ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co. customers will get a reduction of $5.32 on the average monthly electric bill after the state Public Service Commission (PSC) voted Thursday to lower the Atlanta-based utility’s fuel recovery costs.
The PSC and Georgia Power agreed on a two-year plan that will reduce fuel rates by 17.2%, for a total of about $740 million. The new rates take effect June 1.
In addition, a special interim reduction on fuel rates this summer will lower the typical customer’s bill by $10.26 per month through September.
“We saw an opportunity to … provide additional relief to customers navigating the impacts of COVID-19 this summer,” said Paul Bowers, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power.
The reduction in the company’s fuel rate is driven primarily by lower natural gas prices as a result of increased natural gas supplies.
Fuel rates are set separately from base rates. The commission approved an increase in base rates for Georgia Power last December, raising its basic service fee for residential customer from $10 to $14 a month through 2022.
The utility’s last fuel rate adjustment was in 2016.
ATLANTA – Georgia’s effective but expensive film tax credit came up for discussion Thursday during a legislative hearing on deep budget cuts lawmakers will face when they resume the 2020 General Assembly session next month.
The state’s growing film industry generated about $8.5 billion in economic impact during the last fiscal year, including $2.9 billion in direct spending, Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, told members of a state Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
About 90,000 Georgians were employed in film and TV productions before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the industry, Wilson said.
However, Georgia’s most expensive tax credit also costs state taxpayers about $400 million a year.
With Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders looking to reduce state spending even before COVID-19 hit the state, the cost of the tax credit prompted two critical audits last January. Those audits, in turn, helped spur the introduction of legislation calling for stricter rules on the transfer or sale of unused credits, a common practice for production groups that base part of their movie-making work outside of Georgia.
Prohibiting the transfer of film tax credits might convince more studios that film in Georgia to move their entire operations to the Peach State, Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, a member of the subcommittee, suggested Thursday.
But Wilson said Georgia would lose a significant amount of its film business if the state tried to force film producers to put their headquarters here or lose the tax credits.
“The studios that are writing the checks and paying the money are in Los Angeles,” he said. “A lot of them are moving operations here. That doesn’t mean they’re going to leave the talent base they have in California.”
Meanwhile, Wilson outlined how the economic development agency plans to prioritize its operations while cutting its budget by nearly $5 million to meet 14% across-the-board spending reductions state agencies are being required to offer up to help offset a substantial loss of tax revenue resulting from the coronavirus-driven economic lockdown.
He said the department’s marketing activities in global commerce and tourism will absorb the brunt of the cuts rather than the payroll.
“We have a great pipeline [of potential projects] in practically every division,” he said. “We decided to keep personnel so we could work the pipeline we have now.”
But Wilson warned that depleting the agency’s marketing funds will only work in the short run, to get the department through the tight fiscal 2021 budget.
“The long-term impact will be significant if we don’t come back with marketing,” he said. “We are going to have to grow back.”
ATLANTA – Initial unemployment claims in Georgia fell last week for the third time in the last four weeks, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.
However, the agency also released a regional breakdown of April unemployment that showed record highs in many parts of Georgia as the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic deepened.
Record joblessness occurred in Atlanta, coastal Georgia, Northeast Georgia, Northwest Georgia, the River Valley Region surrounding Columbus and the Three Rivers Region southwest of Atlanta.
Whitfield County had the state’s highest unemployment rate last month at 20.6%, followed by Murray County at 20.1%, Clay County at 18.1%, Chattooga County at 17.1%, Glynn County at 17.0%, Chatham County at 16.4%, Clayton County at 16.0%, Meriwether County at 15.8%, Troup County at 15.4%, and Heard County at 15.1%.
“We are seeing all-time high unemployment rates across a majority of the state,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said. “We are continuing to work with employers on effective strategies to get Georgians back to work in both a safe and economically efficient way.”
The 165,499 initial unemployment claims filed last week in Georgia were down about 12,000 from the previous week.
Weekly unemployment benefits paid out during the last week totaled $159.5 million, down $28 million from the previous week, the first decline in weekly benefits paid since the week ending March 21. Since that date, the state has paid out nearly $1.1 billion in unemployment benefits, more than the last three years combined.
Over the past ten weeks, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for 563,631 initial unemployment claims, the largest by far. The health care and social assistance sector is next with 254,406 claims, followed closely by retail trade with 252,688 claims.
The labor department is continuing to work with employers to announce job opportunities that are critical during the coronavirus crisis – some in the workplace and others that can be done from home. More than 101,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger renewed calls Thursday for voters who have requested absentee ballots to send them in the mail or put them in a local drop-off box ahead of the June 9 primary election.
