Consumer advocates seek voice in Callaway power plant debate

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 | 7:56 p.m. CST; updated 10:35 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 18, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY – The debate surrounding the creation of a second power plant in Callaway County has consumer advocates struggling to find their place in partisan politics.

With AmerenUE representatives emphasizing Missouri's energy needs, and union members touting the plant for job security reasons, lobbyists who petition for consumer rights are having trouble finding support among their traditional allies, one leading consumer advocate said.  

During a series of public presentations on Tuesday in the Missouri Capitol, those against rate increases for the construction work in progress (CWIP) legislation, such as a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, outlined the rationale behind their position.

If Scott's bill passed, it would allow AmerenUE to raise rates to pay for financing costs — such as accumulating interest — on a power plant that is not yet completed and providing energy.  CWIP legislation states that a utility company cannot charge customers for services not yet being provided.

The primary concern expressed by opponents of the bill was that consumers would assume a greater risk than they should.

"It does not save money for customers," said Peter Bradford, an adviser and teacher of utility regulation and energy policy at the Vermont Law School. "In fact, it may cost them."

The Missouri Association for Social Welfare is concerned that the bill could have a greater adverse effect on those with lower incomes since energy tends to represent a larger percentage of their household budget and the cost per unit of energy decreases the more one uses, said Bob Quinn, the executive director of the social welfare advocacy group.

"If you do CWIP, that puts the burden even more on the low income rate payers. ... You can't borrow the money to build the plant from Wall Street, so why not get the money from people this far from bankruptcy around the state of Missouri?" Quinn said.

Since rates are expected to rise regardless, proponents of the bill said pursuing nuclear energy would be the most cost-efficient route.

According to Scott Charton, the spokesman of Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, a group that supports Scott's bill, natural gas prices are fluctuating, and clean coal technology and renewable energy have not achieved the same level of development or efficiency as nuclear energy.

Bradford also said about 50 percent of U.S. power plant projects that have sought and received permits in modern time have not completed their construction due to a variety of reasons including drops in energy need and unexpected cost increases.  Because of this and other concerns brought up by AARP lobbyist John Coffman, the speakers said consumers should not have to pay for a project they might never receive benefits from in their lifetime.

"Keep in mind that no plants have been authorized in the last 30 years," Charton said.  "This is a new thing for us.  And the designs of plants have become much more uniform.  We don't have a more recent base of experience for this.  The reason many plants did not continue construction was because of activists — anti-nuclear activists — campaigning to derail them."


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