“Republicans facing off for powerful Georgia Public Service Commission seat”

By Mary Landers

The statewide elected office with the biggest impact on your monthly budget and on the environment may be one you’ve never heard of.

It’s the Public Service Commission, whose jobs include regulating the rates Georgia Power charges and the services it provides.

Its five commissioners are elected to six-year terms on a rotating basis. Each is paid $116,452. Commissioners are required to live in one of five districts but are elected by voters statewide.

This year, only Republicans are running for the one open seat, meaning the primary on May 24 will decide who negotiates on your behalf with Georgia Power. Incumbent Tim Echols of Bogart has two challengers: Michelle Miller of Warner Robins and Kellie Austin from Gwinnett County. The race will appear second from the top on the Republican primary ballot May 24.

“The PSC has far reaching impacts on the future of renewable energy in the state and on our utility bills in the state,” said Jennette Gayer, state director of Environment Georgia. “And on the impact that our utility system has on our environment.”

Look no further than your most recent Georgia Power bill for evidence of the commission’s effect on your wallet.

“Anybody with a Georgia Power bill or many of the EMC’s has a Vogtle construction cost recovery fee tacked onto the bill,” Gayer said. That fee is currently about $7 a month for the typical residential customer, according to Georgia Power.

The PSC approved the construction of the new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta in 2009. The General Assembly then passed a law that allows the utility to charge ratepayers in advance for that construction. The first reactor was originally scheduled to start operation April 1 of this year, but it and its twin are years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The PSC is now faced with determining if those cost overruns were “prudent.” If it does, ratepayers will pick up that tab, too. That decision will come after the election.

Unlike many other states, Georgia has no legislated requirement for renewable energy, called a renewable energy portfolio. But the PSC can influence how much solar, wind and biomass Georgia Power include in its generating mix. In 2013, for example, the PSC pushed Georgia Power to include an additional 525 MW of solar capacity by this year.

Georgia has only 13 state offices that are elected by voters statewide. Five of them are the Public Service Commissioners. The name itself may be part of the confusion about this important body, said Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch.

“People might see it on the ballot and not know what it means. Some states refer to it as the public utility commission. Here with the name public service people might think it’s the parks.”

The PSC’s statewide elections for commissioners who must reside in a particular area adds another twist.

“It makes it that much harder because you’re probably going to know the commissioner who lives closest to you,” Coyle said. “If they’re far away you may never get to know them.”

But voters should educate themselves, Coyle urged.

“They play a very important role in setting the state’s energy policy,” Coyle said. “They’re very important for everybody’s lives here, from electric bills to the quality of air and water.”

Public Service Commission

The Commission’s jurisdiction includes:

• Investor-owned electric power companies

•Investor-owned natural gas companies

•Underground utility facility owners and excavators

•Telecommunications companies

•Credit card, calling card and coin-operated telephone companies

•Automatic telephone dialing and announcing device operators

The Commission does not have rate-setting authority over natural gas marketers, municipally-owned gas and electric utilities or electric membership corpora-tions (EMCs). Additionally, the Commission has no regulatory authority over broadband services, voice over internet (VoIP), water and waste water services, cellular telephone companies, interstate long-distance companies, or the cable and satellite television industries.

SOURCE: Savannah Morning News