Leaders of the Atlanta Tea Party are challenging Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power over the monopoly’s reluctance to increase its use of solar power, the ballooning costs of building a new nuclear power plant and even its legal right to monopoly status.
The group’s action in Georgia seems relatively rare among the loosely linked tea party organizations nationally.
Other tea party groups have condemned the adoption of “smart” utility meters — which transmit information about customer usage — due to concerns that they would intrude on customers’ privacy, or have broadly backed less reliance on foreign energy. But relatively few have endorsed so specific an energy platform in their own backyards, much less promised to campaign on it.
“It certainly isn’t anything personal, but one of our core values is promoting the free-market system,” said Julianne Thompson, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party.
The electricity market in Georgia is not a free market. State law gives electric utilities, including Georgia Power, exclusive rights to serve customers in designated areas of the state. Most customers cannot choose their provider.
While monopolies have more power to charge higher prices than firms in competitive markets, there are times when it makes sense to allow them if their prices are regulated.
It would be more expensive to build more than one system of electric wires or natural gas pipelines to deliver power and fuel to every home in a state. Customers are better off if just one system is built and maintained, as long as the company that runs the system is prohibited by regulators from using its monopoly power to drive up prices.
In many states, including Texas and most of the Northeast, power delivery is regulated, but customers can choose who provides their electricity. Customers in those states can choose from companies that provide such options as renewable power or a slate of pricing options, including fixed rates, rates that vary with market fluctuations or rates that vary based on when during the day power is used.
Georgia Power makes a natural political foil for the tea party. A 2011 poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University found that tea party members were far more likely than Democrats, Republicans or independents to distrust central authority and strongly opposed energy policies that raise costs, even if there are other benefits.
Yale University researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, who worked on the poll, said he was not surprised local tea party supporters might challenge a monopoly.
“That totally taps into that same sense that there are these big, institutional forces against which you’re a little guy and you need to rebel,” he said.
Utility officials say they welcome the involvement of tea party groups.
“We listen carefully to the concerns and ideas of the Tea Party, as well as all other organizations that represent the diverse opinions of Georgians,” company spokesman Jacob Hawkins said in a statement.
The tea party locally has proved successful at getting its supporters to pressure Georgia’s leaders into action. Thompson’s group was part of a coalition that leaned on reluctant Republicans to pass limits on Statehouse lobbying, and they are working on a voter identification and education project ahead of the 2014 elections to increase their clout and boost turnout.