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Power play
Proposed energy rate increase and solar fee means big profits for utility, bigger bills for consumers
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If Georgia Power has its way, consumers will pay an average of $8 more a month on their electric bills come January.

The state's largest utility company has petitioned state regulators for permission to raise rates by 6.1 percent — a proposed $482 million — as well as to levy a substantial monthly fee for solar power users. Also included in the 2013 Rate Case is an increase in Georgia Power's guaranteed profit from 11.15 percent to 11.5 percent, representing tens of millions of dollars for the company.

The proposal has drawn ire from activists, who have organized a series of town hall meetings around the state to educate the public on what they say is an egregious request.

"It's unfair and inequitable for a multimillion dollar company like Georgia Power to put more financial burden on its customers," says Seth Gunning, a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club, who was in Savannah Oct. 17 for a meeting at the Coastal Georgia Center.

Gunning explains that as a state-granted monopoly, Georgia Power must get approval from the Atlanta-based Public Service Commission to increase rates. (It doesn't matter if the company is collecting money for future projects rather than making its own investment, as in this case and in the case of the delayed construction of two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle.) In exchange, the PSC guarantees the company will net a certain amount, regardless of gross numbers. At 11.15 percent, Georgia Power is already above the national regulated utility average of 10.17 percent, and Gunning blasts the requested increase to 11.5 percent as unwarranted.

"It sounds like a little, but it equates to tens of millions that comes out of our pockets every month," he says, noting that GA Power CEO Paul Bowers made close to three and a half million dollars last year.

"There is no reason regular Georgia citizens should have to pay for this."

Part of "this" is a series of planned upgrades to Georgia Power's fleet of coal plants, some of which would not come online until 2016. As market trends turn away from coal's detrimental effects on air and water, clean energy proponents find the proposal in opposition of the state's economic interests.

"The company is asking you to allow them to charge ratepayers for upgrades to obsolete coal plants before the work is completed," says Karen Grainey, Chair of the Sierra Club's Coastal Chapter.

"In a few years, many of these coal burners will very likely be closed down because they are too expensive to run and will no longer be needed to meet the demand for energy."

On the list of potential upgrades is the coal unit at nearby Plant McIntosh in Rincon, which has been idle since 2011 as natural gas units increase production. Grainey argues that coal is no longer a viable source of energy as upgrades that adhere to new environmental regulations will require more money than the proposed rate hike can possibly cover.

"A transition to clean energy and a distributed energy system is a better investment for everybody," she says.

That transition might be slowed if the rate case is approved. Though prices on solar systems have become more affordable in recent years, fees imposed on solar users would negate those savings: Residents and businesses seeking to install solar panel systems after January 1 would be subject to a $44.80 fee per month for "backup" power they might have to use from the grid, even if they sell back their extra energy to Georgia Power. Solar users could also be subject to a "Capacity Charge Option" of $5.56 a basic kilowatt or a "Demand Charge" of $19.18 per kilowatt during peak hours.

The fight against Georgia Power has united liberals and conservatives, recently spawning the Green Tea Coalition that includes Grainey, Gunning and Georgia Tea Party cofounder Debbie Dooley. Though they may disagree on other issues, energy use is common ground.

"Rate payers of both parties will experience the pain from higher rates," says Dooley. "We need to join together to fight this huge monopoly that is so rich that [even] their lobbyists have lobbyists."

As a way to galvanize more people to join the movement, the Green Tea Coalition spent the last few weeks codifying the Utility Customer Bill of Rights (see sidebar) to be presented to the Public Service Commission at a pair of public hearings at the state capitol Nov. 5 and 6. The PSC will vote on whether to approve the case on Dec. 17.

Created in 1879 as a way to regulate the railroad monopoly, the PSC is comprised of five publically elected members who oversee the practices of the telecommunications, electric and natural gas companies to ensure "reliable and reasonably-priced" service for their constituents.

Though a recent story in the utility industry blog The Energy Daily reported that the PSC staff has recommended the commission reject Georgia Power's proposal, how the vote will go is anyone's guess.

"Many people feel like Georgia Power is singling out solar for a rate increase, but I am not sure that is the case," says Commissioner Tim Echols, who was in Savannah for the Oct. 17 town hall meeting. "After I hear all of the evidence, I will know more about the validity of Georgia Power's concern."

Echols forecasted a possible decrease in demand for Georgia Power energy back in July as more big businesses adopt solar. He says that even if the 2013 Rate Case is approved, it won't make up the loss.

"Georgia Power's revenue has been flat for several years because of our poor economy," continues Echols. "The solar fee they are proposing is really just a drop in the bucket of what they need."

But that drop makes all the difference to residents and small businesspeople when the bill needs to paid. Opponents of the rate hike say that if Georgia Power's request is to be defeated, citizens will need to speak up. The town hall meetings in Savannah and Columbus only drew 50 or so attendees, and the low attendance has Green Tea Coalition member Claudia Collier a bit worried.

"While many local solar owners and environmentalists showed up and spoke to Commissioner Echols about their concerns, the general public was mostly absent or silent," observes Collier. "I hope this doesn't give the PSC a 'green light' to O.K. the rate increase, thinking that Georgians just don't care." 

But most people care about paying more on their electric bill. Commissioner Echols encourages people to call, write or email the PSC with their concerns. He says they're likely to get a personal answer back because the public so rarely weighs in on PSC matters.

Dooley, Gunning and Gainey and the rest of the Green Tea Coalition hope others will take him up on the invitation.

"These are elected officials that hear from Georgia Power's lobbyists every single day," reminds Gunning.

"They need to hear from regular Georgians."