Vogtle Unit 3 reaches 100% power for first time

ATLANTA – The first of two additional nuclear reactors Georgia Power is building at Plant Vogtle has safely reached 100% power, a key milestone toward getting the unit into full commercial operation.

For the first time, Unit 3 at the plant south of Augusta has reached its expected output of about 1,100 megawatts, enough electricity to power an estimated 500,000 homes and businesses.

“Unit 3 is currently undergoing testing through the full range of plant operations, including safely running at various power levels and operating through real-life conditions,” Kim Greene, Georgia Power’s chairman, president and CEO, said Monday.

“As we enter the final stages of startup testing, reaching 100% power for the first time is an exciting milestone. It tells us we’re close to finishing the unit safely and bringing it online to power Georgia homes and businesses with reliable, emissions-free energy for decades to come.”

The Plant Vogtle expansion has taken a long path to get to this point. The state Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the project back in 2009, but a series of delays drove up the cost to more than double the original anticipated price tag of $14 billion.

Critics have urged the PSC to jettison the project and more aggressively pursue other sources of power generation including renewable energy. Georgia Power officials have countered that nuclear power is the most efficient way to ensure its 2.7 million customers will enjoy reliable energy for the next 60 to 80 years.

Once all startup testing on Unit 3 is successfully completed, it will enter commercial operation. That’s expected to happen next month.

The other new reactor under construction at Plant Vogtle, Unit 4, is due to go into commercial service late this year or early next year.

Southern Nuclear will operate the two units on behalf of co-owners Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, MEAG Power and Dalton Utilities.

Units 1 and 2 at the plant began operating during the late 1980s.

Tourism industry leaders predict strong summer season

ATLANTA – After taking some hits during the pandemic, Georgia tourism is poised for a record summer.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport expects to handle about 2.1 million passengers during the Memorial Day holiday period, which began Thursday and extends through next Wednesday. That’s up from roughly 2 million travelers during the same period last year.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to fly nearly 2.8 million passengers over the Memorial Day weekend, a 17% increase over 2022. The anticipated average of 500,000 passengers a day is expected to exceed the pre-pandemic holiday weekend travel volume logged in 2019.

“It’s going to be record travel for leisure this summer,” said Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association. “Looking back to 2019, we’re flirting with those numbers again and exceeding them in some cases.”

Actually, Georgia’s tourism industry has remained relatively strong throughout the pandemic. In the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the state Department of Economic Development (DED) reported nearly 151.8 million visits, up from 150.9 million in pre-pandemic 2019.

Visitations in 2021 rose again to nearly 160 million. Also that year, the state’s tourism industry matched the $4.2 billion in state and local tax revenues it generated in 2019. The state has yet to release numbers for 2022.

Tourism industry officials credited Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision not to shut down the state during the pandemic for keeping visitation numbers up, particularly among leisure travelers.

“Because Georgia remained open for business during the pandemic, Atlanta had a leg up on the competition when convention business began to return,” said William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB). “The sales team at Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau had a spectacular year in 2022, and lead volume is the highest it has been since the pandemic started.”

The ACVB reported preliminary hotel occupancy numbers for the city of Atlanta last month at 70%, the highest since February 2020, the month before COVID-19 struck Georgia in force. Hotel occupancy ended 2022 at 60%, a 50% increase over the end of the previous year.

“Pent-up demand for travel is still strong, and we are certainly seeing that here in Atlanta,” Pate said.

Still, Kemp decided in 2021 to allocate $5.8 million in federal pandemic relief funds to Explore Georgia, the DED’s tourism division. The agency used the money to promote domestic overnight and day trips to and within Georgia to help offset lost business from meetings, conventions and international travelers.

One tourism segment that exploded during the pandemic was visitation to state parks. During a period when public health officials advised people not to gather in indoor spaces, visitors to state parks could enjoy camping and social distancing at the same time.

The 10 million to 11 million visitors the parks were getting annually before 2020 shot up to 14 million after COVID-19 struck, said Kim Hatcher, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Parks, Recreation & Historic Sites Division. Visitation numbers for this year are expected to fall slightly below that peak, she said.

With domestic travel on the rise, state tourism promotion officials are working to boost recovery of the convention business and international travel. Toward that end, Explore Georgia is leading a statewide delegation of tourism industry executives to two of the largest travel trade shows.

Mark Jaronski, the DED’s chief marketing officer, said the tourism outlook for the rest of this year is good despite rising prices.

“The desire to travel is outweighing concerns over inflation and macroeconomic factors,” he said. “With low unemployment and gas prices down from a year ago, we expect continued increases in demand during peak summer travel season.”

Audit: Rural hospital tax credit paying off

ATLANTA – Georgia’s rural hospital tax credit program is in compliance with the state law that created it in 2017 and just needs to tighten up its reporting procedures, according to a new audit.

