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Democrat candidates run on changes for energy policy; Republicans defend power price, reliability

Maggie Lee
Credit: Kelly Jordan Power meters in Atlanta. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

The five elected Georgians who regulate many utilities have a big say over your power bill and the whole state’s air and water quality.

Two of the all-Republican, five-person panel are up for election this year. They are defending what they call cheap, reliable power against critics who think things could be fairer and greener.

Public service commissioners tend to campaign on a what they see as the right mix of the many things they have to balance: what’s a fair electricity cost for mom-and-pop customers; what kind of return is due to Georgia Power, a company that keeps Georgia running; and increasingly, on what’s right in terms of pollution and public health.

In a Tuesday debate, Republican incumbent District 1 Public Service Commissioner Jason Shaw said Georgians are befitting from things like increased use of natural gas — a cleaner, and now cheaper — fuel source than coal.

“We’re the No. 1 state in the nation to do business and a big portion of that … is because we have reliable and safe utilities at competitive rates,” Shaw said.

His Democratic challenger, Robert Bryant, said he was very concerned that during COVID-19 especially, unemployed and underemployed Georgians had to pay what he called high power bills, after Georgia Power was allowed to resume shutoffs.  Bryant said he agrees with the idea of a balance among electricity stakeholders.

“But the balance should always tip on the side of the public,” Bryant said.

The Public Service Commission voted in June to allow Georgia Power and some natural gas providers to resume some shut-offs for nonpayment, but those commissioners have also argued that Georgia Power already has programs that low-income folks can tap if they need help with bills.

Libertarian candidate Elizabeth Melton said Georgia needs to embrace a “competitive” energy market that she said would give consumers a chance to move toward green energy.

The Public Service Commission’s record includes years of decisions about what Georgia Power can charge customers, even as the utility and its partners continue work on two late, over-budget nuclear reactors near Augusta at Plant Vogtle.

A second debate among candidates for another PSC seat broke along about the same lines as the first.

District 4 Democrat challenger Daniel Blackman said he has no problem with utilities being profitable, but that the Public Service Commission needs to be a bit firmer with Georgia Power.

“At the end of the day, the responsibility is on us to protect the pocketbooks of the ratepayers [typical customers] and consumers,” Blackman said.

Incumbent Republican Commissioner Bubba McDonald said that Georgia’s got to be known to be open for business when industry scouts come looking around.

“One of the first three questions they’re going to ask is: ‘What is my energy cost? And what is the reliability of it?’,” McDonald said. “Georgia shines there.”

Libertarian Nathan Wilson summed up his campaign with a technology point — that Georgia needs to drive down summer energy prices with better energy storage of power generated from green sources.

What wasn’t really popular with much of anyone was the Green New Deal.

On paper, the Green New Deal is an idea from some Democratic members of Congress to accelerate the U.S. away from fossil fuels, in part with a federal clean energy jobs program.

In election season, the Green New Deal has been more of a talking point: shorthand for maybe expensive socialism or maybe the way to save Americans from themselves and their fossil fuels.

McDonald called the Green New Deal “unaffordable.”

But neither of the Democrats made it a plank in their debate platform.

Blackman did said he supports much of it because Georgia has to be more ambitious and aggressive in moving toward a green energy future, though he stopped short of endorsing it in its entirity.

Bryant said he’d like to see more incentives for green energy production. Some states mandate their utilities make some percent of power from renewable sources.  But “mandate” is a strong word, Bryant said.

Every Georgian votes on every PSC member, though each PSC member only represents a district of the state.

Video:

The debates are hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and GPB.  Check the upcoming schedule here and past videos here.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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