When Electricity Shutoffs in a Pandemic Become an Election Issue

Affordable utilities and climate policy are on the line in Georgia’s Public Service Commission elections. Nine other states are voting on similar agencies.

Timothy Pratt   |    October 27, 2020

Daniel Blackman is one of the candidates running for Georgia’s Public Service Commission. (Daniel for Georgia page / Facebook)|In Atlanta

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Affordable utilities and climate policy are on the line in Georgia’s Public Service Commission elections. Nine other states are voting on similar agencies.

Harriet Feggins lives in Vine City, a historically Black neighborhood in Atlanta where people have  struggled with low incomes and high electric bills, or what’s known as a “high energy burden.” 

She’s a nurse with private clients, many of whom are elderly. In late spring, one after the other canceled on her because their families were afraid of risking exposure to the coronavirus. Feggins was also afraid of exposure: She has asthma, as does one of her two daughters. Her income slowed to a trickle. She stocked up on medicine for her daughter, fearing there would be shortages. Come July, she found herself owing $580 to Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility company. She shut off breakers and her family of three stayed in one room in an attempt to use less electricity. 

One Friday, the electric company shut off her power. She benefited from the kindness of strangers and soon got help paying her bill. But tens of thousands of Georgians may not be as fortunate and may find their fates tied to a government agency few have heard of: the Public Service Commission, or PSC. 

Georgia’s PSC regulates electricity, natural gas, and telecommunications; similar bodies in other states may have different names or slightly varying responsibilities. All have at least one thing in common: “they’re incredibly undervalued and underappreciated,” said Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. 

Next Tuesday, voters in Georgia and nine other states will get a chance to elect new commissioners, not only affecting what millions of people pay for utilities, but also influencing policies on such vital issues as climate change, clean energy, and broadband internet service.

In Georgia, two out of five seats on the PSC are up for election, and both races feature Republican incumbents facing off against Democrats who are critical of how the commission has handled key issues, particularly the thousands of utility shutoffs the PSC has enabled during the pandemic. 

The PSC’s current members initially responded to the pandemic by approving a moratorium on utility shutoffs from March to mid-July; Georgia Power offered payment plans and forgave late fees for customers who participated.  But then, despite public outcry, PSC members voted unanimously to lift the moratorium, resulting in more than 40,000 shutoffs in July and August. 

The decision is an example of “putting power and profits over people,” said Wan Smith, Just Energy community organizer with the Partnership for Southern Equity. The nonprofit organization is working with The People’s PSC, a coalition that aims to hold the commission accountable to Black, brown, Indigenous and working-class ratepayers. Smith said that with this election, voters have an opportunity to elect “commissioners who act … in the interests of everyday Georgians.” 

After lifting the moratorium, the PSC issued a statement emphasizing that Georgia Power’s repayment plans would continue through March 2021, and that charitable support may also be available. “Low-income gas and electric customers should contact the Salvation Army Project Share office, and apply for assistance,” said Commissioner Tim Echols. The statement also noted that “anyone suffering from a debilitating disease,” including COVID-19, “cannot be cut off.”

“That’s a set-up,” said Feggins about the repayment plans. “When it’s done, you still have to pay at the end,” and for people who are out of work, making those payments will be difficult to impossible.

“The reason there are shutoffs is the bills are unaffordable,” said John Howat, senior energy analyst with the National Consumer Law Center, a consumer advocacy group. “Almost all utilities will prescribe payment plans, but if their terms are unaffordable, they’re destined to fail.” Howat’s organization has worked with states to implement payment plans tailored to household income, with flexibility for such issues as sickness, and even “structures that wipe the slate clean”—or forgive debt—for low-income households. He said Georgia is “behind” when it comes to such plans. 

Daniel Blackman, a longtime environmental advocate and policy adviser, is the Democratic candidate for PSC District 4. He has visited nearly a third of the state’s 159 counties since July, and said he has seen the effect of utility shut-offs. He learned of families losing Section 8 housing vouchers after falling behind on electric bills, and of a young man who tried to jump off a bridge after losing electricity and then his apartment. In most places, the candidate has had to explain what the PSC is and what it does. 

