More broadband connectivity coming to rural Georgia

ATLANTA – Ocmulgee Electric Membership Corp. (EMC) announced plans Tuesday to launch a fiber-optic network that will provide high-speed internet service to customers in five Middle Georgia counties.

The EMC, headquartered in Eastman, will partner with Kansas City-based Conexon Connect to deploy broadband across 2,100 miles to up to 8,000 customers in Laurens, Dodge, Bleckley, Pulaski and Telfair counties.

The project is being funded through a $19 million federal pandemic relief grant, with the ultimate goal of bringing broadband to all of Ocmulgee EMC’s customers.

“Ocmulgee EMC members deserve access to high-speed internet.,” said W. H. Peacock, Ocmulgee EMC’s general manager. “Our cooperative is pleased to partner with Conexon Connect to make it possible for our members to have broadband at last.”

Conexon launched its first broadband project in Georgia more than a year ago.

“With the addition of the Ocmulgee EMC fiber network, Conexon will be building 200 miles a week in the state, making service available to previously unserved rural Georgia at a pace of 1,000 to 2,000 homes a week,” said Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon.

“I know there are others building in Georgia, but these networks are owned by the people we serve. … I expect the Ocmulgee EMC network, like the other EMC projects, will become a model for the rest of the state and the nation.”

The new project will break ground in September. The first customers are expected to be connected early next year with project completion estimated in two to four years.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

New law set to bring delivery robots to Georgia

ATLANTA – Georgia is about to embark on a new form of transportation technology that fits the needs of the era of e-commerce.

Legislation the General Assembly passed this year that takes effect on Friday will authorize “personal delivery devices” better known as delivery robots to ply the state’s highways and sidewalks.

House Bill 1009, which cleared the Georgia House of Representatives and state Senate overwhelmingly, sets out regulations governing delivery robots, including where and when they can operate and at what speeds, weight limits, and penalties for violators.

“If we’re letting robots on the streets, we need to have requirements for them,” said state Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, the bill’s sponsor.

Without rules in place for delivery robots, the technology has seen limited use in Georgia. But that may be about to change.

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A announced plans late last month to test delivery robots at a limited number of restaurants in Florida, Texas, and California.

“Two-thirds of my business is delivery,” said Luke Steigmeyer, operator of a Chick-fil-A in Austin, Texas, that already is deploying delivery robots in partnership with an Austin-based autonomous delivery company.

“The autonomous vehicles have been instrumental in growing awareness of delivery at my restaurant, allowing us to reach even more customers in the area.”

Delivery robots are equipped with artificial intelligence systems and advanced depth-perception cameras that allow them to navigate traffic patterns, avoid pedestrians and maneuver through car and bicycle lanes as well as sidewalks.  

Insulated to keep food at the right temperature, the robots keep customers updated on their progress via text messages as they navigate to the designated drop-off spot.

Under the new Georgia law, delivery robots will be permitted to operate on non-limited access highways with speed limits of 45 miles an hour or less, and at no more than 20 miles an hour when on sidewalks with at least a four-foot path for persons with disabilities.

They can weigh no more than 500 pounds when empty and 600 pounds when carrying cargo and emit a sound when they come within six feet of another vehicle, a person on foot or someone in a wheelchair.

Local governments will be allowed to set hours of operation for delivery robots and prohibit them operating on the grounds of schools, hospitals, or sidewalks adjacent to stadiums, coliseums, or government buildings.

Cities and counties also will be permitted to restrict the robots to certain geographical areas of their communities.

While violations will not be treated as criminal offenses, they will be subject to a civil penalty of up to $500.

Jones said easing the way for businesses to use delivery robots in Georgia is one way state policymakers can show corporate prospects the Peach State is technology friendly.

“We continue to to flex the envelope so industry sees Georgia as a great place to ‘sandbox’ ideas,” he said.

“This is the type of legislation that says, ‘This isn’t just a great place to do business. We’re going to work with you to get to the outer limits of innovation.’ ”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

University system economic impact grows to $19.3 billion

The Arch at the University of Georgia

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia (USG) generated an economic impact of $19.3 billion across the state during the last fiscal year, up $700 million – or 3.8% – over fiscal 2020.

