow. And it's really a fantastic source of energy at a cheap cost that we've been able to acquire.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:44:31] I assume this is also under Georgia Power. What are you looking forward to with just the overall clean energy portfolio of the utility? And I know you said that's not really how you guys think about the decision making. You think about it more about cost-efficiency and what's best for the ratepayer. But when you do kind of think about that clean energy portfolio, are there specific ways that you do incentivize the utility to move more towards clean energy, nuclear, geothermal, solar, wind, than coal and natural gas?
Tim Echols [00:45:05] We didn't want the utility building this themselves. So, all of these are power purchase agreements built by private developers and on a Georgia landowner's land that's usually being leased. So, that model has been great. The utility gets an additional sum, we call it, about a 10% cut of all that. So, that kind of takes the place of it going into their rate base like say, Plant Vogtle will, where they'll then draw their full ROE that we approve every three years.
Tim Echols [00:45:46] Having a model that assures us of being below avoided cost that we can then scale up, continue to scale up. That helps Georgia have a more balanced grid. I mean, the Southern Company, they're out there messaging to their stakeholders about being net zero by 2050, and they're doing that. But as I kid Tom Fanning and some of the others, "Hey, you don't have a seat on the Public Service Commission. You don't really get a vote in this." And that would have been a smartaleck comment before 1991, but when the Georgia legislature created the Integrated Resource Planning Process, the state via our agency gets to pre-certify everything they do.
Tim Echols [00:46:42] Before '91, we didn't pre-certify and the utility could do whatever they wanted to. Then they just came to us after the fact and asked for a recovery. They either got it or they didn't; sometimes they didn't. But this compact that we have now, the reason it's so good, the reason it's never been amended is because the utility gets their projects in rate recovery and the state gets a say in what's done. And because we're elected statewide, I think the overall process reflects Georgia. Not every person in Georgia; I have plenty of Democratic constituents who love rooftop and wish we didn't have a nuclear power plant. But I would say overall, our energy mix reflects our people and they're happy with it. They're happy with our hedging approach, having a kind of an all of the above approach with energy sources and not going all in on one particular thing.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:47:52] Fascinating. When you think to the future... I mean, you've already talked about how you're sharing the wisdom and the knowledge around Vogtle, how you're trying to influence and teach people in government to learn from the lessons that you guys have learned and really set up policies and programs to inspire the next round of nuclear projects. What does the future look like for you and how you personally want to take this forward?
Tim Echols [00:48:29] Obviously, I've got a reelection that's going to be approved by the courts at some point in some way. This is another whole controversial thing going on at the time of our recording. My election was delayed due to a lawsuit. And so, we're waiting for the courts to tell us if I run by district or if I run statewide as I've been running. So, we'll see what happens there. If I do survive and stay on the Commission, one of the things that I want us to do right is EV charging, both from a fleet, individual, highway... I'm very involved with this.
Tim Echols [00:49:09] And then, I'm also co-chairing a hydrogen energy brain trust with our US senator because I do think while hydrogen has been talked about for many, many years, with all of the federal incentives and the opportunity at a plant like Vogtle being able to create green hydrogen and that green hydrogen being worth more than another color hydrogen, I want us to continue to make these technology advancements. And that's kind of part of my brand with innovation technology. With all my educational events that I do, I want to just continue to grow innovation and technology. And eventually, I want to see SMRs in Georgia. I hope that I'm on the Commission when we are able to do that, I just can't predict the future.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:50:08] Well, it's fascinating. You've been talking about education, so I know you do have a podcast of your own. I would love to dig more into the work, especially what you're doing with batteries and EV charging in particular. When I drive through the South, I just wish that I could drive an electric car, but we just aren't there yet. But I'd love to see it. So, can you tell our listeners more about the podcast and if there are particular episodes around nuclear, around EVs that you think they can do a deeper dive in on what's going on in Georgia?
Tim Echols [00:50:39] I think we are at 217 episodes this week. We've had 700 of the brightest energy stars come through our studios. My podcast is actually done on terrestrial radio. It's produced by Cox Media. It goes out first to stations in Georgia and then it hits podcast platforms later. So, it's embedded with commercials and everything like that. So, folks can find it at Energy Matters with Commissioner Echols. Energy Matters with Commissioner Echols. We've got episodes on any and everything as it relates to energy and technology. So, you'll have a lot on EVs and solar and biomass, nuclear of course, natural gas, renewable natural gas. We do everything.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:51:30] Wow. That sounds like a really great resource. And I think having more perspectives of people like yourselves on how these projects actually can go from ideas to, as you said, the house is built, is really, really important for capturing all of those key learnings and really, I think, inspiring people that it can be done and that it can be done in their hometown as well. I think that's just so critical. Are there any other things you'd like to share with our listeners before we wrap up?
Tim Echols [00:52:02] Yeah, I know that solar has been mostly accepted by my Republican colleagues around the US, but electric vehicles are a sticking point, I think, for many Republicans. I've had six electric vehicles, and I'm really keen on using this advanced technology. So, if you haven't driven an EV yet, you should go and borrow one from a friend. I'm loaning my EV out right now to different elected officials. I give it to them for a month at a time with a free charge card. It doesn't cost them anything to drive my car because I'm wanting them to experience range anxiety. I'm wanting them to come up to a charger that's not working. I'm wanting them to have to plan out their route. I'm wanting them to have to think about parking in a different way. Because if you're going to make policy about something, it's good to know something about it. And so, I'm wanting these policymakers to experience it. So, that's one of the big things that I'm working on right now. And obviously, finishing up Plant Vogtle and the ensuing celebration over that. It's going to be fantastic.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:53:21] Well, amazing. And thank you so much, Tim. It's been such a pleasure to have you on. Tim Echols, Commissioner of the Georgia Public Service Commission, doing amazing things in nuclear and certainly a trailblazer, and now a Titan of Nuclear. Thank you so much, Tim.
Tim Echols [00:53:35] Follow me on Twitter @TimEchols and subscribe to the podcast Energy Matters with Commissioner Echols. Thank you.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:53:42] Thank you.