“Races like this don’t get a lot of coverage,” he said. “But it affects everybody in their pocketbook, and [can affect] who stays in poverty.” This is true not only because of decisions such as ending the moratorium, but also because commissioners can influence policies on issues like expanding broadband. “If you don’t have broadband and electricity, you get left behind,” Blackman said. At the same time, he added, “I’m not [against] utilities making a profit. But Georgia Power has consistently made a profit with every [rate] increase that has been approved.” 

Blackman is running against Republican incumbent Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., a former lawmaker who spent 20 years in the state House of Representatives before serving on the PSC from 1998 to 2002, and again from 2009 to the present. McDonald is known for his enthusiasm for solar energy, but only when it comes to free market initiatives; he doesn’t support subsidies or requirements that could expand solar infrastructure, which generates less than 2 percent of Georgia’s electricity. McDonald has repeatedly voted in favor of a controversial nuclear power plant expansion. When asked about climate change last year, he told the BBC that it’s not “a bunch of ‘booey’ because there may be some cause. But this Earth has been here a long time. And I’m a strong believer; I’m a Christian, and I know who’s in charge.” A Libertarian candidate, Nathan Wilson, is also in the race.

In Georgia’s PSC District 1, there’s a three-way race between Democratic nominee Robert Bryant, Republican incumbent Jason Shaw, who was appointed in 2019 when his predecessor resigned, and a Libertarian candidate, Elizabeth Melton.

Both Blackman and Bryant are campaigning on platforms that include expanding clean energy, lowering utility bills, and increasing broadband access in rural areas. 

Bryant said he thought “lifting the moratorium was irresponsible—I would’ve advocated for maintaining [it] until unemployment stabilizes.” The candidate also said he supported “full forgiveness of debt for low-income and jobless Georgians.” And he said that concerns about climate change would lead him to push for “retraining people for clean, sustainable careers.”  

Whoever ultimately fills the two seats, “we expect them to be more in tune with the citizens who elect them—you should be accountable to us and not the utilities,” said Phyllis Richardson, government affairs coordinator at Georgia WAND, a nonprofit organization that works on the intersection of issues such as military spending, nuclear power, and racism. 

Georgia WAND has long criticized the PSC for rubber stamping what they say are flawed plans to expand Plant Vogtle, the nation’s only nuclear power plant to gain approval for  building new reactors since the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in 1979. When federal regulators approved the expansion in 2012, the two new reactors were expected to cost $14 billion and to be finished in 2017. Since then, the project’s cost has ballooned to more than $27 billion, costing Georgia ratepayers on average around $100 a year. “The plant is already behind schedule and well over budget,” said Richardson. “That money could have been spent on individuals already struggling” during the pandemic, she said.

Besides the burden on utility customers, Plant Vogtle has been linked to disastrous environmental contamination and soaring cancer rates in rural Burke County, where the facility is located. Burke County is nearly 47 percent Black, yet residents are subject to decisions made by an all-white PSC. “We’re at a point where it’s OK to contaminate communities as long as it’s not you,” Richardson said. If Blackman and Bryant are both elected, they would become only the second and third Black commissioners in the body’s 141-year history.

To the west, Louisiana’s PSC also has two seats up for election next week. Grassroots organizers there say that the outcomes will have a major effect on climate policy, especially since Governor John Bel Edwards has charged a task force with developing recommendations for making Louisiana a net-zero carbon emissions state by 2050. “These two seats are crucial to carrying out those recommendations,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy. 

“It cannot be overstated how important these races are,” Burke added. Yet, she said, there’s a pervasive lack of awareness about the agency. She said she’s been going to monthly commission meetings since 2013, and usually only sees lobbyists, industry staff and lawyers— “with no members of the public.” One of Burke’s goals lately is “to have conversations with people even knowing what I’m referring to.”  

Elections for PSCs and similar agencies are also taking place in Alabama, Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota next week.

The activists, energy experts, and candidates interviewed for this story noted that PSC members can use their positions to go beyond decisions on utility rates and payment plans. “Ideally, they can help inform the next version of policy,” said Bresette.

In Georgia, Blackman and Bryant have indicated that they would use their seats on the commission to push for state and federal policies that align with their platforms.“We can make noise, bring stakeholders to the table,” said Bryant.