Saturday, April 29, 2017

98% of Georgia's New Jobs are in Metro Atlanta

Georgia saw good job growth in the first three months of 2017, but virtually all of it occurred in the Atlanta metro area, according to new seasonally adjusted data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Georgia Nonfarm Employment, Jan. 2006 - March 2017
Atlanta Metro Area Nonfarm Employment, Jan. 2006 - March 2017
The state saw net new jobs rise by 30,400 in the first three months of 2017. For the 12 months ending in March, the state saw a net increase of 131,000 new jobs, resulting in a 3.0% increase over the year.

Virtually all the new jobs grew in the Atlanta metro area, which posted an increase of 29,800 new jobs for the first three months of 2017.

As a result, the Atlanta metro area accounted for 98% of net job growth. The Atlanta metro area now accounts for almost 85% of the nonfarm jobs in the state.

Overall, March was the 12th consecutive month that saw Georgia posting an increase in seasonally adjusted nonfarm jobs.

Unemployment Rate

Georgia's unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, declined to 5.1% in March 2017, the lowest recorded by the state since December 2007.

In March 2016, the state's unemployment rate stood at 5.5%. 

Despite a long string of good job growth, the state's unemployment rate stays stubbornly above the national average.

In March 2017, the U.S. unemployment rate was 4.5%.

Growth Industries in Georgia

Georgia's private sector recorded most of the growth in the first quarter, rising by 29,800 jobs, while government increased by 600 net new jobs.

The state’s Construction industry added 6,400 new jobs in the first quarter, followed by Financial Activities (6,200) and Leisure & Hospitality (5,000).

Manufacturing in the state saw a dip with job losses of 2,900 in the first quarter.

In government, the slow growth was due to a loss of 1,200 local government jobs, while state government jobs grew by 1,100.

Lagging Areas

Metro areas with net declines during the first quarter of 2017 included Augusta (-1,500), Brunswick (-600), Albany (-400), Columbus (-300) and Dalton and Hinesville (-200 in each), seasonally adjusted.

Over the past 12 months, the Dalton area has shown the smallest job growth, adding only 100 net new jobs since March 2016.

The story for the rural areas outside the state’s 11 metro areas is even worse.

While BLS does not report a separate number for non-metro nonfarm employment, by calculating the net increases for all metro areas in the state, the result is no net increase in jobs in the rural parts of Georgia since March 2016.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Westinghouse Plant Vogtle bankruptcy will cost Georgia ratepayers and workers

Westinghouse's bankruptcy will be very costly to the owners of Plant Vogtle -- Southern Company (through its subsidiary Georgia Power), Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power), and Dalton Utilities -- but Georgia electricity users and workers will ultimately foot the bill.

On March 29, 2017, Plant Vogtle’s lead contractor, Westinghouse Electric Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The contractor, which is a subsidiary of Toshiba Corp., continues to deal with large cost overruns in its building of two nuclear reactors in Georgia, and it is unclear whether Westinghouse will be able to proceed with the project.

Now Westinghouse is in the hands of a Federal bankruptcy judge who may void previous agreements with the utilities, allow contractors to renegotiate contracts for higher payments, and may allow Westinghouse to abandon the project altogether.

The judge has tentatively approved Westinghouse’s access to $800 million in debtor-possession financing so it can continue some work during the bankruptcy proceedings but raised questions during the hearing about whether some of those funds would go to support the company’s foreign operations that are not involved in the bankruptcy proceedings instead of only financing Westinghouse's U.S. operations.

The implication is that Westinghouse may use some of that $800 million to prop up their non-American projects and leave the Georgia and South Carolina projects starved for cash.

If Westinghouse is preparing to abandon Plant Vogtle, which may be the case, the utility owners have only a limited number of options, each of which involve large unexpected costs.

The utilities can attempt to bring in another contractor to take over construction of the two nuclear reactors, choose to turn the nuclear reactors into gas-fired plants, or close down construction and leave the site unfinished.

Southern Company's CEO Tom Fanning has asked Toshiba to continue work on Plant Vogtle, but Toshiba is under pressure from its stockholders to pull out of Georgia and South Carolina. 

What’s at Stake

The Plant Vogtle project employs more than 5,000 well-paid construction workers at the site, most of whom are working under union contracts.

