Opinion: Power rate hike would hurt low-income folks

John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

There are many inequities that separate Georgians, including access to quality education, thriving-wage employment and health care. But there is one inequity most people don’t pay attention to: energy costs.

How our energy is produced and where that energy comes from significantly impacts our household economic stability and the overall quality of our air, water and other natural resources that affect our health and well-being. As the costs of energy continue to rise, working families and seniors on fixed incomes are feeling the pressure.

Here in Atlanta, we have the fourth-highest energy burden in the nation, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The “energy burden” is the percentage of household income spent on home energy bills. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers an energy burden of 6 percent unaffordable. When we take a deeper look at the impact of rising energy costs on Atlanta, Matt Cox at our data partner Greenlink Group sees energy burdens ranging from about 4.9% to 25%. For some Westside and Southwest Atlanta communities, this means households are living in energy poverty.

Once known for their vibrant working-class communities, rich in culture, tradition and heritage, Westside and Southwest Atlanta are under siege due to a history of disinvestment and a wave of gentrification that is displacing legacy residents like seniors living on fixed incomes and renters earning low wages. With energy burdens approaching double or more what is considered unaffordable in these communities, many of our neighbors are forced to choose between keeping the lights on and purchasing basics like healthy food or medicine. With no relief in sight, we must ask why Georgia Power is proposing to raise rates and mandatory fees for electricity service.

In July, Georgia Power proposed a significant increase to its rates and its mandatory basic service charge. The proposal filed with the Georgia Public Service Commission includes a rate increase of approximately 7 percent totaling $2.2 billion, phased in over three years (2020-2022). A near-doubling of the mandatory “Basic Service Charge” on residential bills, from the current $10 to $17.95 a month is also proposed. Customers could end up paying more than $200 per year before even flipping on a light switch. If approved, this would be among the highest mandatory monthly fees of investor-owned utilities around the country!

In the company’s official press release, Georgia Power cites the need to raise rates to cover its investments in infrastructure, rebuild its storm restoration fund, and environmental compliance, including cleanup of coal ash ponds that store the toxic waste left over from burning coal that can pollute our groundwater. This is problematic for the marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices from carbon-based energy production and the rising costs of energy. For instance, black and brown households and renters earning lower incomes already devote up to three times more of their income to energy costs than higher-income households, according to ACEEE. Normally, an electricity customer can control their bill by controlling how much power they use. But high mandatory fees take away your ability to control your energy costs through weatherization and energy efficiency programs, or clean energy like rooftop solar that can really lower your bills. Georgia Power’s proposed hike is unjustified, inequitable, and will hurt already-strapped communities the most.

To address these barriers and push back against Georgia Power's proposed rate and fee increases, the Partnership for Southern Equity and its partners (www.psequity.org) have launched the "Fight the Hike" campaign to support Georgia families overburdened by high energy bills. Community conversations, protests, and town halls have been held throughout the state to educate residents about Georgia Power's proposal, inform them on the role of the Public Service Commission in the ultimate decision, and provide ways that they can take action!

So, what can you do to stop Georgia Power? Call or send an email to your Public Service Commissioner, city council person, state legislator and other elected officials. They must hear from you!

We are asking Georgia Power to rescind their drastic proposal to increase both rates and fees and avoid increasing energy burdens on struggling families.

Use the hashtags #stopgeorgiapower and #fightthehike to post about this inequitable hike on social media and urge your followers, friends and community to #fightthehike! Join the fight today at www.fightthehike.org.

Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity and chairman of the Atlanta Public School System’s Affordable Housing Taskforce.

Chandra Farley is the Just Energy Director for the Partnership for Southern Equity.