ATLANTA - More than 1.4 million natural-gas customers across the state would be on the hook for $400 million if Atlanta Gas Light Co. persuades the Georgia Public Service Commission to accept its financing plan for expansion.
Just as Georgia Power Co. won approval earlier this year to charge customers to build two nuclear reactors while they are under construction, the regulated monopoly that distributes gas to homes and businesses is seeking its own guarantee of construction costs. And just as consumer groups mounted opposition to the electric utilitys Plant Vogtle guarantee, they are making the same arguments against the pipeline proposal.
I just dont think that the public has grasped how much this might impact them, said John Coffman, an attorney representing the AARP advocacy group for seniors.
The Public Service Commission, which accepted Georgia Powers request, votes in October on the new one.
Even though the economy has slowed, we do have growth, said Tami Gerke, spokeswoman for Atlanta Gas.
The 10-year Strategic Infrastructure Development and Enhancement, or STRIDE, program would begin by adding pipelines in Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, Coweta and other metro Atlanta counties that have experienced steady growth.
Traditionally, investors have borne the cost of construction with the expectation that the added customers will repay the expense. Because investors were taking a risk, regulators set utility rates high enough to generate an expected rate of return that will be attractive to those with money.
Under the STRIDE proposal, Atlanta Gas would face less risk because every customer would pay an added 95 cents per month, starting next month and continuing until 2022. The proposal seeks to build on a program begun in 1998 that levies a surcharge of $1.95 a month to upgrade pipes across the state for safety reasons.
The independent gas marketers who deal with consumers charge the expense and pass it along to Atlanta Gas.
Coffman warns that construction-cost guarantees often result in higher bills for consumers. If regulators consider such costs as part of a traditional rate case, then complete audits of the utilitys books frequently uncover other ways to economize, he said.
"When you start doing piecemeal, these single-issue mechanisms ... generally, they allow rates to be higher than they would be in other cases, he said.
However, the company says its proposal for a new surcharge will save the $1 million expense of a traditional rate case for each of the next 10 years. Atlanta Gas Light hasnt gotten permission to raise its base rates through a traditional rate case since 1993.
Every time a utility applies for a rate case, we dont always get it, Gerke said. So for us, it seemed the smartest thing to do was to take the infrastructure out of the base rate.