Georgians could be less able to control power bills by reducing use

Atlanta-based Georgia Power is pushing to increase consumer bills, and a big chunk of that would come from increasing fixed fees. Those are charges that customers must pay regardless of how much energy they use. Elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission will decide whether to approve the request later this year. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Sizzling temperatures mean Atlanta’s air conditioners are churning and bills are rising. But millions of Georgians may soon have less ability to reduce their electric bills just by easing back on the AC and turning off lights.

Georgia Power has asked state regulators to let it nearly double a fixed fee included on customers' monthly bills. The increase, part of a broader $2.2 billion rate increase the company recently requested, would the give Georgia Power one of the highest fixed base charges among major utilities nationwide.

On the plus side, consumers should see a bit less volatility on bills. But, because a smaller portion of their bill would be tied to how much energy they use, customers would be less able to hold down costs by being miserly. Reducing power use would still lower their bills, just less so than it does today. So, setting the AC at 78 degrees could mean more sweat and less savings.

Diane Campbell faces that frustration already.

A 59-year-old on a fixed income because of disabilities, she signed up for a special Georgia Power electricity plan designed to keep her bills relatively stable. She runs fans in her two-bedroom College Park apartment and keeps the AC off except at night. She limits use of her washing machine. For light, she relies mostly on the dim glow from her TV.

“It doesn’t make a difference,” she said. Her electric bill barely budges, because usage isn’t as much of a immediate factor.

Campbell’s situation is more extreme than what most consumers would face under Georgia Power’s proposed changes, but more people would get a hint of her dilemma.

Most residential power bills in Georgia change each month based on how much electricity is used, with the highest spikes coming in the broiling summer. The bills include a fixed base service charge of $10 a month.

Georgia Power wants to bump up the fee to $17.95 a month, phased in over the next three years. That would give it the 11th highest fixed charge among 172 utilities analyzed, according to EQ Research, an energy policy consulting firm.

First, though, Georgia Power would need approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission. The elected body is expected to take up the issue in hearings starting in late September.

Consumers groups howled over somewhat similar proposals requested by power companies in South Carolina and North Carolina. Regulators approved smaller increases.

And in other states, some electric companies are also pushing for increases. U.S. utilities face business threats: Americans are adding solar panels to homes and adopting more efficient appliances and lights.

Per capita residential electric consumption in the U.S. — and Georgia — was once dependably on the rise. Now it has flattened. An average consumer uses only about as much energy as he or she did in 2001.

That’s a big deal for power companies that want growth but have rates tied a product consumers don’t want more of.

Georgia Power says its fixed base charge has increased only $2.50 in three decades and that the fee remains lower than many other smaller utilities in the state.

Hiking the base charge will “more accurately reflect the cost to provide service to customers,” spokesman John Kraft wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The current basic service charge does not cover the costs to connect customers to our electrical grid that exist whether the customer uses any energy or not.”

Still, the increase could discourage energy conservation by consumers, said Lisa Bianchi-Fossati, who directs policy for the Southface Institute, an Atlanta nonprofit that advocates for clean energy and environmental sustainability. And, she said, paying higher fixed costs from Georgia Power could dissuade some from adding rooftop solar.

“It limits consumer control over how to manage their energy use and, therefore, it limits the impact of their choices on their energy bills,” she said.

Reducing energy use is one way to cut power plant pollutants, some of which are blamed for worsening climate change.

Meanwhile, consumers who are low income or tend to use less electricity will face a bigger proportionate hit as fixed fees rise, said Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech professor who specializes in sustainable energy issues.

Georgia Power said it expects to beef up or launch new programs to help low-income consumers with energy costs.

While Georgia Power says its current electricity rates are low compared to national averages, local consumers use more electricity on average than peers in most other states. And the price of electricity in Georgia looks likely to head higher.

Including the proposed increase in the fixed charge, Georgia Power wants state regulators to approve changes that would eventually add about $200 a year to average home electric bills. That doesn’t include expected higher rates once a multi-billion-dollar nuclear expansion is completed at Plant Vogtle.

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