Georgia Power’s chief executive testified before state regulators Monday, urging approval of the company’s request to add about $200 a year to the average residential customer’s bills.
Paul Bowers' presence highlighted the $2.2. billion case's importance for the state's largest utility: It was the first time in his nine-year tenure as CEO that he faced questions and comments from the public as he testified before the Georgia Public Service Commission.
“Our current rates are no longer sufficient to cover the costs of the business,” Bowers said.
Still, under questioning from an attorney for the state, Bowers acknowledged that in three of the last five years the company has earned profits above a target band set by the PSC, topping out above 12%.
Some members of the public who spoke at the hearing insisted Georgia Power bills would rise too high. And they said it would cover some costs — particularly for the cleanup of potentially toxic ash pits from coal plants — that the company should pick up itself rather than put on its 2.6 million customers.
“The rate increase will cripple our community,” Gloria Woods of Atlanta told the PSC’s five elected commissioners. “We ask that you set aside any relationship you might have with Georgia Power and do what is right.”
Typical Georgia residential customer bills would rise by $16.48 a month, once the proposed increases are fully phased in over three years, with the first of the hikes requested to take effect in January.
And a bigger chunk of each bill would be in the form of higher fixed charges, nearly double the current $10 a month. That would mean consumers would have less ability to keep costs down by using less electricity.
Bowers said the overall increases will help pay for everything from increased costs of storm recovery, improving reliability of the company’s grid system and covering environmental costs including partially cleaning up ash at coal plants, including one in metro Atlanta.
The PSC is slated to hold additional hearings through Wednesday and again in November. It would vote on any changes in December. In the past the PSC generally has approved Georgia Power rate increases, but at levels lower than what the company initially requested.
For 71-year-old retiree Wyllene Watson, who spoke barely above a whisper because of a medical condition, the latest proposed higher costs are a source of additional stress.
“I believe in progress,” the Clayton County resident said. But she said eliminating $200 a year from her budget would prevent her from paying some bills and cut her ability to set aside money for her eight-year-old granddaughter.
Watson, who on a break from the hearing said that she regularly stoops down to pick up pennies, requested that Georgia Power bills go up no more than 50 cents a month.
Bowers got support from some, including representatives of a union supporting Georgia Power workers and concrete and copper industry organizations with ties to the company’s work, a South Georgia mayor who praised the company’s action to restore power after Hurricane Michael, and a Georgia Tech economics professor pursuing research funded by the company. And there was support for a company proposal to eliminate a fee on transactions tied to a special billing plan used by some low-income customers.
Other players have lined up to protect their interests, from Kroger to large manufacturers, the Department of Defense, MARTA, restaurants, environmental and consumer groups and solar industry organizations. Each wants a voice in the PSC proceedings.
The changes affect more than existing power customers and their monthly budgets. Georgia Power says that keeping electricity rates lower than the national average helps it attract new industry and jobs to Georgia.
Still, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of federal data shows Georgia Power’s average charge per kilowatt-hour is actually higher than that of the next five largest utilities in the state as well as the biggest utilities in most other Southeastern states.
Georgia Power’s proposal is just one piece of growing pressure on energy costs locally.
Atlanta Gas Light has asked the state PSC to grant its own request for a rate increase. That would add an average of nearly $4 a month to charges included in bills for more than 1.6 million customers of more than a dozen natural gas marketers in the state who rely on AGL's pipelines and service. AGL, like Georgia Power, is part of Atlanta-based Southern Company.
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