Mary Pitts of Macon was shocked when she got a July electric bill of $273 for her two-bedroom house. It was more than a fifth of her and her husband's combined monthly income of $1,348.
She was even more upset when she learned that Georgia Power Co. was seeking a $1 billion rate increase. "My husband and I are on a fixed income for disability, and we didn't get a cost-of-living [increase] this year," said Pitts, 53. "We only have so much money each month and that's it."
Pitts walked door-to-door collecting 98 names on a petition opposing the rate hike, and presented it to the Georgia Public Service Commission at a hearing in Macon.
Lauretta Jackson, 60, a clerk at the Bibb County Courthouse, told the commissioners her electric bills were $606 in January and $549 in February even though her house is well insulated with double-paned windows. "I never set my thermostat over 70 in the winter or under 80 in the summer," Jackson said. "I'm opposed to the hike. It's going to hurt."
The phased rate increase initially would add about $11 to a typical monthly residential bill in January. Five smaller increases through February 2013 would eventually add up to an extra $18 a month.
In response to the $1 billion request, AARP Georgia called on the PSC to hold hearings, which drew hundreds of Georgians. The PSC is expected to vote on the proposal Dec. 21.
"The rate increases would be a big blow, especially to older Georgians who pay a large portion of their budget for medical and health costs," said Will Phillips, associate state director for advocacy for AARP Georgia.
One former member of the PSC agreed the request is ill-timed.
"The company is asking for one of the biggest rate increases in history and asking for more profit during one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression," said Angela Speir Phelps, now executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group. "Most people are just trying to survive the best they can right now. They don't have extra cash to send to Georgia Power to pad their profit margin."
This increase would come on top of a legislature-approved hike of $3.73 per month, scaling up to $9 over four years, to pay for Georgia Power's nuclear expansion.
Georgia Power serves 2.3 million customers in all but four of the state's 159 counties. Georgia Power spokesperson Lynn Wallace said the increase is necessary to recover a $5 billion investment in capital costs and to meet environmental regulations.
For those over 65 with household income of less than $14,355, a $14 discount a month is available. Apply online for the Georgia Power Senior Discount or call 1-888-660-5890 toll-free and choose option 8 for more details.
"We understand that higher costs are a problem for people who are financially challenged," Wallace said.
Nationwide, the average cost of residential electricity was 11.32 cents per kilowatt hour for the first six months of this year. In Georgia, it was 9.8 cents, ranking the state 31st, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Mary Pitts said she would have to cut other expenses to pay higher electric bills.
"You still got to pay for your water, your taxes, your mortgage, your insurance on the house and the car," Pitts said. "And you have to eat."
The LIHEAP Clearinghouse offers information on programs to help those who are having difficulty paying their Georgia Power electric bill.
AARP Georgia hopes members who oppose the proposed $1 billion rate hike request by Georgia Power will contact the Georgia Public Service Commission online, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 1-800-282-5813. Or you can write to the PSC at 244 Washington St. SW, Atlanta, GA 30334-9062.
Don O'Briant is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.