Georgia PSC Undecided about Customer Assignment

Despite three of Atlanta Gas Light's nine gas customer pools surpassing the Georgia Public Service Commission's (GPSC) requirements to become fully competitive, the GPSC is uncertain about moving forward with the customer assignment process because of planned legislation that would declare Atlanta Gas Light's (AGL) entire service territory competitive possibly as early as this fall.

The legislation, which would mandate system-wide competition forcing AGL out of gas sales before the next heating season, is expected to be introduced early next week and to proceed quickly into law shortly thereafter. GPSC officials said time is a factor because only 14 working days remain in the legislature's current session.

GPSC Commissioner Robert (Bob) Baker told NGI the commission is not moving to ratify these three markets because the planned bill offers an opportunity to deem all nine pools competitive at the same time.

"It appears that there would be less confusion and it would be more efficient if all AGL customers either picked a marketer or were randomly assigned on the same schedule for change rather than doing it one pool group at a time. Additionally, our latest numbers indicate that over 400,000 AGL customers have selected a gas marketer and these numbers are growing rapidly," Baker said. "We're not going to be hasty and ratify these three when we could do all nine all together."

Commissioner Lauren (Bubba) McDonald disagreed with Baker, however, about notifying pools that have already crossed the threshold. "Right now, the law says notify the customers who haven't switched. I can't speak for commissioner Baker, nor can I speak for the whole commission, but I believe we should do what the law tells us to do."

As it stands now, the state's gas competition law requires 33% of the customers in a given pool to switch from AGL before it can be deemed competitive. According to new numbers from AGL, the gas pools of Newnan (36.5%), Augusta (38.6%), and Macon (37.2%) have all passed the required percentage. The Atlanta Area (30.6%) and Athens (30%) should exceed the threshold by the end of next month. These five pools combine to form 88% of the gas customer base in Georgia. The law requires the GPSC to ratify the pool as competitive and notify customers who haven't switched that they have 100 days to pick a marketer. If customers from the notified pools don't chose a marketer in the 100 day span, they are randomly assigned to one by the GPSC.

Baker said the reason the amendment will be introduced so late into the legislative session is because nobody expected customers to switch so quickly. "We're trying to go as fast as we can," Baker said. "We're nearing the end of this legislative session, so it is very important to get the bill introduced or it will suffer serious delays. It is equally important that legislators have as few questions as possible when the bill hits the floor. We've been doing extensive preparatory work with both houses to explain to them issues and get them ready so they can pass the bill expeditiously. [Today], we're going to brief the governor. Overall, I think it will get done."

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Skipper (D-Americus), is being crafted primarily to deal with the possibility that some of Georgia's warmer regions would not be declared competitive in time for the next winter heating season, leaving AGL in gas sales and a few customers potentially to carry stranded costs. "There are certain pools that are moving slower, and it looks like they won't reach the criteria before the next heating season. That is a major concern of the commission and that is why I, commissioner Bubba McDonald, support the legislation." The pools McDonald is referring to are Valdosta (22.2%) and Brunswick (17.1%).

John Norris

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