News | July 19, 2019

Community and faith leaders shed light on Georgians’ energy burden

Nobody likes a sky-high electric bill. But in Georgia, where total monthly energy costs are the third highest nationwide, many families are consistently facing the impossible choice between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.

Energy burden—the percentage of household income spent on energy—is especially prevalent in the Peach State, where more than 1.2 million Georgians pay 6 percent or more of their household income for electricity.

As Nathaniel Smith, chief equity officer for the Partnership for Southern Equity explained in a recent radio interview with Closer Look host Rose Scott, communities of color, senior citizens, and lower income residents are hit hardest by the inequities in the energy decision-making process.

“When certain segments of the community economically get a cold, other communities get pneumonia,” he said. “When you have someone who is living in housing that is substandard and they have a disproportionate energy cost of living in that home, where is the money going to come from to pay for that?”

Through powerful testimony from community and faith leaders working with residents struggling with high energy costs, a new Fair Energy Now video aims to shed light on the real-life impacts of a broken system that elevates utility interests over people, and to encourage Georgians to make their voices heard when it comes to major decisions about the state’s energy future. 

The video features Dr. Dorsey, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority (FACAA), a nonprofit organization serving lower-income families and individuals in Atlanta and the larger metro area by channeling federal assistance to help pay their Georgia Power bills and living expenses.

FACAA also serves residents who have not been able to pay their Georgia Power bills and have had their electricity shut off. In order to tum it back on, they have to pay a deposit and adhere to a strict payment plan. The nonpayment hurts their credit scores, which negatively affects their employability and makes it even more difficult to pay for necessities like food and child care.

According to Dr. Dorsey, community action channels like FACAA are filling a critical need with services like weatherization programs, but cannot keep up with the overwhelming – and growing – demand of people who need assistance.

“What we find is nobody’s income is really growing to meet the rising costs of living and that in and of itself is a burden across the line,” Dr. Dorsey told Closer Look. “When you can’t pay your energy bill, you might be shut off on the coldest day.”

According to Reverend Larry Hill, founder and pastor for The Word of God Ministries, congregations are feeling the impacts of energy burden in the form of high bills for the churches themselves in addition to the financial constraints on parishioners. 

“A resident parent has to choose whether they pay their light bill, their energy bill, or put food on the table—as a pastor, that is an energy crisis to me,” says Reverend Hill in the film.

Mapping Georgia’s energy burden identifies which communities are putting the largest portion of their paycheck toward paying monthly energy bills. 

While Atlanta ranks fourth among U.S. cities with the highest number of energy-burdened residents, Georgia’s rural residents are also struggling to keep up with increasing energy costs. 

Wanda Addeo, Executive Director of Overview, Inc., a community action agency in Milledgeville that serves nine counties throughout rural Georgia, explains that many of the elderly residents she works with live in older, inefficient homes and often come in with disconnection notices after being unable to pay their bills.

“It would be nice to see Georgia Power put funds into energy efficiency measures for these homes,” says Addeo in the film. “That makes a more long term effect than just the one time heating bill payment.”

But as evidenced from recent utility filings, Georgia Power continues to underinvest in energy savings solutions that would reduce monthly electric bills. While the state Public Service Commission recently ordered Georgia Power to increase investments in efficiency measures and renewable energy in its final long-term energy plan, there is still a long way to go to address Georgians’ concerns. Groups like Smith’s and Dorsey’s see the commission’s recent decision and future energy planning proceedings as an opportunity to put utility customers before shareholders.

“Imagine if we built our energy policy focused on supporting our most weak and vulnerable communities first versus it being built around the most powerful and influential—what type of policies would we see? What would we be able to accomplish? That is what we are trying to advance,” says Smith.