By Emma Hurt – WABE (Listen)
Georgia Power is requesting to raise customer rates by about $10 per month for the average residential user.
The request is more than $2.2 billion over the next three years, and hearings before the Public Service Commission are scheduled to happen Monday through Wednesday. Protests are also planned by those who disagree with the hike request.
Many don’t want their bills to go up in general, but some experts are also worried the increase as proposed could stifle energy efficiency.
Edwina Spinks is a retiree living in south Atlanta who watches her power bill closely. Her last one was $190 for a two-bedroom apartment, even after trying hard to cut back her energy use.
“I just can’t see myself paying a bigger increase monthly, yearly on my utilities, and I can’t see where I can cut anything else,” she said after a neighborhood meeting last week featuring a presentation about to the utility’s proposed rate increase.
Spinks has been turning her AC down when she’s out. She’s replaced all her lightbulbs with LEDs and puts plastic on her windows in the winter to keep the heat in.
“I don’t keep my computer on anymore,” she said. “I mean I’ve cut! I’ve cut. I’ve cut. I’ve cut.”
Some energy equity advocates are upset about the increase in part because the utility’s parent company, Southern Company, made more than $2 billion in profit last year.
“You have enough money, take it out of your profit because you have enough,” said Wan Smith, an organizer at the Partnership for Southern Equity at a rally last month.
“For people who are already struggling, and are on a fixed income and are living paycheck to paycheck, you know that $10 a month is critical,” said Liz Coyle, director of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group. “And it’s going to mean the difference in some cases of being able to put nutritious food on the table, afford prescriptions, let’s say you’ve got children in high school and they need some new athletic shoes.”
“While we strive to be efficient and minimize any cost increase for customers, it has been six years since our last rate case and our current base rates are no longer sufficient to allow the Company to recover the costs necessary to continue providing safe, reliable electric service to our customers while maintaining high levels of customer service,” said Georgia Power Chief Executive Paul Bowers in written testimony to the Public Service Commission. Rates have not changed in the last three years, after the three-year increase plan approved in 2013.
As the company said in its release, maintaining and securing its grid is getting more expensive. It hasn’t been able to cover recovery costs of recent severe storms and hurricanes. And it’s having to pay for environmental compliance, like cleaning up coal ash ponds.
It’s “not surprising” the utility wants to raise rates, said Matt Cox, who runs The GreenLink Group, a clean energy technology and consulting company.
“How they do that really is where we’re going to run into sticking points,” he added.
About half of the rate increase would be in the fixed portion of customer bills. That fixed portion is the same every month, no matter how long lights are on.
“The problem with putting so much of this proposed increase in a fixed charge increase is you don’t have the ability to lower that cost by lowering your use of electricity, not turning on your lights so much,” Coyle said.
She did the company’s decision to eliminate transaction fees at third-party stores, like Walmart, where many customers make payments.
The fixed-rate increase also gives people less incentive to conserve energy said Marilyn Brown, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy.
“I would say the customers will not be as well-rewarded for being efficient with the proposed rates, then they would be if the current rates were to continue,” she said.
It would also disincentivize people to invest in alternatives like rooftop solar, she said.
Brown explained this is part of a national trend of utilities moving more into fixed rates away from rates based on usage.
Georgia Power said it plans to expand some of its energy efficiency and assistance programs to offset the rate increase, but Brown said the “magnitude” of those is still small compared with other utilities nationally.
The Public Service Commission will decide on the rate change in December.
The last two times Georgia Power has requested a rate hike, the statewide-elected, five-member commission has granted about two-thirds of their initial ask.
“[The Commissioners] don’t want to have to approve a rate increase unless they have to,” Coyle said. “They will minimize this as much as possible.”
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