OPINION: High electric bills? Hold utilities accountable

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia Public Service Commission to vote on proposed Georgia Power $2.9 billion rate increase

A few months ago, the chatter in my neighborhood turned to the cost of electricity.

One resident posted on social media that their electric bill for a one-bedroom apartment had nearly doubled between July and August. The post garnered more than 100 comments as other metro area residents chimed in with their electric bill woes.

August electricity bills for U.S. consumers jumped the most since 1981, rising 15.8% from the same period a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Residents who reacted to the post tried to make sense of the increase.

Was it due to a rise in the price of natural gas? Above average temperatures this summer? Cost overruns on Plant Vogtle, the nuclear power plant in eastern Georgia near the South Carolina border that is years overdue and at least $16 billion over the original budget? The answer is likely some combination of those things, none of which are within residents’ control. That didn’t stop some locals from seeking solutions.

Some neighbors suggested using a budget billing plan to keep payments level throughout the year, but budget billing won’t solve the overall problem of higher rates.

Others suggested that residents start paying attention to who they are electing to the Public Service Commission which is charged with ensuring that Georgia residents receive reasonably priced electricity and natural gas.

Georgia Public Service Commission is currently deciding the fate of our rates that will be in place for the next three years and we need these elected officials to take decisive action.

Of course, we didn’t actually elect them this year. The mostly male, mostly white, all-Republican commission is the focus of a legal battle over violations to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

State law currently requires PSC commissioners to live in one of five districts but allows voters from across the entire state to cast ballots for all commission seats, a method that dilutes the votes of Black residents, according to the lawsuit. As a result, the commission has been mostly white and male since its inception in 1879.

Georgians lost the opportunity to vote on two PSC seats in the most recent election due to the legal wrangling. Hopefully the Georgia General Assembly will revise how the commission is elected and we will have the opportunity to vote in a special election next year.

That won’t happen until after the commission in its current incarnation has voted on the $2.9 billion rate increase proposed by Georgia Power. By some estimates, the increase would leave the average customer paying $55 to $60 more per month (a 45% increase) for electricity in 2025 as compared to 2022.

The price of U.S. residential electricity is expected to nearly double this winter compared to last year, reaching 14.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In October, the department forecast a 7.5% jump in electricity prices this winter, the largest increase since 2006.

By comparison, electricity prices rose an average of 1.3% per year from 2011 through 2020, according to a report from Poynter. Heating oil is projected to be 27% higher and electricity 10% higher.

Most of us don’t know the price of natural gas or electricity. Most of us probably don’t read the detail on our monthly utility statements.

Intervenors like Southface, a nonprofit that works in sustainable advocacy, are deeply engaged with regulatory planning and have proposed that the PSC and Georgia Power consider filing revenue requests annually rather than making adjustments that would last through 2025. With industry conditions changing at such a rapid pace, the shorter time frame would allow for better decision-making based on more complete information, they argue.

“Making annual adjustments a requirement would lower the risk of collecting more than is needed from customers,” wrote Will Collier of Southface in early November, noting that funding sources such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the largest investment in climate action in U.S. history, was introduced just a few months after Georgia Power finalized its Integrated Resource Plan, changing many of the economic assumptions that were used in making decisions about rates.

An example, writes Collier, is that the IRA will allow tax credits for energy storage in 2023 and Georgia Power has plans to build two battery storage facilities. The provision in the IRA would reduce the cost of those facilities by at least 30%, reducing the actual amount that Georgia Power has to pay, in turn reducing the amount they would need to collect from customers.

“We are confident the PSC can incentivize Georgia Power to move quickly to identify funds that help alleviate the burden on taxpayers,” Collier wrote.

Not only should PSC find ways to help reduce the burden on taxpayers, voters must ultimately hold them accountable for doing so — or elect new leaders who will.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.