More than 600,000 Georgia voters have returned absentee ballots so far, marking roughly 40% of the 1.5 million voters who requested them since March when the coronavirus pandemic escalated in the state, Raffensperger said.
At a news conference Thursday, Raffensperger urged voters whose mail-in ballots are “sitting on your kitchen table” to make sure they are returned by 7 p.m. on June 9, after which ballots will not be counted.
Raffensperger called for as many people as possible to vote by mail rather than in person to lower the risk for spreading the virus among voters and poll workers, many of whom are older individuals more vulnerable to the virus’ health impacts. State election officials are also allowing counties to install drop-off boxes where voters can place their absentee ballots instead of mailing them.
“We need as many of you as possible to use this safe and easy voting tool,” Raffensperger. “The [coronavirus] threat is still a potential threat to orderly elections and in-person voting.”
As of Wednesday, Raffensperger said more than 100,000 Georgians have voted in person during the early-voting period, which began May 18. Many precincts have already seen long lines with people forced to keep their distance from each other while queued up to vote and spend time canceling absentee ballots they requested since they are voting in person.
A handful of elections officials and a voter contracted the virus recently in McDuffie and Appling counties, highlighting the high risk brought by ramped-up voting numbers on June 9. The virus has also complicated efforts by county elections officials to process an influx of absentee ballot applications and ballots that have arrived in recent weeks.
Fulton County’s elections director, Rick Barron, noted Wednesday his office was slow to turn around ballots after a staff member died from coronavirus in early April. Barron said his office has since caught up with the application backlog amid complaints from many voters who still had not received a ballot weeks after requesting one.
“It has not gone as quickly as we had hoped,” Barron said in a virtual news conference Wednesday. “But we finally did get caught up, and we can look forward to the future and having this process go smoother.”
Speaking Thursday, Raffensperger attributed the slow processing time in Fulton to “missteps” and asked voters who have not yet received their absentee ballots to “just be patient.”
“You’ll get your ballot shortly,” he said.
To speed up ballot processing, Raffensperger said his office has sent high-speed scanners to counties to help them reduce their absentee ballot turnaround times. The scanners are part of the state’s new $104 million voting machines that will see their first large-scale statewide test on the June 9 primary.
Amid the push for mail-in voting, Raffensperger also touted Georgia’s push to keep polling places open during the early-voting period. On Thursday, he claimed the state has “maintained more in-person voting options during this pandemic than any other state in the country combined.”
“We have cut through the political rhetoric, ignored the talking heads and put you the voter first,” Raffensperger said. “We have maintained your right to choose in this election.”
ATLANTA – Atlanta-based Southern Co. is taking the next step toward ending its reliance on fossil fuels as a source of electrical generation.
Two years after Georgia Power’s parent company committed to a goal of “low- to no-carbon” by 2050, Southern Chairman, President and CEO Tom Fanning announced Wednesday the utility giant’s new goal is to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by that target year.
During Southern’s annual shareholders meeting, Fanning also reaffirmed the company’s intermediate goal of a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 levels by 2030.
Driven primarily by low natural gas prices and tougher government regulations on carbon, Southern’s carbon emissions have steadily decreased over the past decade as the company began retiring some of its coal-burning power plants. During the first quarter of this year, the portion of the utility’s energy mix derived from coal fell to just 13%, down from 22% last year.
As a result, the company now expects to achieve the 50% reduction goal well in advance of 2030, possibly as early as 2025.
“I continue to be confident that we are prepared and well-positioned to meet the needs of our customers, employees, communities and investors well into the future and will succeed in the transition to a net-zero carbon future,” Fanning said. “As always, we are committed to providing clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to the customers we are privileged to serve.”
Fanning said reaching the net-zero goal will involve continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing Southern’s commitment to energy efficiency.
Southern also plans to incorporate negative carbon solutions, including technology-based approaches such as direct air capture of carbon as well as natural methods like planting trees in areas that lack forests, he said.
Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Southern’s new goal of net-zero carbon emissions is an improvement over its previous target of low- to no-carbon because it’s more specific.
“Net zero fits more cleanly within the international framework, wherein it’s commonly said that in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Ebersbach said. “So on balance, while many details remain unanswered about how they plan to get to net zero, this is a good thing.”
But Stephen Stetson, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said Southern’s plan isn’t aggressive enough considering the pace of global climate change.
“We don’t have three decades to wait,” he said. “The urgency of the moment requires more than tree planning and long-term R&D plans.”
Fanning said Southern Co. will update its progress in a report to be issued later this year.