If the site is abandoned, it will be a blow to those workers as well as all of Eastern Georgia. Plant Vogtle is located in Burke County near Waynesboro, Ga., and the Augusta, Ga. metro area, both of which have benefited from the influx of workers and money, as has nearby Aiken, S.C.

Even a temporary halt to construction will cause large layoffs and loss of a skilled workforce who will scatter to find comparable paying jobs.

Higher Electricity Bills are a Real Possibility

For customers of Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power), and Dalton Utilities; the threat is even higher electricity rates to cover the increased costs.

Any delays, including if a new contractor must be brought on site, will only increase costs in the project that is already more than $3 billion over budget.

In addition, Bloomberg reports that “U.S. taxpayers have already financed $6.5 billion in loan guarantees for Southern and its partners that were awarded in 2014 to build the Vogtle plant. The Energy Department followed up in June 2015 with an $1.8 billion loan guarantee for the project.”

"We think there is a lot of risk," said Autumn Hanna, a senior program director for the Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that has been critical of the loan guarantees. "We are really afraid this puts the $8 billion on line even more for taxpayers."

“If Southern’s contract with Westinghouse is terminated and the project is abandoned, the Energy Department could require repayment of its investment over five years, according to Moody’s Investors Service analyst Michael Haggarty.”

Georgia is a "Utility-friendly" State

No doubt if the utilities must pick up extra costs stemming from Westinghouse’s inability to meet its obligations, they will be asking the Georgia Public Service Commission to pass along those costs by raising electricity rates.

Traditionally, the Georgia PSC is seen as very "utility-friendly" in allowing utilities to pass along higher costs to ratepayers, even for plants not yet producing electricity.

Ratepayers in Georgia have already contributed about $3,9 billion for the reactors, while the utilities are guaranteed a 10% return in profits, even in the case of cost overruns, according to Facing South.

Reuters quoted one advocacy group as stating that “electric bills in Georgia and South Carolina could rise more than customers expect if state utilities are left stranded by a Westinghouse Electric Co. bankruptcy filing.”

“People will either be forced to pay for something they never got or pay more to complete something that does not make economic sense,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch.

Of course higher electricity rates will impact businesses in both states and discourage companies from moving or expanding in both Georgia and South Carolina, thus damaging economic development efforts.

South Carolina faces a similar problem because Westinghouse is the lead contractor for the V.C. Summer nuclear facility presently under construction in Jenkinsville, S.C.

The Aiken Standard recently editorialized that in their opinion the Westinghouse bankruptcy should not become a burden on ratepayers: “Ratepayers [in South Carolina] may wind up paying more in the long run should SCE&G raise rates. It's wrong to force power customers to pay higher rates for a facility that's years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.”

The Westinghouse-Plant Vogtle bankruptcy is getting relatively little local news coverage in the Atlanta media.

Bond Rating Services Are Negative

The says that “Fitch Ratings put the majority stakeholders of Westinghouse's Georgia and South Carolina projects on "negative watch." Those stakeholders are Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, Oglethorpe Power Corp. (Ga.) and South Carolina Public Service Authority."

Moody’s Investor Service has issued a statement saying: “Westinghouse’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and Toshiba’s ongoing financial weakness have raised new questions over their ability and willingness to complete the Summer and Vogtle nuclear projects under the terms of the fixed price contracts, placing additional financial pressure on the project owners.

“Our negative outlooks for these entities incorporated our expectation that a Westinghouse bankruptcy filing could occur, and reflect the likelihood that the projects won’t be completed under the current time and cost arrangements. We anticipate the project owners will evaluate alternatives for finishing construction, which in all likelihood would result in higher risk and additional costs.”

Oglethorpe Power, one of the partners in the project, has said that "the revised in-service dates of December 2019 and September 2020" for the two reactors "do not appear to be achievable."

Utility Owners of Plant Vogtle

Ownership in the two nuclear reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle is shared among several utilities in Georgia:

Georgia Power, a for-profit subsidiary of The Southern Company, serves 2.4 million customers in all but four of Georgia's 159 counties.

Oglethorpe Power Corporation is a nonprofit cooperative owned by 38 electric membership corporations.

The Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG Power) is a nonprofit, statewide generation and transmission organization providing wholesale electricity to its 49 member communities, who own their local distribution systems.

Dalton Utilities provides electricity to the City of Dalton since 1898.

Bankruptcy Case

The case is Westinghouse Electric Co., 17-10751, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).