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A bad climate for Georgia Power rate increases
08292018 TOM BAXTER
Tom Baxter

If you haven’t done so already, take a minute to compare your last two electricity bills with what you paid in September and October of last year. You’re probably all too aware how hot it’s been, but the financial impact of that may still be a shock.

When the Atlanta Braves started their march to a World Series victory in 1995, temperatures were topping out in the high 70s. The official high was 97 degrees when the Braves began their post-season series against the St. Louis Cardinals last week, and it was well over 100 degrees on the field. This has been reflected in your power bill.

It was within that thermostat range that Georgia Power Co. CEO Paul Bowers went before the Georgia Public Service Commission last week to ask for a multi-step, typically hard to figure out rate increase that would bring in about $2.2 billion to the utility.

By necessity, rate-increase stories always express the costs to consumers in broad averages — this one is supposed to cost us about $200 a year. But just for fun, go back and calculate what a 7% increase would have cost you in September 2018, and what it would have cost you this year. That’s just a rough calculation, of course. Georgia Power’s request would increase the base rate so that your actual increase would likely be more, and attempts to hold the line on the budget by cutting back on the air conditioning would be futile.

We can make broad estimates, but unless we can say how hot it’s going to be in a given month, we can’t really say how long we’re going to run our air conditioners, and how much more a percentage increase in our bills is going to cost us. Rate hearings have always been an attempt to impose some certainty on the uncertainties of supply and demand. If climate conditions become more extreme and erratic, that will be much harder to do.

This year’s autumn heat wave has given notoriety to a meteorological term new to this century, the “flash drought.” It refers to the way this year’s high temperatures caused many areas of the South, including North Georgia, to go from record levels of moisture to drought conditions in only a month or so.

Flash droughts are a perfect metaphor for an era in which climate has become political, and the thermometer is no reliable arbiter for partisan disputes. 

Don’t believe there really is a drought? Flash droughts give you room to hold on to your opinion, if you hold it narrowly enough. They begin as a “pin-sized swelter,” which spreads over an area of sharply defined wet and dry zones. So there could be an extreme drought in one area, while people 20 or 30 miles away could be experiencing heavy, even torrential rain.

By the same token, a changing climate producing extremes of both hot and cold (such as the early snow storms this year in the northern Rockies) and wet and dry does not bode well for political consensus, even if everybody can agree that the past weekend’s change in the weather was a welcome relief.

The rate increase request currently being deliberated over is not the one, incidentally, which will ask ratepayers to shoulder the enormous burden of the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion. That’s coming later. 

This increase is largely devoted to covering the costs of storm damage and adhering to environmental regulations, two subjects which have much to do with each other, and threaten to become much more complicated in the years ahead. Only last month, Georgia Power had to drain its partially decommissioned coal ash pit at Plant McManus in Brunswick after a storm turned it into a pond for a third time, according to The Brunswick News

Some of those who testified at the hearing last week don’t think ratepayers should be forced to pay for the coal ash cleanup and question how badly a company with a profit margin as comfortable as this one needs a rate increase. 

But it would be undeniable evidence of another sort of climate change if the PSC were to deny the utility’s request when it passes down its decision in December. If it’s this hot next fall, there’s every chance we’ll be paying even more to endure it.

Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.