State regulators hear pleas for relief from rising electric bills in Georgia Power fuel rate case

Georgia Power sign at Plant McDonough-Atkinson in Cobb County accompanying article about restory powerGeorgia Power sign at Plant McDonough-Atkinson in Cobb County (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

May 3, 2023

Savannah resident Evelyn Jackson told Georgia utility regulators Tuesday that being a retiree on a fixed income means making more sacrifices in order to cover the rising costs to keep her home’s lights on. 

Jackson was among a host of Georgia Power ratepayers who urged the Georgia Public Service Commission to stem the tide of power bill rate hikes as commissioners are set to vote May 16 on a fuel rate case that could have the average household spending $16 more on monthly utilities over a three-year period beginning in June.

The 76-year-old Jackson said Tuesday that it’s unfortunate that the proposed rate increase comes right as summer begins, putting older people at more risk of not being able to afford to keep their air conditioning running. 

“Now you’re going up on the electric bill,” Jackson said. “How are we supposed to cool? You have to buy groceries, you have to go to the doctor every week when you get a certain age.”

The fuel rate hike is another in a series of incremental increases that  projected to have the average household paying about $500 more annually on utilities in 2025, according to estimates from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Georgia residents spoke passionately about the hardships imposed by higher utility bills during Tuesday’s fuel rate case, as well as allegations that five Republican commission members often sided with the state’s largest utility company to the detriment of residents. 

Liz Coyle, executive director of consumer protection nonprofit Georgia Watch, suggested that Georgia Power expand its utility bill assistance outreach so that more families struggling to live paycheck to paycheck receive some relief on their power bills.

Georgia Power officials said that they are giving meaningful consideration about the impact that higher utility costs will have on Georgia families and business owners.

According to Georgia Power’s proposal,  ratepayers who qualify for its senior low income program will see their fuel costs go up $2 less than the typical household, which would increase the monthly discount on utilities to $32.  

Georgia Power’s vice president and comptroller, Sarah Adams, said that market volatility and fuel price increases were the result of factors outside its control, including political unrest and global supply chain constraints.

“We’ve proposed increasing the income qualified senior citizen fuel discount by 33% and committed to file updated (fuel rate adjustments)  based on more current natural gas price forecasts to account for the recent downward trend in natural gas crisis,” Adams said.

“Because of the substantial and under recovered balance, we took steps in our initial filing to mitigate the impact of fuel costs and customers by extending the recovery period for the under recovered balance from 24 to 36 months,” she said.

Experts testifying in the fuel case on behalf of environmental groups and the Georgia Association of Manufacturers are recommending regulators extend the timeline for customers to pay the fuel expenses and for Georgia Power to take on a share of excess fuel costs.

According to Georgia law, utilities can adjust fuel rates to cover expenses as long as they are not considered illegal or negligent. A PSC has more control over determining the length of time it takes to recoup fuel expenses. 

 An advisor for the energy industry, Jeremy Kalin, said Tuesday that Georgia law allows the PSC to do more than rubber stamp fuel hikes that place an unfair burden on ratepayers.

“I believe the commission does have an obligation under the law to conduct greater scrutiny on whether Georgia Power has been sufficiently prudent in mitigating these known and predicted risks of increased gas, natural gas reliance and natural gas costs,” said Kalin, who testified for the Sierra Club of Georgia and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Commissioner Lauren Bubba McDonald blamed Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration for making the nation less energy independent.

Brent Alderfer, CEO of a renewable energy firm and witness for the Sierra Club of Georgia and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said Georgia Power should reexamine its energy portfolio to reduce its reliance on natural gas. He said he is projecting that natural gas prices will be significantly higher in the next couple of years than Georgia Power is predicting.

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