- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2021

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia’s pair of U.S. Senate runoffs have prompted hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending, but the low-profile runoff for the state’s Public Service Commission is no small matter either, with billions of dollars in utility bills at stake.

Incumbent Republican Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, who has been on the utility regulator for 22 years, is trying to win a fourth six-year term. But McDonald fell short of a majority in November and was forced into a Tuesday runoff by Democrat Daniel Blackman, who’s trying to break into what’s now an exclusively Republican club on the five-seat body.

The candidates are running statewide to represent a district which includes Augusta, Gainesville, Rome and areas to the north.

The runoff, like the general, has been fought on the questions of whether McDonald is too friendly to Georgia Power Co. and whether he’s doing enough for consumers.

McDonald says he’s struck the right balance between the company and consumers, arguing in a Dec. 15 town hall hosted by the Climate Reality Project that consumers need to pay for what they use instead of trying to shift burdens onto the shareholders of the Southern Co., the Atlanta-based parent of Georgia Power.

“There’s no such thing as free electricity,” McDonald said, repeating one of his favorite phrases. “Somebody is going to pay for it.”

Blackman, who has worked to advance environmental and sustainability causes, argues that a shift is needed to more fairly balance utility and customer interests.

“It’s very clear to anyone watching this, to anyone that knows anything about this process, that the priorities have not been on ratepayers for a long time,” Blackman said.

The biggest part of the argument revolves around the two nuclear reactors that Georgia Power is building at Plant Vogtle outside Augusta. The winner of this race will have to deal with the ultimate impact of the $25 billion project on customer bills. Electricity users are already paying some of the costs in a three year phased-in rate increase.

McDonald argues Vogtle is a perfect complement to increased solar generation and “will provide good, clean, affordable energy for the next 80 to 100 years in our great state.” McDonald pushed for a lower rate increase than what other commissioners approved last year.

Blackman, though, says Vogtle has already caused a “tremendous burden” on customers and wants to limit what Georgians pay.

Blackman also attacked McDonald for not doing enough to increase solar generation, saying the commission needs to increase subsidies for renewable energy and mandate a certain share of electricity statewide to come from renewables.

“If we’re not creating subsidies for renewable energy, we’re not doing enough to attract those into our state, and we can’t assume that people are going to fall in line because of what the market dictates,” Blackman said.

McDonald said he favors a market-based approach to solar and other renewables, saying that otherwise, poorer customers who can’t afford solar panels will end up paying higher rates to subsidize more affluent customers who can afford solar. He says the current approach with no subsidies is better.

“Market-driven is the way this economy runs, and that’s what we have to do at the Public Service Commission,” McDonald said.

Blackman said he’d also like to see more help for poorer customers to pay their bills, especially during the pandemic, and to make Georgia Power shareholders pay to clean up coal ash ponds that contain hazardous waste. McDonald said there’s enough assistance for people facing high bills, and said customers should pay to clean up coal ash since they used the electricity generated from the coal.

Republican Jason Shaw won election to a full term on the commission in November when he beat Democrat Robert Bryant and Libertarian Elizabeth Melton.

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