That economic impact translated into 152,629 full- and part-time jobs, about a third of which were on campus and two-thirds off campus.

“USG institutions and the system as a whole are key contributors to our state and an economic engine for communities in every region of Georgia,” system Chancellor Sonny Perdue said Monday. “That economic impact continues to climb.”

The $19.3 billion in economic impact in fiscal 2021 includes $13.1 billion in spending by students and the 26 institutions in the university system, a portion of which came in the form of federal pandemic relief. The remaining $6.2 billion was the multiplier effect those funds had in communities across Georgia.

The annual economic impact report was produced by Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Power looking to raise rates next year

Chris Womack

ATLANTA – Georgia Power is asking the state Public Service Commission (PSC) for a rate hike of nearly 12% during the next three years, with the vast majority of the increase front-loaded into 2023.

The proposed increase, which the Atlanta-based utility filed Friday with the PSC, would raise the average residential customer’s bill by $16.29 per month. Of that amount, $14.32 would take effect next Jan. 1. Another $1.35 would be tacked onto monthly bills in 2024, followed by an increase of 62 cents in 2025.

The increase is needed to strengthen Georgia Power’s electric grid, add more renewable energy to its power-generation portfolio and improve customer service, said Chris Womack, the company’s chairman, president and CEO.

“It’s a real significant commitment to our infrastructure to make sure we are responding to our customers … as we move from coal to more gas and solar,” he said.

Georgia Power also is seeking a return on equity (ROE) of 11%, up from the 10.5% ROE the commission approved in the utility’s last rate case three years ago.

“We’re requesting to maintain the financial integrity of the company,” Womack said of the ROE proposal. “That actually puts downward pressure on rates.”

Environmental and consumer advocates criticized the proposed rate hike as excessive.

“Georgia Power’s customers already pay some of the highest electric bills in the country,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch. “If the Public Service Commission approves this steep rate hike, it will add a significant burden to already stretched household budgets.”

“Sierra Club is carefully reviewing Georgia Power’s proposal, and we’ll be looking for any unreasonable investments in existing, uneconomic fossil fuel plants as well as how the company plans to deal with the cost of coal ash clean up,” added Charline Whyte, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Georgia.

“Throughout this rate case proceeding, Sierra Club will fight to make sure customers aren’t stuck paying the bill for coal plants that Georgia Power doesn’t even need.”

Georgia Power has been reducing its reliance on fossil fuels in recent years. In the rate-case filing, the utility is proposing to retire 3,600 megawatts of generating capacity from coal- and oil-burning power plants by 2028.

The company is pledging to add 6,000 megawatts of power from renewable energy by 2035, doubling its generating capacity from renewable sources.

Georgia Power also plans to increase its commitment to electric vehicles. A shortage of EV charging stations across Georgia has been identified as a barrier to developing the technology.

“We want to be a good partner in supporting the buildout of that infrastructure,” Womack said.

The PSC will hold hearings on the rate hike request later this year and vote on the proposal in December.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation

Vic Reynolds leaving GBI for Cobb judgeship

Vic Reynolds

ATLANTA – The director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), Vic Reynolds, is leaving the law enforcement post for a judgeship in Cobb County, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday.

Reynolds, who has headed the GBI since 2019, will fill a vacancy on the Cobb Judicial Circuit Superior Court. Kemp also named Deputy Attorney General Julie Adams Jacobs to fill a second vacancy on the court.

Before taking command of the GBI, Reynolds was elected Cobb County district attorney twice. He has also served as a Floyd County police officer, as former chief magistrate judge of Cobb County and as a partner in the law firm of Berry and Reynolds.

Reynolds has been published in both local and national print. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Georgia Southern University and a law degree from Georgia State College of Law.

Jacobs has been with the Georgia attorney general’s office since 2003, where she served as deputy attorney general of the Commercial Transactions and Litigation Division.

Her responsibilities included management of the financial and property interests of state government in the areas of business and finance, tax, real property, construction, and transportation.

A 2003 graduate of Emory University School of Law, Jacobs earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Georgia State University.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.