Georgia Power Co. asked the Public Service Commission to raise rates by nearly $11 at a public hearing Monday in Atlanta.
The request has drawn the ire of customers who say the rate increase is too much, especially at a time when so many are struggling financially.
The company serves much of the state, including Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Hoschton, Braselton and Buford.
Those monthly bills would increase another $7 through 2013 as the utility recoups the cost of installing equipment to meet tighter environmental standards and builds new natural gas generators at Plant McDonough.
Shawn Howell, lead services coordinator for Ninth District Opportunity, which offers assistance to North Georgians who are struggling to pay energy bills, said the organization is very concerned about the proposed rate hike.
“We have had a huge increase in people who aren’t able to pay their bills as it is,” Howell said. “We’re seeing a completely new clientele with people who have lost their jobs coming in, so the impact is just tremendous.”
Georgia Power’s request comes just before Ninth District Opportunity begins its low income heating assistance program. Heating assistance starts Nov. 1 for senior citizens and Dec. 1 for all other low income families.
Lynn Wallace, a spokeswoman for Georgia Power, said the rate increase is needed to pay for infrastructure investments.
“We’ve actually invested about $5 billion since 2007 — which is when we had our last base rate case — in reliability, things like transmission and distribution lines and smart grids, which is our smart meters. We’re also building some natural gas units at one of our plants that are scheduled to come on line starting in January 2012,” Wallace said. “All of this costs money ... We’re requesting the increase to cover those costs.”
Wallace said the projects were necessary investments, especially now that more people are using high-energy electronics like flat screen TVs.
“The Southeast is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. A lot of people are moving to Georgia, and electricity needs have increased,” Wallace said. “The overall energy usage has increased dramatically over the last three years as well as the population increasing. In order to provide reliable electricity to our customers, we have to have the infrastructure in place.”
Wallace said new environmental regulations may also require additional funding.
“The Environmental Protection Division has new environmental standards regarding the emissions that can come out of coal plants,” Wallace said. “In order to continue to be in compliance, we need to look at potentially putting additional controls on our coal plants.”
As part of its proposal, Georgia Power could more frequently revise its prices, giving state regulators less time for review.
Right now, the utility is required to set basic electricity rates at least once every three years. Now the power company is proposing to evaluate its prices before the start of the year. If Georgia Power expects to make more money than allowed by regulators, prices would drop. If the utility expects to make too little, the firm could raise rates.
Georgia Power CEO Michael Garrett said the utility has already tried to blunt price hikes for customers by delaying the construction of a new plant, holding off on fuel surcharges and cutting other costs.
“Let me first acknowledge that the state of the economy makes this request very difficult,” he said.
Bill Edge, a spokesman for the Public Service Commission, said there are two more public hearings on Nov. 8 and Dec. 1 in Atlanta. The commission is scheduled to vote on Georgia Power’s request on Dec. 21
Other hearings around the state have drawn large numbers — 120 in Savannah, 85 in Rome and 60 in Macon.
“You tend to see more people for the Georgia Power hearings because they are a bigger company and it’s a fairly significant request,” Edge said. “It is a large request but some others in the past have been fairly significant too.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.