Gas, electric rates could head higher

Even as it shows signs of easing, the recession could bring higher natural gas and light bills for Georgia consumers.

Atlanta Gas Light and Georgia Power will soon go before the Public Service Commission for hearings on the rates they charge customers. Both are expected to ask for permission to charge more, and AGL says the battered economy is a major reason why.

AGL, which delivers the natural gas consumers buy from marketers, will file its first rate increase request in five years some time in the next two weeks. Georgia Power will file its first rate case in three years on July 1, and the commission expects the utility to also seek an increase.

If approved, an AGL increase would go into effect this November. The increase would show up in base charges, although marketers could offset it through cuts in their own fees. Any Georgia Power rate increase would take effect in January.

Rates are the bread and butter of utility charges to customers, intended to recoup the cost of service and utilities'  authorized return on investment. Both utilities have increased other fees in the past several years, including a hike in Georgia Power fuel charges approved by the PSC  last month.

Atlanta Gas Light officials confirmed Monday that the gas pipeline company will be asking for more money. The company did not say how much it wants customer rates to rise.

The company said pensions and benefit programs contributed to higher compliance and operating costs. And the economy has cost the company customers. AGL lost more customers than it gained in both 2008 and 2009,  according to company documents.

The combination means AGL is spreading rising costs over fewer-than-expected customers, the company said. In PSC filings, AGL reported earning less than its PSC-authorized rate of return for six straight quarters.

AGL said it hasn't had a base rate increase since 1993.  Other charges have increased, though. The PSC approved a new fee for AGL, for instance, in October, allowing the company to charge more without raising basic rates.

The gas company's last rate case ended in a settlement that froze rates for five years.  The deal expired last year.