The program raised $58.7 million in contributions to eligible rural hospitals last year, down slightly from the $59.4 million the tax credit brought in in 2021. In both cases, individual and corporate donors nearly reached the annual program cap of $60 million.

The program allows donors to contribute to hospitals in counties with populations of 50,000 or less and reduce their state income tax liability by the amounts they donate. Taxpayers may choose a specific hospital or, if one is not designated, the hospital will be chosen based on a ranking of need.

The audit, released late Thursday by the state Department of Audits & Accounts, found the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH) verified that all rural hospitals receiving contributions in 2021 and 2022 were eligible for the program. All of those hospitals provided the DCH with the required reports detailing the contributions.

However, the audit noted inconsistencies in reporting, including errors in contribution amounts received, expenditures exceeding available funds, prior-year unspent funds, and fees paid to third-party vendor Georgia HEART, which contracts with the hospitals to market the program and process contributions.

The report recommended that the DCH review donation and expenditure reports from the hospitals for accuracy and require corrected or additional information when necessary.

The audit also found hospitals participating in the tax credit program had $40 million in unspent contributions in 2021, up from $29.5 million in 2020. Hospital officials reported the unspent funds were earmarked for capital projects that had to be put off during the pandemic.

Most contributions to the program were not directed to the neediest rural hospitals as designated by the DCH, according to the report. Five of the 10 neediest hospitals received less than the average collections per hospital of $1,067,862.

The audit found that all of the 55 eligible hospitals received contributions of less than $4 million as required by law.

Colquitt Regional Medical Center in Moultrie brought in the most donations last year – $3,996,999 – followed by $3,144,927 that went to St. Mary’s Sacred Heart Hospital in Lavonia, which received all undesignated contributions as the neediest hospital; and Crisp Regional Hospital in Cordele, which brought in $2,822,990.

Hyundai, LG Energy to build $4.3B EV battery plant in Georgia

ATLANTA – Hyundai Motor Group is doubling down on its commitment to Georgia.

Hyundai and LG Energy Solution will jointly build a $4.3 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Bryan County adjacent to the site of the massive Hyundai EV “Metaplant” now under construction, the companies announced late Thursday. The project is expected to create 3,000 jobs.

The new EV battery plant will represent nearly 78% of the $5.5 billion investment in the Metaplant project Hyundai announced last October and 37% of the 8,100 jobs the EV manufacturing facility will generate.

The announcement came weeks after U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., led a trade mission to South Korea, where he met with executives from both companies. Ossoff met again late last month with LG Energy Solution executives in Washington, D.C., to discuss the deal.

Ossoff credited tax incentives contained in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) Congress passed last year for making the project possible. The deal ranks among the largest economic development projects in Georgia history.

“The IRA’s manufacturing incentives continue to bring jobs and investment to Georgia,” Ossoff said. “My goal remains to make Georgia the world leader in advanced energy production.”

Two larger projects – Hyundai’s $5.5 billion Metaplant and Rivian’s $5 billion electric vehicle plant near Covington – are both EV manufacturing facilities.

“This is exactly what we envisioned when Georgia landed the Hyundai Metaplant in May of last year,” Gov. Brian Kemp said from Israel, where he is currently leading a trade mission. “This project is the latest milestone in Georgia’s path to becoming the EV capital of the nation.”

According to the companies, the new EV battery plant is expected to begin operations by the end of 2025.

Republican attorneys general: 14th Amendment no solution to debt ceiling impasse

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr

ATLANTA – Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has joined a 19-state coalition of attorneys general in urging the Biden administration not to use the 14th Amendment to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

In a letter to President Joe Biden dated Wednesday, the coalition argued the Constitution does not give presidents the power on their own to increase U.S. debt.

“The power of the purse constitutes Congress’s strongest defense against a lawless executive,” the letter states. “By giving credence to the idea that a president can unilaterally authorize new debt for the United States, you undermine the checks and balances that have defined the rule of law for over 200 years.”  

Democrat Biden and Republican U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and their staffs have been attempting to reach a negotiated settlement for Congress to raise the debt limit in exchange for spending cuts. If they can’t resolve their differences soon, the nation will go into default early next month, which economists have warned could touch off a recession.

The president has said he is considering turning to the 14th Amendment as a way out of the impasse but is reluctant to do so. Supporters of using the 14th Amendment cite the following provision in the amendment:

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

Carr said that doesn’t mean the president can bypass Congress on the debt ceiling.

“President Biden does not have the authority to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval, and any assertion otherwise is dangerous and blatantly false,” Carr said. “The president should instead focus on negotiating in good faith with Congress on a realistic solution and address the record-high inflation that is harming families across this nation.”

In addition to Carr, a Republican, the GOP attorneys general of the following states also signed the letter: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.