PSC could let Georgia utilities resume late-payer service shut offs

    The Georgia Public Service Commission Tuesday voted to let utilities resume shutting off service for non-payment now that many of the state's toughest restrictions designed to slow the viral spread of COVID-19 have been lifted. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

    State regulators are set to decide Tuesday whether Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light can begin shutting off service again next month to homes where residents have fallen behind on payments.

    The two companies – which are both subsidiaries of the Southern Company – were among the dozens of utilities that halted the practice of disconnecting service for non-payment when the novel coronavirus first brought the state’s economy to a standstill and left many Georgians stuck at home without a paycheck.

    The state Public Service Commission will decide today whether it’s time to let utilities go back to shutting off service for non-payment now that many of the toughest restrictions designed to slow the viral spread have been lifted.

    Georgia Power would resume service cutoffs on July 15. Atlanta Gas Light’s natural gas marketers would start disconnections on July 1.

    The commission’s staff has recommended approving the plan Tuesday as a way of giving customers about a month’s notice that the moratorium on disconnections is coming to an end, allowing time to arrange a payment plan.

    Brad Carver, a lobbyist for SCANA Energy and a representative of the larger group of natural gas providers in Georgia, told commissioners last week that the ability to cut off someone’s service is a “major tool” in warding off bad debt.

    “We think that this a reasonable approach. We’re glad that we’re moving forward and moving past the situation we’re in right now,” Carver said.

    “We know that the stay-at-home order is being lifted. Our economy is starting to reopen. A lot of the dire predictions for the state of Georgia have not come true, which is very good news, but we still have a ways to go,” he said.

    Natural gas providers would also “consider health implications when prioritizing shut-offs,” according to a document summarizing the PSC staff’s recommendation.

    Georgia’s medically fragile – such as those with a chronic lung disease – remain under a shelter-in-place order through June 12. Gov. Brian Kemp, who first declared a public health emergency in mid-March, has peeled back restrictions for most businesses.

    As of Monday, there were nearly 48,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia and 2,074 people had died from the disease.

    The outbreak has also caused record high unemployment in a short period of time and that economic uncertainty lingers.

    Chandra Farley, just energy director for the Partnership for Southern Equity, which advocates for racial equity, commended the commissioners and utility leaders for looking out for customers affected by the pandemic. But she argued that it is too soon to map out the ending for that show of compassion, particularly with cutoffs set to start as the summer heat arrives.

    “Extreme heat plus electricity bill spikes plus the highest unemployment level since the Great Depression are a potentially deadly combination,” Farley said.

    “And let’s remember that just because Georgia is in various stages of reopening, our employment crisis has not ended,” she said. “People not only lost their jobs but many of these jobs are simply not coming back.”

    John Kraft, spokesman for Georgia Power, said Monday that the utility is working the commission to develop special installment payment plans for residential and business customers that will provide “flexibility and options to best meet their needs.”

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.