WASHINGTON–What runs on $6,500 a year and makes the powerful Georgia Power Company squirm and fret? It’s the Georgia Power Project (GPP) – a citizens’ group composed of a young lawyer, an applied mathematician and an organizer together with twelve reliable volunteers knowledgeable about the mysterious ways of a utility’s financing and consumer gouging.
The GPP started two years ago out of a discussion group of citizens who were concerned about the continuous rate increases and the Georgia Public Service Commission’s rubber-stamping of Georgia Power Company’s wishes. Since July 1972 the Project has developed and advocated before agencies and in the courts consumer action programs toward utilities which would interest people throughout the United States who are reeling from the twin traumas of sharply higher utility prices and worsening pollution.
The first case, challenging Georgia Power’s $48 million rate increase before the Public Service Commission, outlined the following omnipresent ground rules on which these utility monopolies could be taken to court around the country:
– The Georgia Power Company’s “promotional” rate structure which encourages inefficient consumption of ever more electricity;
-A financial sleight-of-hand used to increase rates such as demanding that consumers pay for plants not yet built;
– The Georgia Power Company’s advertising, donations, and other expenses paid by the consumer to strengthen the company’s political power;
-The environmental impact of electric consumption. Particularly, take the use of strip mine coal from Appalachia, and how to minimize it;
-The reasonableness of the Company’s projected growth, its inefficiencies, and that program’s financing;
-The Company’s discriminatory employment practices.
The Public Service Commission reduced the request of Georgia Power from $48 million to $18 million and the decision was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court.
What the GPP came up against in this legal struggle was the utility’s advertising directed toward promoting its rate increase request. The expenses of such advertising are paid for not by the stockholder, but by the ratepayer-consumer. In a Fairness Doctrine complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission, the Project obtained a ruling that state broadcasters had to grant free time for the other side of the story to be told. In December 1973 the Public Service Commission ordered Georgia Power to stop advertising to promote rate increases for the use of electricity inasmuch as the utility was demanding huge rate increases due to the demand for its services.
Like other utilities, Georgia Power has a rate structure which discriminates between residential and industrial customers. The small electricity users pay the highest rates while the large industrial and commercial users pay the lowest rates. This is not only inequitable but also encourages waste and over-consumption by industry and commerce which devour 70 percent of the nation’s energy.
In their tiny Atlanta-based offices, the Project’s staffers, Roger Friedman, Neal Herring and David Schlissel, prepare their cases and strategies as if they were getting ready for the international chess championships. They are launching new initiatives which include challenging the quality of service, credit and deposit policy, and involuntary shut-off regulations.
But in addition to preparing detailed briefs and studies, they also see the broader importance of informing, organizing and involving citizens for basic reform of the utility monopolies in Georgia and elsewhere around the country.
Many towns and cities in the U.S. have long had municipally owned power plants which are members of the American Public Power Association in Washington, D.C. The GPP thinks municipalization of the city of Atlanta’s power distribution would lower the cost of borrowing money, permit the use of revenues for rate reduction, allow tax relief for expanded city services, retain revenues from non-residence use of electricity within the city, and permit local control in contrast to control by distant holding companies and New York banks.
Such utility issues are ripe for informed public debate in Georgia because of these citizens’ efforts toward consumer protection working on a shoestring of funds and a great deal of determination.
For more information about how to study your local utility, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Georgia Power Project, P.O. Box 1856, Atlanta, Georgia 30301, and to the Environmental Action Foundation, 720 DuPont Circle Building, Washington, D.C. 20036.