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Georgia lawmakers seek to revive consumer advocate for utility rates

Georgia Power customers have been facing higher electricity bills due to various factors, such as the cost overruns of the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion, the coal ash cleanup, and the fuel costs. Some state legislators want to restore a consumer advocate office that would represent the public interest in utility rate cases and challenge the decisions of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).

Consumer’s utility counsel proposed

A bill introduced by Republican Sen. Chuck Hufstetler would create a consumer’s utility counsel, an independent director who would have legal standing to advocate for the consumers in electric rate cases and other proceedings affecting customers. The bill, Senate Bill 457, passed the Senate Regulated Industries Committee unanimously last week and now awaits a vote by the full Senate.

Hufstetler said he filed the bill in response to the PSC’s approval of multiple rate hikes for Georgia Power, which he said were not adequately scrutinized. He said the consumer’s utility counsel would provide more robust information and analysis to the regulators and the public before making utility decisions.

“They would have legal standing on behalf of the consumer, and we would join 46 other states, including all those around us, in having someone who advocates for this cause,” Hufstetler said. “Of course, it would be subject to budgetary appropriations, but it would be pretty minimal cost.”

Georgia lawmakers seek to revive consumer advocate for utility rates

The bill would restore a consumer utility counsel that was shut down in 2008 by former Gov. Sonny Perdue amid a budget crisis caused by the recession. The office used to review thousands of complaints and take legal action against utility companies on behalf of the public.

PSC defends its role and decisions

The PSC, which regulates Georgia Power and other public utilities that provide electricity, natural gas, and telecommunications services, has opposed the bill, arguing that it already has a public interest advocacy staff that represents residential, small commercial and industrial groups in utility cases. The PSC’s executive director, Reece McAlister, said there is no need to reestablish an office of the consumer’s utility counsel, which he said would duplicate the work of the PSC staff and add unnecessary bureaucracy and costs.

The PSC also defended its recent decisions on Georgia Power’s rate cases, which included a stipulated agreement reached in August among Georgia Power, PSC staff, and several advocacy groups. The agreement would allow Georgia Power to recover $7.6 billion from its customers for the Vogtle project, which is expected to be completed in 2024, and cap the maximum amount paid by customers at that level. Any expenses exceeding $7.6 billion would be covered by Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Co.

The PSC said the agreement was the result of an open and transparent process that involved thousands of pages of testimony and reports, and countless hours of review by the PSC staff, the independent construction monitor, commissioners and stakeholders. The PSC said the agreement takes into consideration the impact on ratepayers’ wallets, as well as the benefits of the Vogtle project, which will provide clean and reliable energy for decades.

Consumer and environmental groups divided

The bill to create a consumer’s utility counsel has received mixed reactions from consumer and environmental groups. Some, such as Georgia Watch and the Georgia Interfaith Power & Light and Partnership for Southern Equity, have signed the stipulated agreement with Georgia Power and the PSC, and have expressed reservations about the bill. They said they are concerned that the bill would undermine the existing public interest advocacy staff and the collaborative process that led to the agreement.

Others, such as the Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Southern Environmental Law Center, have supported the bill and criticized the PSC’s approval of Georgia Power’s rate hikes. They said the PSC has failed to protect the consumers from paying for the cost overruns and delays of the Vogtle project, which they said is risky and unnecessary. They said the consumer’s utility counsel would provide a stronger voice for the consumers and hold the utility and the regulators accountable.

Michael Hawthorne, the organizing director of the Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund, urged the PSC to reconsider its decisions and think about the hardworking Georgia families who are struggling to pay their bills.

“Think about the mother who’s raising her kids by herself. Think about our teachers who are severely underpaid, who have to deal with so much and go home and still pay more for energy bills,” Hawthorne said.


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