By Nathaniel Smith
While December represents the most wonderful time of year for some, the financial pressures of the holiday season can stretch already-thin wallets and pocketbooks even more.
As temperatures drop, many families face tough decisions about whether to turn on their heat and run their furnaces. For lower-income and elderly Georgians on fixed budgets, utility bills are a substantial and overwhelming share of monthly income.
What Georgians need this holiday season is real bill relief and open, honest conversations about our energy future.
Currently before the Georgia Public Service Commission is the question of whether to allow Georgia Power to move forward with two new nuclear units under construction at Plant Vogtle. Georgia Power is asking the commission to greenlight a price tag that is now double what was originally projected and to ensure that its customers, not its shareholders, pay for all of it.
Georgians deserve a full and fair process for a decision of this magnitude. Instead, the commission is expected to issue a decision about the project today, more than 40 days ahead of the original schedule, thereby rushing a multibillion-dollar resolution that will have statewide ramifications for decades to come.
If the commission approves Georgia Power’s huge cost increase, it will have rubberstamped a transfer of billions in project costs from the utility to Georgia’s families, schools, and churches.
A decision to put millions of Georgians on the hook for a project that is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule is bad for everyone, but especially for Georgia Power’s most vulnerable customers.
Low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to electricity use; Atlanta has been recognized as having the fourth-highest energy burden – the percent of household income spent on energy – in the country. Our city is also home to the third-largest income gap in the nation. The median income for black households is less than $27,000, while the median income for white households is almost $85,000.
Under today’s conditions, Atlanta’s low-income households require an average of $465 in bill relief per year simply to bring electricity bills back in line with the national average. Those households need significant help lowering their electricity bills.
But if the Vogtle units are completed at Georgia Power’s new price tag, their bills will increase at an average rate of $110 each year. This is real money to low-income families, and could mean being forced to decide between heating their home and putting food on the table. No one should have to make that choice.
After years of paying for a project that has yet to, and may ultimately never, provide a single kilowatt-hour of electricity, Georgia citizens need the real bill relief that solar and energy savings programs can deliver.
Over a gigawatt of low-cost, homegrown solar power has been added to Georgia’s grid, saving customers several hundred million dollars and creating thousands of local jobs.
Every month, Georgia Power is spending more at Plant Vogtle than its total energy efficiency program budget for the entire year. Energy efficiency programs can meet energy needs at a cost four times less than the cost to finish the Vogtle project. These programs deliver savings to participating customers and lower average bills for all customers, but they don’t get the funding they deserve.
We hope the commission will hold off on giving Georgia Power what it really wants this holiday season: a blank check for a long-delayed, failing project that continues to strain customer bills. Instead, we hope the commission does the right thing for Georgia Power’s 2.5 million customers, who will bear all of the risk and none of the reward if the utility gets what it wants.
Public Service Commission, let’s give the gift of energy equity this holiday season.
Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies and actions that promote equity and shared prosperity in metropolitan Atlanta.