Georgia Power: 2016 bills may dip

Decrease in natural gas prices could be offset by rising Vogtle costs.

By Russell Grantham

It looks like falling natural gas prices are going to shield Georgia Power’s 2.4 million customers from higher electricity bills next year.

The Atlanta-based utility this week asked state regulators for permission to cut its fuel pass-through charges for next year by about $268 million. That works out to about a $4 reduction on the typical household’s monthly bill.

But don’t get too excited.

Assuming they are approved, the lower fuel charges will show up just about the same time potential increases kick in to finance the ongoing construction of the Vogtle nuclear power plants and to increase the base rate Georgia Power charges customers.

The net effect will likely be a wash for most customers, predicted Liz Coyle, executive director of consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch.

“You’ve got to look at the whole range,” she said. “Other increases are already being approved.”

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said the utility hasn’t come up with its final numbers for all of the expected rate changes, but it expects most customers’ overall costs to go down next year.

“We do still expect there to be a net decrease in customers’ bills,” he said.

None of the rates are set in stone until the Georgia Public Service Commission votes on them. Georgia Power expects the PSC to vote on the 2016 fuel rate on Dec. 15.

Georgia Power will file a request for an increase in its base rate — which covers things like running its power plants and earning a profit — by Oct. 2. The filing for the nuclear-related charge is expected in early November, but it is part of a financing plan conceived years ago.

If the PSC approves, all three changes will take effect Jan. 1.

The PSC decided several years ago to allow Georgia Power to collect a surcharge on customers’ bills for the Vogtle project.

That fee was originally set to drop substantially in 2016, but the project is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, and Georgia Power continues to collect financing charges.

Last year, the Nuclear Construction Cost Recovery charge the PSC approved added about 30 cents to the typical household’s monthly bill, said Kraft. The increase took effect this year.

In 2013, the PSC also approved a multi-year, stepped increase in the utility’s base rate, partly to pay costs to upgrade its coal-burning power plants to meet tougher clean air standards.

At the time of the PSC’s decision, that monthly charge was expected to go up by $2.96 in 2016 for the typical customer. But over the last two years, Georgia Power actually has sought smaller increases than those 2013 estimates.

SOURCE: Atlanta Journal-Constitution